When Daniel Chavez wants someone to watch over the health of his family, he doesn’t ask God or the Virgin of Guadalupe – he heads for the shrine of Jesus Malverde, the “patron saint of the poor”, who has become popular with outlaws and – lately – cartel members across northern Mexico and the US.
“It isn’t just drug dealers who come here,” Chavez says, as night falls over Sinaloa state in northwestern Mexico. “All kinds of people come to ask for favours – people ask Malverde to [help them] do well in their business. When the favour is granted, they bring a plaque as a way of thanking Malverde.”
To Chavez and thousands like him, it doesn’t matter that Malverde isn’t recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church or that historians cannot confirm much about the man – including his very existence.
The man known as the “generous bandit” is said to have died at the hands of Mexican authorities in 1909, either by the hangman’s noose or a policeman’s bullet in Sinaloa, although no one is really sure.
Myth or legend?
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“It’s hard to know if Malverde is a myth or a legend,” says Leonidas Alfaro Bedolla, author of La Maldicion de Malverde (The Curse of Malverde) and several other works of historical fiction. “There is an empathy the narcos [drug traffickers] share with him – he was an outlaw and they are outlaws; they use him to find their identity. People believed in him and he meant well. Then people began asking for favours. That is how he became a saint.”
The shrine’s walls are lined with offerings, including a miniature Ford F-150 pick-up truck, bottles of tequila, family portraits and, in one case, a photo of a young soldier proudly toting a machine gun.
“Jesus Malverde,” begins one of the faux-gold plaques pinned to the shrine’s wall. “Thank you for helping me build my house and allowing me to leave the neighbourhood where I used to live in Jalisco [an area known for trafficking]. It is all true, Malverde, saint of the poor. Thank you.”
Outside the shrine – topped with razor wire and built adjacent to a railroad track – stands a series of souvenir shops selling baseball hats emblazoned with the outlaw’s mustached image, coffee mugs and cheap wooden necklaces.
“Malverde used to steal from the rich and give to the poor,” says Jesus Lizarraga, a well-built man in his late twenties who hails from Sinaloa and was visiting the shrine for the first time.
Atmosphere of violence
Adoration of the outlaw runs deep in Sinaloa. Public trust for state institutions, particularly the police and politicians, is low. Drug smuggling, along with farming and fishing, are the region’s largest industries and hustling is seen as one of the only ways for poor people to rise above their lot to have a decent life.
“We all know someone, a family member, a friend or someone we grew up with who is linked to the drug business,” says Miguel Angel Vega, a Sinaloa native who is making a film about trafficking and life in the state. “And we all know someone who was killed because of the atmosphere of violence.”
Malverde seems to represent what the rap group Dead Prez call “revolutionary gangsters” – figures who fight the established order though criminality. To their supporters, they are the only ones capable of doling out rough justice when the state is captured by entrenched elites.
“The phenomenon of the ambiguity of the outlaw started with Spanish colonisation,” says Alfaro Bedolla, the novelist. “We still have a colonised mentality here in Mexico and colonisation has two sides: The power of force and the power of money.”
The drug business here dates back some 80 years, Bedolla says. It began with opium – the mountains around Sinaloa are fertile grounds for poppy cultivation – and then transitioned to marijuana. Later, the state became a transit route for cocaine coming from South America.
“Back in the 1940s, there were drug lords like Lalo Fernandez [and later] Pedro Aviles and Rafael Caro Quintero,” Bedolla says. “They were admired by the people because they generated jobs in marginalised zones. They provided services, including potable water and healthcare facilities, [creating] sympathy from society.”
“As long as corruption rots at institutions and young people come of age with no job prospects … then the myth of Jesus Malverde and outlaws like him will continue to grow.“
Back in those days, gangsters wouldn’t kill the families of their rivals; they mostly carried out violent business among themselves. That all began changing in the 1990s, when Colombian cartels arrived in Sinaloa.
Traditional linkages to communities – in a style reminiscent of the Italian mafia – began to wane, as outsiders entered the picture, cartels fractured and vicious turf wars raged across the state. The so-called honour associated with the gangsters of yesteryear has vanished in favour of public beheadings, massacres, random kidnappings and extortion against small businesses. Even with these changes, however, the myth of the bad-boy bandit and the allure of narco gold are enticing for many people – especially disenfranchised young men – across this state.
Today, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is, to many admirers, Sinaloa’s favourite outlaw. Deemed one of the world’s wealthiest men by Forbes magazine, he has become the subject of legends, myths and rumours. He is, sadly, seen as an inspiration for many people. This glorification, according to Bedolla, “is not going to end” anytime soon.
As long as corruption rots at institutions and young people come of age with no job prospects, as long as Mexico can be home – at the same time – to the world’s richest man and some of its poorest people, then the myth of Jesus Malverde and outlaws like him will continue to grow.