Drug Lord

At the swap meet on 35th Avenue and Buckeye, the smell of duros fritos blends with car exhaust and dust stirred up from the parking lot. Festive banda music pumps through the outdoor mall where vendors hawking pony rides, discounted window tinting, kitchenware, boots, toys and velvet tapestries vie for shoppers' attention.

At a corner booth on the south end of the mall, a vendor named Manuel bustles behind a case of gold jewelry. He plucks a 24-karat pendant encrusted with a halo of cubic zirconium from the display case. The gaudy jewel, a medallion bearing the haunting visage of the folk saint Jesus Malverde, shares a velvet-lined tray with a gold-plated Daffy Duck, miniature assault rifles and Virgin Mary pendants. It's priced at $295.

The "Narco Saint" is a hot seller.
"A lot of people buy him for protection," says Manuel, returning the jewel to the velvet tray. "But mostly drug dealers. I get people from all the states in Mexico asking for Malverde."

Traces of Malverde--his intense dark eyes, sleek mustache, jet-black hair and resolute jaw--are prevalent at the swap meet. Leather pendants dangling from display racks, Versace-style silk shirts and intricately decorated leather jackets all bear his likeness. At El Paisano booth two rows over from Manuel, a sign on a display case reads "Malverde es amor." Esthela, the cashier, says she's out of Malverde shirts, which sell for $40 to $50, but she's got belt buckles and plenty of scapulars. Esthela believes in Malverde and sometimes wears one of the pendants herself.

"In Phoenix, people think he makes miracles," she says. "Whoever wears the chain on their neck can see his miracles. I believe in him. But the ones who believe in him more are drug dealers, and they pray to him when they pass across the border."

During the past 20 years, Malverde has become the patron saint for drug smugglers from the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa in Mexico. "The Narco Saint," the press has dubbed him. While the sick pray to the saint for a cure and the poor ask him for prosperity, drug merchants ask Malverde for successful marijuana crops, assistance in smuggling them across the border and protection from rival gangs and law enforcers.

In recent years, Malverde's popularity as a miracle worker has flourished in Phoenix as thousands of Sinaloans have brought their faith across the border.

And, police say, as narcotics traffickers have moved into the area, particularly the ruthless Sinaloan Cowboys who migrated to Phoenix, Glendale and Mesa in the late 1980s from ranches surrounding Culiacan, where Malverde lived and died nearly a century ago.

Legend has it that Malverde was a bandit who rode the hills of Sinaloa, filching from the rich and lavishing money on the poor. He was the scourge of government officials who in 1909 captured him and hung him from a mesquite tree in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital.

Sinaloa is one of those places in Mexico where justice isn't blind and the lawless aren't always the bad guys. Having the government as an enemy can improve a reputation. So maybe, then, it's not such a stretch to understand how thousands of people could come to believe that the mustachioed renegade performs miracles in their lives.

Santos Vega, a Hispanic researcher at Arizona State University who studies the home-based religious practices of Mexican Americans, says that not all of Malverde's followers are drug dealers. "Malverde is someone Sinaloans consider a helpful icon back home, so they bring that faith with them. They might practice their religion at home, praying to both canonized saints and popular folk saints like Malverde."

And indeed, Malverde's popularity extends beyond the swap meet where vendors peddle the saint's visage to people they think may be drug merchants.

It stretches throughout Phoenix's west end. Inside the Yerberia San Francisco, a peach-colored brick building wedged between El Taquito and Ramiro's Mexican Food on 27th Avenue and Van Buren, plaster busts of Malverde adorn shelves next to Christ figurines. Amid glass cases of holistic remedies are shelves filled with devotion candles, each depicting the narcosanto and an inscription that says, in Spanish, "Say what you want and you'll get it."

Rosario, a store clerk, says the candles and necklaces are fast-selling items. "Malverde's very popular among Sinaloans. They also believe in the Virgin Guadalupe as well as other saints."

Rosario suspects some of her clientele are drug merchants. "Wherever you go, people will say Malverde is the saint for the drug dealers. We don't relate to these people. I always ask them, 'Do you think he's a saint because he was killing people?' They just get upset with me."

At the Discoteca Joyeria on 35th Avenue, shelves bulge with CDs containing narcocorridos--folk songs about drug smuggling. An especially popular group, Los Kuatreros del Norte, boasts a song about the saint titled "Imagen de Jesus Malverde."

Penny Perez, who's owned the store for 14 years, is all too familiar with Jesus Malverde and the drug culture she feels he represents. "Everybody has their idols," says Perez. "But nowadays, young people are looking for an easy way out to make money. Bands like Los Tucanes or Los Kuatreros . . . sing about drug smugglers, how good it is to be in drugs and have fancy cars."

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.

"His first miracle was for a friend who lost some mules loaded with gold and silver. He asked the bones of Malverde, which were still hanging from the tree, to find his mules again. He found them. So he put Malverde's bones in the box and went to the cemetery where the governor is buried. He bribed the guard to let him bury Malverde there. He buried him like contraband. No one knows where."

