Pope Benedict begins his first visit to Mexico on Friday with the Roman Catholic faithful hoping he will deliver a strong message of peace to temper a brutal drugs war in the deeply religious country.

The pope starts his three-day visit in the central city of Leon, a Catholic stronghold that has avoided the worst of the turf wars and clashes between drug cartels and security forces that have killed some 50,000 people over the past five years.

But the relentless bloodletting was still in the mind of many of those waiting to see Benedict.

The Church has to address the violence, give us a message that there can be change. We are all fed up, our society has been hurt, said Ruben Santibanez, a local doctor.

Santibanez was buying a cloth with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe - Mexico's most revered Catholic symbol - with his sister who had travelled from Los Angeles to see the pope.

Christophe Pierre, the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Mexico, said Benedict would not ignore Mexico's plight.

Violence is being talked about, we can't hide it, but there is a lot more to Mexico than the violence and the desire to live in harmony is precisely what the Holy Father is coming for, he said on Thursday.

Crowds of devout Mexicans readied campsites in Leon to await a massive outdoor mass on Sunday where hundreds of thousands of people are expected.

Benedict, who will also travel to Cuba on this trip, hopes to rally the faithful in the world's second most populous Catholic nation as more Mexicans are lured to evangelical Protestant churches.

But the German pope faces a challenge generating the same kind of fervour as his charismatic Polish predecessor, Pope John Paul, who was beloved in Latin America and drew pulsating crowds when he criss-crossed the region in his 27-year papacy.

ABUSE SCANDALS

Highlighting the growing religious divisions in Mexico, a large Protestant church in Leon held a service with hundreds of worshippers on Thursday, prominently displaying a sign that read We are not Roman Catholics.

The Vatican has been stung by accusations of child abuse by priests in parishes around the world - including revelations about Mexican religious leader Marcial Maciel, who founded a prominent Catholic order, the Legionaries of Christ.

Maciel, who died in 2008 at the age of 87, was disgraced by allegations of sexual abuse and drug addiction.

During the pope's visit, religious scholar Bernardo Barranco will present a new book by ex-Legionaries with scores of leaked Vatican documents the authors say prove the Holy See knew about Maciel's molestation of young boys and morphine use for decades.

The enthusiasm (about the pope's visit) felt in Leon, is not the same in the rest of the country. The abuses by Father Maciel have cast a shadow, Barranco said in an interview.

Benedict has apologized for priest abuse in the past but has no plans to meet with Mexican victims.

The pope will meet Mexican bishops and President Felipe Calderon during his stay.

Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has strong Catholic roots but is facing a tough challenge in July's presidential elections from the main opposition party, which has criticized the president for mishandling the drug war.

The pope heads to Cuba on Monday in a visit meant to bolster the position of the Church there and help the communist island move towards democracy.

(Editing by Dave Graham and Kieran Murray)