ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Pigs rummage through garbage searching for leftovers. The people live in shacks made of plywood and corrugated metal. Any semblance of stability in the sprawling slum of 15,000 families is upended when heavy rains burst the banks of the nearby Paraguay River, turning dirt roads to impassable pools of mud.
Banado Norte is one of the areas of extreme poverty that Pope Francis will visit during his tour of three South American countries that begins Sunday. In Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the pope will spend time in places rarely, if ever, seen by tourists and avoided, if at all possible, by locals.
The visit by Francis, who has put aiding the poor at the center of his church’s mission, is raising hopes for many of the Roman Catholic faithful whose lives of abject poverty will get a rare moment in the spotlight.
Magdalena Ramos hopes to catch the pope’s attention when he visits a small, bare-bones chapel in Banado Norte so that she may seek help for her son, who is bedridden with congenital neurological problems.
“I want the pope to see my son and then ask people for donations for a wheelchair and medical treatment,” said the unemployed woman.
Such pleas are likely to be plentiful during Francis’ tour, which will take him to Ecuador and Bolivia before he arrives in Paraguay on July 10.
In Ecuador, Francis will meet with members of his Jesuit order in Guayaquil, a muggy lowland city with several sprawling slums. He will celebrate Mass in Samanes Park, just blocks from three neighborhoods predominantly made up of squatters living in zinc-roofed homes made of bamboo and wood.
Thousands of people are expected to arrive for the Mass, including faithful from nearby Peru. Monica Cabrera Rendon, a housewife, hopes the influx will bring a bit of fortune to her family, eight people who share a one-bedroom shack.
“There will be a chance to sell things to all the people who will be coming to Mass,” she said.
In Bolivia, Francis will visit Palmasola, a notoriously violent prison outside the central city of Santa Cruz that essentially is controlled by its 3,500 inmates. Four out of five prisoners have yet to go on trial due to the country’s swamped and poorly functioning justice system.
Francis’ focus on the poor has much overlap with the liberation theology movement, which arose in Colombia in the 1960s and gained traction in Latin America. The Vatican long kept the ideology at a distance because some adherents interpreted it through the lens of Marxism and armed struggle against the rich.
Today, the theology is enjoying a rebirth under Francis. In May, he beatified the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who was killed while celebrating Mass in 1980 and was considered a hero by the movement. And the Vatican has made overtures to Peruvian theologian the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, considered a movement founder.
“The poor are more visible than ever since Vatican II,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Rome-based church historian, referring to the 1962-65 meetings that moved the church toward modernity.
The three countries on Francis’ tour all have made economic advances over the last decade, improvements that business leaders say have come thanks, in part, to the very sort of capitalistic ventures the pope recently has criticized as materialistic.
Bolivia, for example, has cut the number of people living in extreme poverty from 37 percent to 19 percent in less than a decade due in large part to increased natural gas exports under President Evo Morales.
“Francis is constantly impugning the free market and never holding up the good that it can do,” said Peter Johnson from the Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based think tank focused on the intersection of economics and religion.
Still, improving economic indicators mean little to people like Wilson Valdez. On a recent day, the fruit vendor carefully steered his motorcycle through a mud-laden path in Banado Norte. To his thinking, the biggest benefit of the pope’s visit is that the city plans to drain the streets before his July 12 arrival.
“This is the first miracle of Pope Francis,” Valdez said.
Associated Press writer Pedro Servin reported this story in Asuncion and Peter Prengaman reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP writer Allen Panchana in Guayaquil, Ecuador, contributed to this report.