In one day the Pope went behind the walls of Cereso N. 3, one of the more violent, dangerous prisons in the world where he hugged prisoners and urged them to “write a new story” and “move forward,” telling them that “we know what is done, is done.” He prayed before the imposing border fence along the US-Mexico border and spoke to hundreds of thousands of people at a Mass 100 meters (yards) from the border. Pope Francis spoke of migrants noting they are often “the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted” and reached out to the people who are “persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.” Francis ended the day as the papal plane flew over the US back to Rome by making a powerful verbal jab at the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States, Donald Trump, calling him “not a Christian” because he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the US. Needless to say it was a long day for a journalist covering the Pope.
As our plane descended towards the airport into Juarez a week ago, I was struck by how ugly it was – flat, dry, with low, square cement buildings, and hardly any trees. Not an easy place to live. But the poverty and the climate are not the problem; it is the drug cartels that suck the life out of the city, killing people, kidnapping women, and moving drugs across the border.
On landing, once again I was lucky to find myself in the “molto ristretto” pool that got to accompany the Pope in the Cereso Number Three prison (Cereso stands for Centro de Readaptacion Social Estatal). The prison is close to the airport and it only took us about 10 minutes to reach its high beige walls with rings of barbed wire on the top. Our vans cruised through the large metal gates and soon we were unloaded into a courtyard. From there we were hustled through more gates and into a huge prison yard where 700 men and women prisoners in matching grey sweat suits were seated in the hot sun, in tight lines in a squared off area enclosed by metal barriers. Prison guards stood along the barriers and would not allow us to speak to the prisoners. AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia and I moved around the edges of the square trying to get photos and video as the prisoners listened to the Pope. Some of the male prisoners looked pretty scary with tattoos on their shaved heads, faces and necks.
Many Mexican prisons are run by rival gangs in cohorts with drug cartels and tensions between them sometimes explode into deadly riots. A riot in the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, Mexico just before the Pope’s arrival left 49 inmates dead. The riot broke out when rival gangs went out each other with whatever weapons they could find hammers, improvised knives and cudgels.
The CeReSo N. 3 prison jumped to the headlines in 2009 when 20 people died and many others were injured during a prison riot pitting two rival gangs the Barrio Aztecas and Los Mexicles representing the Juarez and and Sinaloa Cartels against each other.
That said, everything seemed perfectly calm and under control when we were there, although I was happy to know my stay would be brief. The Pope encouraged the prisoners at Cereso Number 3 to look forward to a better future saying, “We know that we cannot turn back, we know what is done, is done…but it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward.”
When it was time to go we piled back into our van, and headed for the gate. At the gate, we were stopped by a guard who checked around inside our van to see if we were hiding any prisoners inside.
Visits to prisons have been a hallmark of this papacy. Francis paid his first visit to a prison in Rome shortly after he was elected Pope, and then on almost every foreign trip he has a meeting with prisoners. I was covered his visit to the Curran-Fromhold prison in Pennsylvania last September. See blog post: Hacks in Black.
From the prison we headed to the press center, a palatial structure with a “Gone with the Wind” staircase and glittering chandeliers. We joked that it must be where el Chapo holds his children’s first communion parties.
It was then on to the border for the afternoon Mass. We were driven along the border road where we could see the El Paso water tower and the houses on that side of the border. Finally we were dropped off at the Mass site and taken on foot to the spot with four crosses where Pope Francis was to pray.
It was interesting seeing the people of Cuidad Juarez packed into the Mass site on one side and the police cars lined up on the US side.
The Pope came quickly in the Popemobile and briefly prayed in front of the one large cross and three smaller crosses placed at the border in honor of migrants who have lost their lives attempting the journey. He then left some white flowers on the spot.
During the Mass he made his strongest denunciation of the injustices faced by migrants and the suffering of the Mexican people due to drugs. I will copy below a hefty portion of the speech because I like the way he said it.
“Here in Ciudad Juárez, as in other border areas, there are thousands of immigrants from Central America and other countries, not forgetting the many Mexicans who also seek to pass over “to the other side”. Each step of the journey is laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of the trade in human beings.
We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families. They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations. Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest. Not only do they suffer poverty but they must also endure these forms of violence. Injustice is radicalized in the young; they are “cannon fodder”, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs, and what about the many women whose lives have been unjustly torn apart?”
(A little aside here. The Pope just made that small mention of women at the very end. I think he should have said more about women. Hundreds of women have disappeared in Juarez since the 1990s. The reports of what has happened to them are grim. Some were forced into prostitution, others forced to work in illegal conditions in factories called maquilladoras, others obliged to work for the drug cartels and others killed and their organs sold. Many bones of the disappeared women have shown up in the desert. Families of these girls have formed organizations to work together to get answers about what happened to their loved ones. They complain of little effort being made by the Mexican authorities. The Pope tackled so many tough topics while he was in Mexico, I think he should have hammered away on this one too. )
We were hustled back on our bus before the end of the Mass and taken to the airport to board the plane for the trip back to Rome. We were all so exhausted we were hoping the inflight press conference would be quick and easy. But that is not Pope Francis’ style. Shortly after takeoff he came back for a long, rambling press conference in which he gave lengthy answers to 12 questions posed by journalists from Mexico, the US, France, Spain, and Germany. I am sure he knew he would make headlines with his swipe at Donald Trump when he said, “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
We all knew his response to a question about the mosquito-borne illness Zika would also be news when he implied that contraception could be acceptable saying that in certain cases “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
He spoke about the so-called John Paul II “love letters” pointing out that “A friendship with a woman is not a sin, it’s a friendship…the Pope is a man. The Pope needs the input of women, too. And the Pope, too, has a heart that can have a healthy, holy friendship with a woman.”
