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Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico later today. It's the start of his first visit, as pope, to Spanish-speaking Latin America. The trip will also take him to Cuba. Mexico's brutal drug war is expected to be the central focus during the pope's visit to that country. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, the drug war is already dominating preparations for the pope's visit.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The narcos in Mexico know how to get their message out to the masses. Whether it's with a series of human heads lined up outside a slaughterhouse, or a pile of human corpses dumped at a prosecutor's convention, Mexico's criminal gangs make their feelings known.

For the arrival of the pope, an offshoot of the La Familia cartel this week strung up 11 banners around Guanajuato welcoming Pope Benedict, and declaring that they won't attack their rivals during his visit. The local archbishop, Jose Guadalupe Martin Rábago, at a press conference earlier this week, called on people to not be afraid that narco-violence could mar this three-day event.

ARCHBISHOP JOSE GUADALUPE MARTIN RABAGO: (Spanish language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The archbishop says he's not afraid that anything is going to happen during the papal visit. He says he's aware of the extensive security apparatus that's been put in place to protect both the pope and the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH ORGAN MUSIC)

BEAUBIEN: Pope Benedict is coming to Mexico in part to shore up the church's support in a strong bastion of Catholicism. In the 2010 census, 83 percent of Mexicans identified themselves as Catholic. And in terms of sheer numbers of followers, the only country in the world with more Catholics is Brazil, which Benedict visited in 2007.

Speaking this Sunday at the main cathedral in Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera said the pope is coming to reinforce Mexicans' faith and hope during a very difficult time for the country.

CARDINAL NORBERTO RIVERA: (Spanish language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In these times, as the country is overshadowed by sin, violence, corruption and social disintegration, the cardinal said, the pope will remind Mexicans of God's power to offer guidance and salvation.

Rick Jones, with Catholic Relief Services based in El Salvador, says this message will resonate throughout the region.

RICK JONES: The drug violence and the drug wars right now are really, one of the major topics in Latin America.

BEAUBIEN: Jones says from Colombia through Central America, all the way to the U.S., border drug cartels have been terrorizing communities. Especially in parts of Mexico, where the gangs have waged a protracted, brutal war against the state, he says it's caused people to lose faith in humanity.

JONES: Every time I talk to people in Mexico, they question themselves, rhetorically, saying, what's happened to us? Why are we shooting at one another? People are looking for some ethical direction. And I think the church still has a role to play in that.

BEAUBIEN: Jones says the Catholic Church still has a lot of credibility in Latin America. And he expects the pope, during this visit, to underscore how the church can help confront the terror that's currently being spread by organized crime.

JONES: A call for coming together; overcoming fear, mistrust, is an important role I think that the pope will have in sort of ushering that call; and then that the church will play in terms of actually reaching out to people to try and find the spaces where they can come together and address these issues.

BEAUBIEN: The pope's itinerary includes a meeting tomorrow with President Felipe Calderon. On Sunday, he'll hold an open-air Mass on a hillside, under a towering statue of Christ.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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