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Pope Benedict XVI begins Mexico visit

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Catholic leader condemns drug cartels and criticises Cuba's system of government Pope Benedict XVI has condemned drug-related violence in Mexico, as thousands of Catholics turned out to greet the pontiff who is visiting the country for the first time.

In a tarmac speech after he touched down in the central city of Leon, Benedict referred to the everyday violence that ordinary Mexicans confront, saying he was praying for all in need, "particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence".

Speaking to journalists on board his flight on Friday, the pope had pledged to "unmask the evil" of drug trafficking in the world's second most populous Roman Catholic country.

"We must do whatever is possible to combat this destructive evil against humanity and our youth," he said, 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."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and first lady Margarita Zavala greeted the pope at the airport and escorted him along a red carpet amid a clanging of church bells.

"Your visit fills us with joy in moments of great tribulation," Calderon said.

The pope will meet with Calderon on Saturday, as well as greeting children in Leon. On Sunday he is due to hold a Mass in the city's Parque del Bicentenario, which is expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

Warm welcome

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets as the pontiff's bulletproof popemobile passed through the city of Leon. Entire blocks exploding in yellow confetti and people chanted "Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican".

Some drug cartels had promised to halt acts of violence during the pope's visit, but at least 13 bodies were found throughout Mexico before Benedict's arrival, as a result of what the government called drug-related violence.

Seven men were shot along a road in Sinaloa and another four were found decapitated in Acapulco. A warning message to rival gangs was found alongside the severed heads.

Calderon and his conservative National Action Party (PAN), a group with strong Catholic roots, have invested huge political capital in trying to crack down on the gangs.

But the increasing death toll has eroded support for the PAN ahead of a July 1 presidential election, putting the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in pole position to take the reins in Mexico.

The second leg of Benedict's six-day trip, beginning on Monday, takes him to Cuba.

On his flight to Mexico, Benedict told reporters that "it is evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality," and he urged Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."

The comment about Marxism was as blunt as anything his predecessor, John Paul II, made during his 1998 trip to Cuba, when the former pope called for the freeing of Cuba's political prisoners while condemning the US' blockade that makes the island nation's access to the international economy much more difficult.

Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba's foreign minister, defended the Caribbean island's ideology, calling the Cuban system "a democratic social project, genuinely chosen, which is constantly perfecting itself".

"We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Our people have deep convictions developed over the course of our history," Rodriguez said at a news conference. "Cuba will listen with all respect to his holiness."

Benedict's weeklong trip will be a test of stamina for the pope, who turns 85 next month. At the airport on Friday in Rome, he used a cane, apparently for the first time in public, as he walked about 100 metres to the airliner's steps.

Papal aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benedict had been using the cane in private for about two months because it made him feel more secure, not for any medical reason.

Last autumn, Benedict started using a wheeled platform to navigate the vast spaces of St Peter's Basilica during ceremonies.


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