Mexican drug smugglers embrace bandit as patron saint

Culiacan, Mexico - In these dark times, the faithful still come to worship in the chapel of Jesus Malverde, Mexico's patron saint of drug traffickers.

They kneel in front of his statue, dip flowers in water and wipe them tenderly over his face. They leave cryptic notes of thanks on the altar. They slip offerings into a donation box and buy talismans that say: "Malverde, bless my path and permit my return."

Here in Culiacán, where about 20% of the economy depends on the illegal drug trade, the flow of worshipers has not diminished even as drug turf wars rage in other parts of the country, said the chapel's caretaker, Jesus González.

"People need faith more now than ever," González said. "We're getting more people here because they want to be protected."

The veneration of Malverde, a Robin Hood-style bandit who died in 1909, shows how deep the tradition of drug smuggling runs in Mexican culture — and how hard it will be to stamp out, said Tomas Guevara, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

Mexico has been racked by drug-related violence. The worst bloodshed has been in such border cities as Ciudad Juárez, where more than 500 people have been killed this year.

In Culiacán, such dangers are a way of life, Guevara said.

The city is in the heart of Mexico's marijuana and opium-growing areas, about 450 miles south of Douglas, Ariz. Mexico's most powerful drug kingpins, including Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán, the Beltrán Leyva brothers and the Caro Quintero family, grew up near the city.

A study by the Autonomous University of Sinaloa last year estimated the drug trade brings in $3.8 billion to Sinaloa, about 20% of its total economy.

For decades the cartels avoided selling drugs there, and so cultivating marijuana or opium wasn't seen as a bad thing, Guevara said. In fact, many kingpins were admired for building schools and bringing electricity to small towns.

"The growing of drugs was not as persecuted as it is now," Guevara said. "It was an economic activity like any other."

Like any tradesmen, he said, the smugglers developed their own patron saint: Jesus Malverde.

Allusions to Robin Hood

Malverde was a robber who was hanged in this Pacific Coast city in 1909. Devotees say he robbed from rich politicians and gave to the poor during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. His name was ideal as a mascot for marijuana growers: Mal verde means "green evil."

"When you're in a business where you're constantly at risk — from soldiers, from other traffickers, from your own bosses — you look for something external for strength," said Froylan Enciso, an expert on Mexican cartels at the State University of New York-Stony Brook. "For these people, it's Malverde."

He is one of many folk figures who have taken on religious tones.

In Tijuana, migrants pray to Juan Soldado, an executed rapist, for protection before crossing the border. In Chihuahua state, many people venerate the Santa de Cabora, a girl who was banished from Mexico for allegedly inciting an Indian uprising. One Roman Catholic sect in Michoacán state even regards John F. Kennedy as a saint.

The chapel in Culiacán was built in 1969 by González's father, farmer Eligio González, to thank Malverde for curing him after highway bandits shot him four times.

The original concrete shrine is now covered by a tin-roof building with windows of colored glass and a neon sign that says "Jesus Malverde Chapel." It sits in downtown Culiacán within sight of the Statehouse and a block away from a McDonald's.

The altar is full of flower arrangements sent by worshipers. The walls are covered with plaques, photographs and handwritten notes.

On a side altar, someone has put a newspaper clipping about recent drug killings and a note saying "Oh Malverde, protect me."

Malverde tends to be most popular among midlevel cartel members, Enciso said. Poorer drug peddlers gravitate toward the Grim Reaper, known here as Saint Death, and the kingpins have never been seen at the chapel, González said. "The spiritual life of drug traffickers is very complicated," he said.

Not all of the worshipers are in the drug trade, said González. Many are migrants hoping to cross illegally into the United States.

"A lot of times they'll come here to pray for safe passage. And then when they get across they'll send back some money, or donate a plaque or something," he said.

"Thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus Malverde for helping us in all our work, for protecting us and illuminating our way," says one note by a Phoenix family.

'He helps everyone'

Moisés García, a 40-year-old street vendor, said he became a believer after Malverde helped him overcome a gambling addiction.

"It's not true that he only helps people who are doing bad things," García said. "He helps everyone. Most of the people who come here are not narcos, but they come here for miracles in their lives."

Many visitors are just plain curious, González said. The chapel has become a major tourist attraction and is featured in a guide given to guests at the city's hotels. There is even a Malverde brand beer.

On a recent afternoon, Veronica López, 42, of Mazátlan posed for a picture next to the altar. She said she stopped in while visiting Culiacán on business.

"Yeah, it's a crazy tradition," she said with a shrug. "But have you seen the news? There's a lot of crazy things in this country."