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Latin America: Mexican Narco-Saint On the Move

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #470)
Consequences of Prohibition

In Culiacan, the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, long a hot-bed of drug cultivation and the drug trade, for decades narco-traffickers have joined common Mexicans in worshipping at the shrine of San Malverde (or San Juan Malverde or San Jesus Malverde). Malverde, a 19th century bandit who may or may not have actually existed and who may or may not have been hung in 1909, is a Robin Hood-like figure in Mexican culture, and is the unofficial patron saint of bandits and drug traffickers.

San Malverde image on sale for $6.95,
When the shrine to Sal Malverde began is unclear, but evidence of its popularity dates back decades. When Culiacan municipal officials moved to tear it down to make way for new city buildings in the 1970s, protests erupted until officials promised to replace it with a new, improved shrine.

As northwest Mexico's "narcoculture" spread -- if globalization exists in any industry, it is the drug trade -- so has the visage of San Malverde. The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found for sale in botanicas in the Carolinas and hanging from rear view mirrors in cars pulled over in Utah.

San Malverde's image also appears in prison cells across Mexico, in private shrines in residences, and tattooed on the backs of more than a few men. A second, smaller shrine to him appeared in Tijuana some years ago. Now, the first known public shrine to San Malverde has popped up in Mexico City.

Maria Alicia Pulido Sanchez, a housewife in the city's gritty Doctores neighborhood, has built a glass-encased shrine on a sidewalk near her home. For Pulido Sanchez, it was not San Malverde's succor for the narcos that inspired her, but because he helps poor people.

"He wasn't a drug trafficker. He was what you might call a thief, but he helped his community," she said. Although San Malverde is not recognized by the Catholic Church, Pulido Sanchez was not concerned. "We make our saints by the power of our belief," she said. "We can believe in anyone who fulfills our petitions."

Pulido Sanchez said she decided to build the shrine after her son recovered from injuries in a 2005 car crash in just days after she prayed to a statue of San Malverde belonging to a friend. While Pulido Sanchez may worship San Malverde for his aid to the poor and defenseless, some of the people coming by to pay homage may have other things on their minds. She said lawyers, policemen, and "men with big bunches of jewelry" frequent the shrine, along with housewives, secretaries, and "people from every walk of life."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


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