Every third night Florentino Ventura can be found sleeping outdoors, guarding
the large blue shrine that honors the belief in a lawless man.
His faith keeps him there.
The summer when Florentino was 23, he was working as an oyster diver in
Mazatlan. One day he became tangled in his rope underwater. He wrestled with
the cord and began to drown. Then suddenly the face of the bandit Jesus
Malverde appeared to him. Florentino finally freed himself. He rose to the
surface and came immediately to Malverde's shrine to give thanks. From the way
Florentino describes it, the experience led to the kind of spiritual catharsis
that makes people change their lives. Florentino changed his. He'd been on
track for what would have been at least a minor political career. He had been a
PRI youth leader and won a scholarship to study political science in Mexico
City. He was taking a break from studying law when the diving accident
happened. But he gave it all up and, now 36, he's been here ever since. "The
Mexican political system is useless. It was false, pure lies," he says.
Florentino found more truth in Malverde.
Florentino Ventura is one of thousands of people who believe the bandit Jesus
Malverde - "the Angel of the Poor," "The Generous Bandit" -- works miracles in
their lives. And all year long they come to his shrine here in Culiacan,
capital of the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, to ask Malverde for favors and
thank him for those he's granted. They leave behind photos and plaques with
grateful inscriptions: "Thank you Malverde for saving me from drugs," writes
Isaias Valencia Miranda, from Agua Zarca Sinaloa; "Thank you Malverde for not
having to lose my arm and leg," reads the dedication on a photo of a man in
sunglasses identifying himself as Lorenzo Salazar, from Guadalajara. There are
plaques from the Guicho Rios family from Mexicali; the Leon family from
Stockton; the Chaidez family from North Hollywood, and many more from the great
Mexican diaspora in Los Angeles.
"Dear holy and miraculous Malverde," reads one letter to the bandit left at the
shrine. "I'm writing this letter so that you'll help me with a problem I have
with some friends I had, so that they won't look for me any more. Make them
forget the problems we had. Make them please leave my parents and my sister and
me in peace. This is what I ask of you, Malverde, that you do this favor. I
promise that when I go to Sinaloa I'll go visit you and I'll bring you what I
can because I live in Los Angeles, California. Malverde. Your son, Angel
Cortez. Sept 15, 1992."
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 Jesus Malverde, a renegade
supposedly long dead, performs miracles in their lives.
Nor, for that reason, is it hard to understand how over the past two decades,
Jesus Malverde has also become what he's now best known as: "The Narco Saint,"
the patron saint for the region's many drug smugglers. Mexican drug smuggling
began in Sinaloa. Here smugglers are folk heroes and a "narcoculture" has
existed for some time. 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 that narcoculture.
Smugglers come ask Malverde for protection before sending a load north. If the
trip goes well, they return to pay the shrine's house band to serenade the
bandit, or place a plaque thanking Malverde for "lighting the way";
increasingly plaques include the code words "From Sinaloa to California."
The story of Jesus Malverde takes place during the reign of dictator Porfirio
Diaz (1877-1911). The Porfiriato, as the era is known, was a time when big
business, especially foreign-owned big business, was encouraged above all else.
Diaz saw himself as the rest of the world saw him: as Mexico's modernizer. Yet
progress passed by millions of Mexicans, who remained as impoverished as ever.
As the century turned, the country fermented with the social anarchy that would
explode in the Mexican Revolution. The hills and back roads of Mexico were
alive with banditry, some of whom would become folk heroes to the country's
The legend is that Jesus Malverde was one of these, a bandit who rode the hills
near Culiacan. They say Malverde robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. A
Mexican Robin Hood. It must have been true, for they say the government hung
him and left him to rot in a tree. That was on May 3, 1909. Every year on that
day there's a great party at Malverde's shrine.
Two movies and one play exist dealing with Malverde's life. But historians have
found no evidence he ever existed; a likelier prospect is that Malverde's an
amalgam of two bandits -- Heraclio Bernal from Southern Sinaloa and Felipe
Bachomo, from the north part of the state. "If he lived, faith in him is a
remarkable thing," says Sergio Lopez, a dramatist from Culiacan, who has also
researched and written about Malverde. "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 exist is a rich and fluid body of lore about Malverde's life.
