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Pope meets victims of drug violence on Mexico trip

Brutal clashes between drug cartels and the state have claimed more than 50,000 lives over the past five years.

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Pope meets victims of drug violence on Mexico trip
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Pope Benedict met a small group of victims of Mexico's raging drug violence on Saturday after he spoke out strongly against the "evil" of narcotics on his first official visit to the world's second-most populous Roman Catholic country.

Brutal clashes between drug cartels and the state have claimed more than 50,000 lives over the past five years, and President Felipe Calderon invited eight people swept up in the turmoil for a private audience with the pope, his office said.

Relatives of a soldier and a policeman killed in combat with cartels, a man who survived a kidnapping, and the sister of a student shot by stray bullets during a street fight were among the eight who each briefly spoke with the pope. Benedict began his three-day visit to Mexico in the central city of Leon on Friday.

En route from Rome, he said it was the duty of the Church to "unmask the evil" behind drugs. Calderon, from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which receives strong support from Catholics, has been criticised by the opposition for the timing of the pope's visit just 14 weeks before the next presidential election.

Battered by the surge in killings that Calderon's crackdown on the drug gangs unleashed, the PAN is lagging behind the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Calderon cannot run for re-election and the PAN's candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, trails the PRI front-runner, Enrique Pena Nieto, by double digits in most opinion polls. The 84-year-old pope is expected to address the violence on Sunday when he will celebrate a Mass for hundreds of thousands of believers on his first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Many devotees camped out for more than 24 hours to secure a prime spot at the outdoor park where the German pontiff will speak in the morning. They are expecting an uplifting message.

"The pope will give us courage considering all the problems we have," said Paulina Suarez, who traveled from the nearby state of Aguascalientes for the Mass. "He will help us move forward."

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