Pope, in Medellin, recalls 'painful memory' of narco wars

MEDELLIN, Colombia Sept 9 (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday visited Medellin, epicenter of Colombia's narco wars of the 1980s and asked that God convert the hearts of the "drug assassins" who cut short so many young lives.

On his penultimate day in Colombia, Francis flew to Medellin, the city northwest of the capital that was once notorious as the stomping grounds of drug lord Pablo Escobar.

In unscripted comments at the last event of the day, he said he could not leave without mentioning the "painful memory" of "so many young lives truncated, discarded, destroyed."

He asked his listeners to ask God "for forgiveness for those who destroyed the dreams of so many young people. Ask the Lord to convert their hearts, ask for an end to this defeat of young humanity."

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Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
Pope Francis exchange gifts with U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/pool
U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania, and the U.S. delegation pose with Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
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Pope Francis (C) walks past US First Lady Melania Trump (R) and the daughter of US President Donald Trump Ivanka Trump (L) at the end of a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. US President Donald Trump met Pope Francis at the Vatican today in a keenly-anticipated first face-to-face encounter between two world leaders who have clashed repeatedly on several issues. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Alessandra Tarantino (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/AFP/Getty Images)
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VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 24 : U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and his wife Melania (R) arrive at the Vatican for their audience with Pope Francis, on May 24, 2017. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 24: US President Donald Trump is welcomed by the prefect of the papal household Georg Gaenswein as he arrives at the Apostolic Palace for an audience with Pope Francis on May 24, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. The president will return to Italy on Friday, attending the Group of 7 summit in Sicily. Trump will also visit American troops stationed in at a US air base in Sicily. (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Archibishop Georg Ganswein escorts U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump who arrive to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
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President Donald Trump arrives to meet Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool
Pope Francis meets U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool
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The Medellin that Francis visited is a city transformed since his predecessor Pope John Paul visited in 1986. It was then rife with violence among cartels, paramilitary groups and guerrillas that raged in the poor "comuna" neighborhoods on its outskirts.

The city is now heralded as a model of urban development. It has installed cable cars up the steep Andean slopes that surround it to save working-class residents a punishing climb, and it has built libraries in sections that were once sites of gun battles.

Feared drug trafficker Escobar, Medellin's most infamous resident, was gunned down in the city in a U.S.-backed operation in 1993. He was recently resurrected as a character in the popular Netflix series "Narcos."

At the start of the day, Francis said a Mass where he urged Colombians to help their fellow citizens who hunger for food, dignity and God, pressing his appeal for the South American country to tackle social inequality.

Speaking in a homily to hundreds of thousands of people on muddied fields, Francis urged Colombians to "get involved" in helping each other and to embrace "acts of non-violence, reconciliation and peace."

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has brought a message of national reconciliation as the country tries to heal the wounds left by a 50-year civil war and bitter disagreements over last year's peace deal with leftist guerrillas that some say lets them off too leniently.

On Friday in the tropical city of Villavicencio, the pontiff asked Colombians skeptical of the deal with the FARC guerrillas to be open to reconciliation with those who have repented, speaking hours after a top rebel leader asked the pontiff for forgiveness..

SOCIAL INJUSTICE

Francis has also used his trip to the predominantly Roman Catholic country to denounce the social inequality that still plagues Colombia, which has extreme poverty in some rural areas.

He has called for laws to tackle the structural causes of these problems, which he said spur violence.

Christians, he told the ecstatic crowd at the Mass, "are called upon to be brave, to have that evangelical courage which springs from knowing that there are many who are hungry, who hunger for God - how many people hunger for God! - who hunger for dignity, because they have been deprived."

He visits the city of Cartagena on Sunday before leaving for Rome that night.

(Additional reporting by Helen Murphy and Anastasia Moloney in Bogota; Editing by Helen Murphy and Cynthia Osterman)

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