Supposedly, his Christian name was Jesus Juarez Mazo, born sometime in 1870
near the town of Mocorito. In some versions he was a tailor. Others have him as
a construction worker, or a railroad hand, who built the tracks that were just
then extending through northern Mexico and that brought with them the
opportunities that made some men wealthy and other men bandits.
Some say Malverde began a life of crime after 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,
and the governor who wanted him, Francisco Canedo, dies 33 days later, from a
cold contracted after going out at night without slippers.
Lopez believes Canedo may have invented the Malverde legend himself to keep the
state's hacienda owners thinking twice before indulging in the more extreme
abuses of their peons. But there's also a story that the governor challenged
Malverde to rob him. Malverde, as a construction worker, slipped into the
mansion, stole the governor's sword and wrote on a wall, "Jesus M. was
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," is the way Gonzalez tells it. "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."
Malverde's shrine stands near the railroad tracks on the west side of Culiacan,
well-known to just about everybody in town. 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, and
pictures. Inside the shrine are two concrete busts of the man. Malverde,
supposedly a poor man from the hills, turns out to look a lot like a matinee
idol -- dark eyes, sleek mustache, jet-black hair, resolute jaw. Near the main
busts are stands of pendants, baseball hats, tapes with corridos to the bandit,
countless picture cases with photographs of the bandit and a prayer to him in
thanks, and rows of plaster busts wrapped in plastic.
To one side sits Dona Tere, rocking the day away. She is a cheerful, plump
woman, made up with bright red lipstick. She, too, has her tale of faith. Eight
years ago, doctors diagnosed Dona Tere with cancer. She decided not to take
medicine. "I said, ´Malverde, they say you do miracles. I'm going to ask
you for a miracle. I don't believe in you. I know I'm going to die.'" Dona
Tere's still around. "I have four Malverdes in my house," she says. "One in the
kitchen. One in the dining room. One going up the stairs and one in the
bedroom. I bless myself every time I'm at the foot of the stairs." Last time
they operated on her, Dona Tere paid for two hours of music to be played to
Malverde. "Rich, poor, sick, not sick -- everyone comes here," she says. "When
they come here and pay for music to be played people here say it must have gone
well for them on their trip (sending drugs to the U.S.). I don't know. It's
their own private business. I don't ask. But I'll tell you. More people come
here than go to church. If you go to church asking for food, the priest will
give you advice, but if you come here asking for food, you'll get food."
There was a time not so long ago when the Malverde shrine was a funky thing,
awash in the artifacts of Mexican working-class life. You'd see piles of baby
pictures and faded out-of-focus Polaroids of men in cowboy hats, and poorly
spelled thank-you notes in twisted handwriting. There'd be slats of cardboard
warping under the weight of pasted plastic flowers and photo collages of
extended families. One man had left a baggie of hair, thanking Malverde for
allowing him to survive a term in San Quentin. There were artificial limbs, and
corn cobs and a lot of photocopies of recently obtained passports. Fishermen
would leave large jars containing enormous shrimp in formaldehyde -- thanks for
a successful catch. Gonzalez remembers two different men -- one left a pistol,
the other an AK-47 rifle.
But that's been changing lately. Families have built glass enclosures -
essentially, shrines within a shrine. Malverde has gone a little more
high-class. There isn't as much room any more for all those piles of homemade
thank-yous and photo collages.
Still, faith in Malverde remains above all 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
Jesus Gastelo, a rugged, aging farmer, enters in sandals and a shirt buttoned
halfway up his plump torso. In his arms is his newborn son, Sergio, now 13 days
old. Gastelo lights a candle. "I'm really old," he says. "How old do you think
I am?" Gastelo is 64, once widowed, and he's just fathered his eighth child,
this with his new wife, a woman of 31. A lot to thank Malverde for. "I've
believed in Malverde since I was a little boy," he says, dropping his index
finger to his knees, as an indication of how tall he was at the time that faith
Back then, faith in Malverde didn't get the press it gets today. It centered
around a pile of stones and pebbles, which is now about 50 yards away and
across two streets. "It was just a pile of rocks and stones, like a grave,"
says Gastelo. "It was where they say he was hung."