Last month, Phoenix police found Malverde in the desert south of town.
A hiker seeking petroglyphs in the South Mountain region stumbled on human skeletal remains. Near the bones was a faded Polaroid in which the victim wore a Jesus Malverde pendant around his neck. The police ran the photo on two television channels, hoping to identify the victim. Both the victim's parents and his girlfriend recognized the pendant and raced down to the police station.

"We know that the victim in the photo was involved very heavily in drugs," says E.G. Fragoso, a homicide detective with the Phoenix Police Department in charge of the South Mountain case. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, people involved in drugs will have this icon in their possession whether it's their belt, pendant, wallet--I've seen everything short of tattoos."

The signs of the saint are everywhere--at least, more places than police care to see. They say they often stumble across homemade shrines during drug raids.

"Malverde is very important to these drug traffickers," says Sergeant Manny Flores, a narcotics agent with the state Department of Public Safety. "They burn candles for this guy. They build altars in their homes. They think he protects them, not only from their own kind, but from police officers. They pray to Malverde and they think they're invincible. That's why they're so violent."

When Flores recently served a search warrant at a drug stronghold near I-17 and Thomas, he wasn't surprised to see the framed face of the renegade saint Jesus Malverde at the center of a makeshift shrine. After 300 similar busts, the sinister visage has become as familiar as the sight of an SKS assault rifle.

The house was loaded with signs of its inhabitants' profession: 50 pounds of marijuana, three kilos of cocaine, two pounds of crystal methamphetamine, $75,000 cash and some exotic weaponry littered the carpet. But what struck the 20-year DPS veteran was the face of the narcosanto framed next to a portrait of the Virgin Mary. The devilishly handsome narcosanto seemed better suited to a spaghetti Western than an altar.

A few years ago, during a drug bust in Mesa, Flores was nearly run over by a Sinaloan drug dealer in a Dodge Ram Charger. Flores shot and killed the driver. In another altercation on 33rd Avenue and Roosevelt, a group of Sinaloan Cowboys rammed an officer on Flores' squad, breaking his left ankle. In both incidents, the suspects were wearing Malverde pendants and SKS assault rifle medallions mounted on gold chains.

"Not everyone who wears the Malverde necklace is a drug dealer," says Flores, who trains police officers to recognize and deal with the Cowboys. "But when I see someone wearing a Malverde pendant, a white cowboy hat, $400 boots and gold chains, I suspect they're connected with the drug trade."

Frank Chavez, a Phoenix homicide detective, has seen nearly a dozen Malverde shrines at crime scenes. A particularly ornate one is still lodged in his memory. Chavez stumbled across it as he was investigating a shoot-out in an apartment on 30th Avenue south of McDowell Road, the headquarters of two Sinaloan drug dealers. As the detective picked through the gruesome scene--a body, baggies of marijuana, a semiautomatic handgun and a revolver lay strewn about the floor--he discovered a makeshift shrine inside a closet. Surrounding a plaster bust of Jesus Malverde were votive candles, an assortment of coins and dollar bills, and rotting food.

"Drug dealers make offers, give candles and money so they can be blessed with lots of profit and send it 'back to their families' in Mexico," says Chavez.

Sometimes the saint fails to come through.
Last year, for instance, Chavez helped convict a 32-year-old Sinaloan drug merchant whose deep faith in Malverde was revealed in a letter he delivered to a witness prior to his trial. The suspect had been involved in a drive-by shooting to retaliate against a rival drug dealer. "He was trying to get a witness not to change her story, but to ask her to be kind and tell the truth. In the letter, he tells this lady that he had set aside a special devotion for Jesus Malverde so that his trial would go his way instead of ours. It didn't happen. He got convicted of second-degree murder."

Even when the saint fails them, Malverde's followers remain steadfast devotees. "It's as if you had a personal lawyer in heaven to plead your case," says Santos Vega, the ASU researcher. "If you were a drug dealer, your need might be to make a certain deal and get the money you're expecting without experiencing any problems. If Malverde has been recommended by others, you're going to try him out."

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.

"Thanks to God and Malverde, there's something for everyone," he says. "Not much, but something. Little by little we've built this. Before it was just tiny. People have put in a lot of faith. If there's no faith, there's no miracles."

Faith is what Gloria has.
Before her pilgrimage is done, she crosses the street to a pile of pebbles and stones in the middle of what is now an insurance company parking lot. The sign from a nearby McDonald's stands high overhead.

Malverde was supposedly hung here. One legend says that soldiers wouldn't allow Malverde's remains to be buried, so people stood at a distance and threw pebbles on him until he was covered. Hence the pebble tradition.

Gloria's heard the lot owner has tried to move the pebbles but that the tractor keeps mysteriously breaking down. From her purse she takes out a vial containing a pebble and some cloudy water. "Two years ago I took this pebble from the grave. Now I'm returning it," she says.

Who knows what travels the other pebbles have made.


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