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A real-life Robin Hood, who stole from the rich of the Porfiriato period to give to the poor, or merely a fictional figure, over-hyped and over-exaggerated at the hands of narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) looking for a way to exonerate their actions? The figure of Malverde is polemic in Mexican culture to say the least. Here’s everything you need to know about the so-called ‘narco saint’.
Malverde was allegedly the nickname of Jesús Juárez Mazo, a bandit born in 1870 who is said to be the real-life inspiration for this cult figure. The story goes that after being orphaned, Juárez Mazo began robbing the rich to give to the poor of his town in Sinaloa, Mexico. His death (much like his life) is cloaked in rumour and uncertainty, but most people concur that a shoot-out led to a gangrenous wound. When he was on the precipice of death, he ordered that he be handed in to the authorities, so the bounty on his head could be collected and shared amongst the town. Due to his outlaw status, though, he was denied a tomb, which led to members of the community, little by little, adorning his resting place with rocks and creating a makeshift grave for the person who was to soon transcend mere mortal status in the collective consciousness of Sinaloa.
But how did this man go from Robin Hood to Narco Saint? He supposedly took on his troubling position as the patron saint of narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) in the 1970s, when drug trafficker Raymundo Escalante was shot and thrown in the sea by his father. After praying to Malverde for rescue, Escalante survived the shooting and since that fateful event, traffickers across the continent have prayed to him for good fortune in their morally questionable exploits. As such, and very understandably, Malverde is not considered an official saint in the eyes of the Catholic church. Beyond drug running, Malverde is often a figure of hope for those illegally crossing the notoriously dangerous US border and is often connected with similarly controversial ‘saints’ like Santa Muerte and San Judas Tadeo.
In popular culture, the figure of Malverde has made notable ‘cameos’ in the telenovela La Reina del Sur, as well as Breaking Bad, and was even the ‘star’ of a film trilogy based in California. His name and image have also been co-opted by a handful of brands; notable examples include a Guadalajara-produced beer, as well as candles, and soaps. However, Malverde (a.k.a. the angel of the poor) is undeniably most venerated in his home state of Sinaloa, which explains another of his titles – ‘El Rey de Sinaloa’. In fact, his chapel in Sinaloa plays host to enormous quantities of offerings from both narcos and locals hoping for good fortune in their exploits, and is also the site of an annual party in his honour; May 3rd each year sees hundreds descend on this innocuous chapel (just a stone’s throw from Sinaloa’s government buildings) to party in the name of the ‘narco saint’. As the legend goes, if there are people holding vigil and playing narcocorridos (songs that idolise – read, exaggerate – narcos and their drug-running successes) at Malverde’s chapel in Sinaloa, then a batch of drugs managed to make it successfully past the US border.
Beyond Sinaloa, Malverde is also considered a folk hero and bringer of good luck (or bad, depending on your outlook), in several other locations on the Latin American drug-running route; he has a chapel in both Cali, Colombia and Los Angeles, as well as an unofficial shrine in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City.