Drug Lord

The bandit Jesus Malverde has been dead for nearly a century. He's still wanted on both sides of the border.

Perez pulls a cassette off the shelf. It's titled Leonel Gutierrez con Los Tequileros del Norte, and pictures a man flanked by two large machine guns. "They don't want to go down killing just one," she says.

In Sinaloa, where Mexican drug smuggling began, smugglers are folk heroes, and a "narcoculture" has existed for some time. Today in Culiacan, there are, on average, 400 drug-related killings per year. It is a city overrun with drug merchants whose power influences local government.

All year long, thousands of Malverde devotees come to the large blue building on the edge of Culiacan that is his shrine. They ask for favors and thank him for those he's granted. They leave behind photos and plaques with grateful inscriptions: the Lopez family from Guamuchil; Lorenzo Salazar from Guadalajara; the Guicho Rios family from Mexicali; the Leon family from Stockton, California; and many more from the great Mexican diaspora in Los Angeles.

Faith in Malverde was always strongest among Sinaloa's poor and highland residents, the classes from which Mexico's drug traffickers emerged.

As the narcos went from the hills to the front pages, they took Malverde with them. He is now the religious side to the narcoculture. Many smugglers come to the shrine to ask for protection before sending a load north. If the trip goes well, the narco returns to pay for the shrine's house band to serenade the bandit, or he places a plaque thanking Malverde for "lighting the way"; increasingly, the plaques include the code words "From Sinaloa to California."

Malverde's attraction has to do with the long history of violence in Sinaloa, as well as lack of the deep religious roots that are common to other Mexican states, says Arturo Lizarraga, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa in Mazatlan, who has written on the phenomenon.

"Living outside the law, people take refuge in someone who also was outside the law," he says. "You can see that by the people who visit the shrine. Convicts, prostitutes, narcos, railroad tramps--everyone whose values don't fit in the values of the larger society."

There are hundreds of Mexican folk saints whose lore has traversed the border with devoted followers. Some were veritable Robin Hoods; others, like the soldier Juan Soldado, who is said to help undocumented immigrants dodge the border patrol, were tragic figures, victimized underdogs downtrodden by society. Legend has it Soldado was framed by a wealthy man who accused him of having raped and killed a young girl after actually having committed the crime himself.

Other folk saints were shady characters who turned their lives around--kingpins whose drug profits benefited communities. Neighbors would recognize the good that they did, a few would claim miracles and pretty soon a following would develop.

Of course, none of these saints is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Canonized saints pass rigorous investigations that prove they really were miracle workers who chose a path of goodness. Even so, the Church is tolerant of renegade saints, says Father Tony Sotelo of the Church of the Immaculate Heart in Phoenix.

"A lot of times we think of saints as perfect human beings, but none of us are perfect," he says. "Some can become better people and grow in self-conquest. In fact, some of the saints that dealt so heavily in drugs and crime were able to turn their lives around. People recognized them as saints. The church has very little say in that."

Actually, historians have found no evidence that Jesus Malverde ever existed; a likelier prospect is that he's a legendary amalgam of two bandits--Heraclio Bernal from southern Sinaloa and Felipe Bachomo, from the north. "If he lived, faith in him is a remarkable thing," says Sergio Lopez, a dramatist from Culiacan, who has researched and written about the Malverde phenomenon. "If he never lived, it's even more remarkable because people have created this thing to achieve the justice that is denied them."

What does live is a rich and fluidly changing body of lore about the bandit. In some versions, he's a construction worker. In others he's a railroad hand, who built the tracks just then extending through most of northern Mexico and that brought with them the opportunities that made a few men tremendously wealthy, and, in turn, a few more ferocious bandits.

Some say Malverde began a life of crime when his parents died of hunger. Some versions say he was finally betrayed by a friend, who cut off his feet and dragged him through the hills to the police to collect a 10,000 peso reward. Others have him betrayed and shot to death. His betrayer dies three days later; the governor who wanted him, Francisco Canedo, dies 33 days later, from a cold contracted after going out at night without slippers.

Canedo, Lopez says, may have actually invented the Malverde legend to keep his hacienda owners in line. There's a story that he challenged Malverde to rob him. Malverde, as a construction worker, gained entrance to the mansion, stole the governor's sword and wrote on a wall, "Jesus M. was here."

Malverde's first miracle, according to one version, was returning a woman's lost cow. Eligio Gonzalez, whose work to keep faith in the bandit alive has earned him the nickname "The Apostle of Malverde," tells still another story. "The rural police shot him in the leg with a bow and arrow," Gonzalez says. "He was dying of gangrene. He told his friend, 'Before I die, compadre, take me in to get the reward.' His friend brought him in dead and got the reward. They hung Malverde from a mesquite tree as a warning to the people.

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