During his visit to Panama, Pope Francis also pledged support for "all efforts" to avoid further suffering in crisis-torn Venezuela and insisted public officials live simply, honestly and transparently.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides his popemobile in Panama City. Pope Francis has arrived in Panama amid a political crisis in nearby Venezuela, a migration standoff over the proposed US-Mexico border wall and tens of thousands of wildly excited young Central Americans welcoming him.  January 24, 2019.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides his popemobile in Panama City. Pope Francis has arrived in Panama amid a political crisis in nearby Venezuela, a migration standoff over the proposed US-Mexico border wall and tens of thousands of wildly excited young Central Americans welcoming him. January 24, 2019. (AP)

Pope Francis urged Latin America's leaders on Thursday to shun corruption and tackle gang violence, drug trafficking and the killing of women, which he said had become a "plague" in his native continent.

Francis also addressed migration for the second straight day, saying more had to be done to overcome fears and suspicions because migrants were seeking a better life.

In a meeting with bishops from Central America, Francis said many young people found themselves "boxed in and lacking opportunities, amid highly conflictual situations with no quick solution: domestic violence, the killing of women - our continent is experiencing a plague in this regard - armed gangs and criminals, drug trafficking ...."

At least 2,795 women were victims of femicide in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2017, according to government data provided to the UN’s Latin American economic commission, ECLAC.

In El Salvador this phenomenon is particularly acute, with a rate of 10.2 femicides per 100,000 women in 2017, ECLAC said.

The pope said families had been "broken by an economic system that did not prioritise persons and the common good but made speculation its 'paradise'."

World Youth Day

The 82-year-old pope received a rock-star welcome by tens of thousands of young people when he arrived for the Catholic Church's World Youth Day event at a palm-fringed park on the shores of Panama Bay.

Dozens of young pilgrims held up a giant yellow, blue and red banner with the legend "Pray for Venezuela".

After arriving in his Popemobile, two young Panamanians accompanied the pope through a replica of the locks of the Panama Canal.

"We want to tell you not to be afraid," the pope said, urging them instead to go forward with "fresh energy and restlessness."

"To go forward, not to create a parallel Church that would be more 'fun' or 'cool' thanks to a fancy youth event, as if that were all you needed or wanted.

A pilgrim holds a sign as Pope Francis arrives for an outdoor Mass in Panama City. January 24, 2019.
A pilgrim holds a sign as Pope Francis arrives for an outdoor Mass in Panama City. January 24, 2019. (AP)

Holding leaders accountable

In a morning address to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and the diplomatic corps, Francis said the continent's young people were demanding that their political leaders live honestly, transparently, simply, and "be opposed to all forms of corruption".

Last year, a Transparency International report on corruption in Latin America showed that more than half of people surveyed in 20 countries believed their government was failing to address corruption and one in three said they had to pay a bribe for public services.

The pope is being kept abreast of developments in nearby Caracas, and was praying for the people of Venezuela, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said. Francis is supporting "all efforts" to avoid further suffering for the population, he said.

'Fears and suspicions' 

Several migrant caravans, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have been making their way through Central America and Mexico to the US border since last October, amid trenchant opposition from US President Donald Trump.

Francis said migrants were simply seeking "the minimum conditions for a better future."

Francis told bishops that the church, with hospitality and acceptance, can facilitate "dialogue and help overcome fears and suspicions, and thus consolidate the very bonds that migrations — in the collective imagination — threaten to break."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies