Pope Francis begged young people to shun the lure of easy money and big cars offered by drug traffickers in Mexico's gang-infested heartland on Tuesday.
"Jesus would never ask us to be hit men," the Pope said. "He would never send us out to death."
"It is a lie to believe that the only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death," he told young people at a stadium rally in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan.
"You are the wealth of this country, and when you doubt this, look to Jesus, who destorys all efforts to make you useless or mere instruments of other people's ambitions," he added.
Gang wars over the methamphetamine trade have torn the western state of Michoacan apart and widespread kidnapping and extortion by gangs have sparked an uprising by vigilante groups.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war over the last decade as rival gangs fight over territory and smuggling routes to the United States.
Francis, the first Latin American Pope, is travelling to some of the poorest and most violent corners of Mexico on a six-day trip to bring a message of hope to millions of marginalised people.
"A mountain can have rich minerals that will serve humanity's progress; that is wealth. But it only turns into wealth when the miners who take out the minerals work on it. You are the wealth, and you must be transformed into hope," the Pope said to the young crowd, departing from his prepared speech.
"The biggest threat is when a person feels that they must have money to buy everything, including the love of others. The biggest threat is to believe that by having a big car you will be happy," he said.
Belief in Jesus is the source of true hope, Francis added. "It is Jesus Christ who refutes all attempts to render you useless or to be mere mercenaries of other people's ambitions."
Although he may not provide worldly riches, Jesus offers a love that "no one can take away" and will help us in times of distress.
Sometimes he "sends you a brother or sister to speak to you and help you. Don't hide your hand when you've fallen. Don't tell him: 'Don't look at me because I'm all dirty, don't look at me because I have no hope.' Just reach out your hand and hold onto his."
While encouraging the young people to engage with faith and change their lifestyles, Francis also criticised Mexican authorities for failing to provide opportunities for the young.
"It is hard to feel the wealth of a nation when there are no opportunities for dignified work, no possibilities for study or advancement, when you feel your rights are being trampled on, which then leads you to extreme situations," the Pope told them.
There was tight security for the visit to Morelia, a picturesque city known for its Spanish colonial architecture, given scattered outbursts of violence in recent months.
Additional reporting by Reuters