LEON, Mexico, March 23 (Reuters) Pope Benedict arrived in Mexico on Friday promising to "unmask the evil" of drug trafficking in a country ravaged by gang violence that has killed 50,000 people in the past five years.
The pope began his three-day visit to the world's second-most populous Catholic state in the central city of Leon, where he received one of the most exuberant welcomes of any of his foreign trips.
Tens of thousands of people, 20 deep in some places, lined the streets on his 22-mile (35-km) drive through the city.
|Pope Benedict XVI greets young Mexicans as he arrives in Leon March 23,. The Pope arrived for a three-day visit in Mexico (REUTERS)
He touched down in Mexico after making strong statements aboard his papal plane about the country's spiraling drug war. "We must do whatever is possible to combat this destructive evil against humanity and our youth," he told reporters, referring to the violent conflict between rival drug cartels and the state that has killed 50,000 people since 2007.
"It is the responsibility of the Church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil, to unmask this idolatry of money which enslaves man, to unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs," the pope added.
Raising his arms aloft as he exited the plane, Benedict descended the stairs slowly, holding the handrail. He was greeted by President Felipe Calderon and a group of children while crowds cheered and waved Vatican flags.
Addressing the masses gathered at the airport in a steady, measured tone, the pope, speaking in Spanish, said he had come as a "pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love."
"I will pray especially for those in need, particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence," said Benedict, adding that he hoped his message would also reach Mexicans outside of their homeland.
The bloodshed across Mexico was in the mind of many waiting to see Benedict in the city, a Roman Catholic stronghold that has avoided the worst of the brutal turf wars.
Throngs of Catholics dressed in white t-shirts and caps threw yellow and white confetti, having waited since early morning to see the pope pass. Many of them were young people let out of school for the day.
Several stood in front of a large banner that read "Pope, pray that the violence ends, pray that peace returns."
"Violence is the country's biggest priority. There are some places where you can't even set foot outside it's so dangerous," said 16-year-old Martin Zamora who hung the sign with his Catholic youth group.
"Many young people have decided to join up with organized crime instead of fighting it. That's what the pope is coming here for, to help save young people."