Mexico’s drug lords are so powerful they even have their own patron saint: San Malverde. Every year on May 3, residents of the north-western state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of Mexico’s largest drug cartel, flock to celebrate their beloved “good bandit”.
Sporting a thick black moustache, neckerchief and pistol belt, San Malverde looks more like a character straight out of a Western movie than your typical saint. Although he is not recognised by the Catholic Church, this has not dissuaded his followers from building chapels and shrines in his honour along drug trafficking routes in Mexico and near the US border.
His popularity among drug lords is so widespread that police in California have admitted to searching for San Malverde paraphernalia on suspects in order to determine whether or not they may be linked to Mexican cartels.
San Malverde’s celebrations begin with colourful processions on May 3 in the streets of Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa. They are followed by dancing balls during which songs are played in Malverde’s honour. Smaller festivities take place elsewhere in Mexico or within Mexican-American communities - mainly in areas with a strong drug cartel presence.
Procession in Culiacán, Sinaloa, on May 3 2008, for the 99th anniversary of Malverde's death. Photo posted on Flickr by manuelaguna.
Malverde party on May 1, 2011. The Mariachi sings: “I pray to him and visit his chapel, Malverde!”
"All those who pray to Malverde have some kind of link with illegal activities"
Gabriel Regino is a professor of criminology in Mexico City, and a specialist of the traditions and folklore linked to organised crime.
Jesus Malverde was a real person, but many untrue or embellished stories were weaved into his life and death to build the myth surrounding his person. Malverde lived in the state of Sinaloa at the turn of the 20th century, and his real name was Jesus Juaneznazo. His nickname ("evil green" in Spanish) comes from the fact that he apparently hid in bushes and trees before his attacks on wealthy haciendas.
Malverde is said to have been a Robin Hood-type figure, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Legend has it that when he was captured and hung by authorities, they refused to bury his body. A peasant then came to the place the body hung and told Malverde: ‘I have lost my mule and cow. If you help me find them, I will bury you like a Christian.’ And lo, the mule and cow appeared beside the body. So the peasant defied authorities and buried Malverde. This story is an unconscious reference to the ancient Greek myth of Antigone, who defied King Creon of Thebes to bury her banished brother’s body.
“Marijuana growers needed to turn to something ‘supernatural’ in the fight against authorities”
Although Malverde died in 1909, his cult did not become truly popular before the 1970s. By that time, the border area between the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango had become a hub of marijuana and opium production, due to its ideal climate and remote location. The government tried to put an end to poppy and marijuana cultures but was met with fierce resistance from local populations. So the army was sent in to stamp out the practice by force, and locals, faced with a wave of violence and bloodshed, needed to turn to something ‘supernatural’ to give them strength in their fight against the authorities.
“Soon his ‘miracles’ were being reported: ‘I escaped from jail thanks to Malverde. They shot at me and missed thanks to Malverde…”
That’s when they began to pray to Malverde, and soon his ‘miracles’ were being reported: ‘I escaped from jail thanks to Malverde. They shot at me and missed because of Malverde’, etc…Eventually a chapel was built for the people’s newfound hero – right across from Culiacán’s local government building, ironically enough!
Video of the San Malverde chapel. Posted on YouTube.
In the 1980s came the cocaine boom, which took after Marijuana and opium cultures. Drug lords continued to invoke Malverde, but to give him more legitimacy and avoid being rejected by the Catholic Church, they dubbed him a ‘Saint’ and began associating him with the Virgin of Guadalupe in pictures and stories. Afterwards, with the generational shift, came the start of the Malverde ‘fashion’: tattoos, T-shirts, jewellery, all harboured by members of drug cartels. There are also songs in his honour.
Photo of San Malverde paraphernalia on a car in the state of California. Photo posted by lipendo on Flickr.
“Malverde’s cult has spread to wherever the drug cartels extended their tentacles of power and violence”
Today, Malverde is popular mainly in Sinaloa, but his cult has spread to wherever the drug cartels extended their tentacles of power and violence. Although his followers are not exclusively drug dealers, all those who pray to him have some kind of link, at least a sort of social empathy, with illegal activities. The poor or uneducated people who pray to him are actually hoping – albeit unconsciously – that the saint will extend his “protection” of the drug cartels to them."
Malverde bust in Culiacàn, Mexico. Photo posted on Flickr by David Agren.
Malverde soap on sale in a shrine in the Saint's honour in Mexico city. Photo posted on Flickr by David Agren.
Malverde medal in alongside Virgin Mary statuettes in a Los Angeles shopfront. Photo posted on Flickr by Muskito.
Post written with Lorena Galliot, journalist at FRANCE 24.