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."

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Sam Quinones
Leigh Silverman