Drug Lord

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

Many of the drug merchants try to be like their favorite saint, helping their families back home by funneling the bulk of their profits into Culiacan, law enforcement officials say.

"In Culiacan, everybody knows that drug money built that city," says Flores. "All the stuff you see down there, the clinics, the schools, the churches, that's built by drug dealers. Just like Malverde, they're giving to the poor, and that's why the people turn the other cheek, because they benefit from the drug dealers."

In Culiacan, Malverde's shrine stands near the railroad tracks on the west side of town, well known to just about everybody. Nearby are Malverde Clutch & Breaks, Malverde Lumber and two Denny's-like cafeterias, Coco's Malverde and Chic's Malverde. Outside the shrine, people sell trinkets, candles, pictures and tapes of ballads to the bandit. A plaster bust of Malverde runs to 60 pesos. Inside the shrine are two concrete busts of the man.

Farmers have left corn. One man has left a baggie of hair with thanks to Malverde for surviving a prison term at San Quentin. Fishermen have left large jars containing formaldehyde and shrimp easily weighing a quarter-pound each--thanks for a successful catch. Faith in Malverde is a private affair. There is no ceremony here. A constant stream of people arrive, place a candle near one of the busts, sit for a while, bless themselves, touch Malverde's head, and leave. Some are poor. Others arrive in shiny trucks and cars, looking very middle class.

Occasionally, someone will hire the band that waits outside to play music for the bandit.

Two teenage girls from Mazatlan arrive to ask Malverde for protection. One says they were at the home of a friend involved in a certain "business" when soldiers arrived and searched the home. The friend was arrested and the girls allowed to go home. But they're still afraid something might happen to them. "We're making a promise so that everything turns out all right," says one of them, who calls herself Carla.

A short while later, Gloria, a housewife, arrives from Guadalajara. She spent all night--11 hours--on the bus to get here. Her only reason for the trip is to visit Malverde's shrine. She'll be right back on a bus for another 11 hours when she leaves. Gloria brings with her a collage of photos of her five children, mother and husband. "Three years ago, some friends of mine told me about Malverde. A very big faith was born in me. You know that faith moves mountains," she says.

"He helped me a lot. My son was drinking a lot. Now he's studying car transmissions."

Believers will tell you the reason there are so many of them is that Malverde answers faith like Gloria's. But there are other reasons. One of them is Eligio Gonzalez, a 50-year-old jack-of-all-trades who wears his "Apostle of Malverde" tag with pride.

The other is a bright idea the state of Sinaloa had in the late 1970s. Government officials decreed they would build new state offices where people congregated to pay tribute to Malverde. Opposition to the idea was fierce. Newspaper columnists opined over the idea. Finally, state officials were forced to provide land where the larger, roofed shrine now stands.

They say all of Culiacan turned out for the demolition of the pile of pebbles that supposedly marked the place where Malverde was buried. They say, too, that the pebbles began to jump like popcorn and that the bulldozer operator had to get drunk to have the guts to roll over it; they say the machine broke down when it touched the grave.

Finally, though, the job got done. The massive state government building now sits over Malverde's original tomb. But the dispute actually helped the Malverde faith. A couple hundred yards away, Gonzalez has built and added to the new shrine, giving the faith what it lacked before: a true focal point.

Gonzalez is protective of the faith's image. "All this stuff about the narcosaint, they say it, but he's for people from all walks of life," Gonzalez says.

He's a small man with leathery skin and sandals. Gonzalez says the outlaw cured him of gunshot wounds in 1973. But he punctuates his speech with the words "God, first," so no one gets the wrong idea. "If it weren't for God, Malverde couldn't do anything," he says.

Gonzalez spends his days driving through outlying villages selling newspapers and Pepsi-Cola. With the money, he feeds his family, and the leftovers go to Malverde. Money taken in donations and sales at the shrine go to help with burials--more than 9,500 pesos so far--wheelchairs for the crippled and cots for the poor.

Nor was faith in Malverde hurt when Gonzalez won a raffle recently--a Volkswagen Golf car was the prize, which he promptly sold. Proceeds, he says, went to buy more cots, coffins and blankets for poor families.

Gonzalez is a controversial figure in Culiacan. Local reporters wonder slyly what else he might be doing with the money. There have been reports that Gonzalez hasn't shared royalties from cassettes sold at the shrine with a crippled man who wrote ballads to Malverde. But if this is the case, Gonzalez doesn't seem to be getting rich. He has no phone, and his clothes are humble.

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