There was much more. He spoke about the 43 missing students from Guerrero State and why he did not meet with their families. He spoke about the problem of priestly pedophilia. He spoke about his meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and how that meeting was creating tension with the church in Ukraine. He spoke about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. He spoke about an upcoming parliamentary vote in Italy regarding same sex unions, he spoke about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and his dream of travelling to China.
When the press conference finally wrapped up we all opened our computers and began to start our various tasks. I had to prepare three separate edits with all the most significant soundbites, transcribe them and write shotlists and stories. Anna Matranga, the US pool producer, began handing out assignments to 11 different journalists on the plane, each one of us had to translate a soundbite that Anna complied so each of us could work off a completed translation of the entire press conference. (Thank you Anna!!)
The stewards brought around dinner and we all ate and worked. When dinner was over, those who could went to sleep. I continued editing throughout the night. On my third edit, I was so tired I began getting everything mixed up. I was moving pieces of video and quotes around in different files in my computer and it was all becoming one mush in my mind. Finally I gave up and slept for a few hours. Luckily we all agreed that we would have a three hour embargo after the plane landed before we would report the news.
If any of you blog readers have managed to get all the way to the end of this last of my four-part series on Mexico, you may be wondering why I have not put in any of my personal, sometimes silly, behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Here are a few.
PERSONAL- At the end of a Papal trip, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi gives each journalist a medallion from the trip and a rosary. On this trip we got a special Vatican Stamp issued in honor of the trip as well. I have made 21 Papal trips and given them all away, mostly to elderly Catholic women –grandmothers, doorwomen, and cleaning ladies – they all seem to treasure the items so much more than I ever would. On our flight to Mexico, a very kindly Alitalia steward asked me if I could ask for a medallion for him. Instead I said I would send him mine. He was so appreciative. I put the medallion, rosary and special stamp in the snail mail Monday and am hoping the package will arrive soon. He lives in the Piedmont region of Italy but the postal system here is painfully slow.
A NEW ACQUAINTANCE – One of the pleasures on this trip was getting to know Father Antonio Spadaro who was sitting near me on the Papal Plane. He is a Jesuit priest and editor of their magazine Civilita’ Cattolica. He was the first person to interview Pope Francis after he was elected. (See my blog post on that: The Pope Interview ) Father Spadaro was always willing to share information and helped keep us all informed with his frequent tweets throughout the trip.
EMBARRASSING – On February 14th, Valentine’s day, after getting back late to our hotel in Mexico City (the Presidente Intercontinental) I went out for a quick bite to eat with a colleague in a restaurant across the street from the hotel. It must have been 1030pm when I got back to the hotel and rushed to the elevator, eager to get up to my bed knowing I had a 4am wake-up call. There was a young couple dressed to the hilt also waiting for the elevator. She was all decked out in a spaghetti-strap mini-dress and spike heels, and he was in a tux. The elevator door opened and I jumped in, stood by the buttons, and pressed 23 for me. They came in pressed 35 and moved to the back corner and began making out. I do not know Spanish but it is close enough to Italian for me to understand that he was saying to her, “I want you, I want to make love, let’s make love here.” The woman put up some sort of vague resistance saying “Just wait, there is someone else here” and he said something like “Who cares about her, she won’t notice anything.” I felt like the world’s biggest Valentine’s Day LOSER as I kept my eyes on the numbers and urged the elevator to get to 23. When the elevator arrived I rocketed out and left them to their amorous, Valentine’s day evening.
SILLY – The one person who was always in perfect shape throughout the trip seemed to be the aforementioned Matteo Bruni, the Assistant Director of the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Press Corps’ fearless leader. He has to get us in and out of every event throughout the trip and does it with aplomb. Paolo Santalucia (the AP video-journalist working with me) – in his spare time on the bus—decided to make a Mystery Movie starring Matteo and various characters on the Papal Plane. Every free moment we had on the bus, he dedicated to the mini-mystery film which was eventually edited to the 007 James Bond theme song and Mission Impossible Theme song.
I do not know how to insert the video which is hilarious, but I will copy some freeze frames below with some of our Vatican Press Corps Stars:
The star is Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office as Agente Bruni:
Phil Pullella of Reuters is our murder victim
The glamorous Francia Giansoldati, Vaticanista for the Italian daily “Il Messaggero” plays the mystery woman with “no name and no scruples”
Throughout the trip we kept our eyes out for shady-looking characters to film for our mystery. This pink-shirted fellow filled the bill.
Agente Bruni wouldn’t be able to do his job without his faithful side-kick, Salvatore Scolozzi from the Vatican Press Office.
Finally, who would be better for an assassin than the baby-faced cameraman for Italian state Television RAI, Marco Sanga.
Now if anyone really wants to see this video, let me know and I will see if Paolo can upload it into my blog for me. I certainly hope none of our protagonists will be offended.