Believers will tell you the reason there are so many of them is that Malverde
answers faith like Jesus Gastelo'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 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. "The protest lasted two
years," says Gastelo. Finally, state officials were forced to provide
land where the shrine now stands.
They say all of Culiacan turned out for the demolition of the pile of stones
and pebbles. They say, too, that stones 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. The tomb itself was moved across the street from the shrine, at the
corner of Insurgentes and 16 de Septiembre streets.
Researchers say it was during these years that the media christened Malverde as
The Narcosaint. In the late 1970s, Sinaloa was embroiled in the great military
strike against the region's drug smugglers that was known as Operation Condor,
during which the army went through the hills attacking drug smugglers and
innocent ranchers with equal vigor; the state lost an estimated 2,000 hamlets
and villages during those years as people abandoned homes, land and livestock
and streamed from the hills to the cities. "The press, sharing the same view as
the authorities, or perhaps so as not to be left behind when the graft was
being handed out, added their two cents," says Luis Astorga, a researcher of
the narcoculture who lived in Culiacan during this time. "They labeled Malverde
as the ´Narcosaint.' The drug smugglers, due to their social origin, had
inherited the belief in Malverde. But the media gave it a kind of yellow slant.
They were really the ones who made Malverde into the drug smuggler's saint,
forgetting how old the belief in him really was."
Today the pile of pebbles signifying Malverde's tomb now shares a vacant lot
with Tianguis Malverde - Malverde Market -- a consignment car lot where Victor
Manuel Parra and Marco Antonio Osuna will try to sell your used vehicle in
exchange for a commission for themselves. The pebbles sit in the middle of the
lot, surrounded by weeds and Suburbans, Nissan pickups, Monte Carlos and dented
Volkswagens. Atop the pile is an iron cross, a weather-beaten bust of Malverde,
now for some reason encased in a rusty bird cage. Like many parts of Sinaloan
life, the car-mart depends largely on drug money. In the fall, marijuana
growers are tending their crop and about to harvest. So sales at the lot are
slow, this being October. The men say they are biding their time until December
and January, when the growers will have sent their loads north and have money
to burn. So they have more than enough time to talk about Malverde and the tomb
of stones they work around every day. "He'd rob from the rich and give to the
poor. This is where they say he was hung," says Parra. "(The owner) wanted to
build on this site, but he couldn't get rid of it. The soul of Malverde
wouldn't permit it. They brought in machinery, but the machines broke down."
The truth, it turns out, is more mundane. Jose Carlos Aguilar, the lot's owner,
says he wants to build a high-rise hotel or office building on the sight, but
hasn't been able to find funding or a suitable partner. Still, if he did build
on the site, Aguilar says he'd leave aside a corner of the building, or maybe a
section of the hotel lobby, for the bandit's tomb. "You can't be inflaming
people's sensibilities," he says.
The building dispute with the state government may have distressed many of
Malverde's believers. But the faith emerged from it energized and publicized.
Eligio Gonzalez has built and added to the new shrine. Now it has 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," he says.
Gonzalez is a small man with leathery skin and sandals. He says the outlaw
Malverde 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.
He spends his days driving through outlying villages selling newspapers and
Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi-Cola, in turns out, is a stalwart Malverde sponsor. Local
distributors often give Gonzalez discounts so he can sell the soda at concerts
and dances and keep the profits for Malverde. Once, during a large encampment
of campesinos outside the state building that lasted two months, he sold 4,000
cases of Pepsi. Not surprisingly, Coke products are scarce at the shrine. With
the money Gonzalez 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 so far -- wheelchairs for the crippled and cots for the poor. Nor was
faith in Malverde hurt when Gonzalez recently 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. (He's said to
have won the national lottery 12 times.)
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
True Tales from Another Mexico will be published in Janaury 2001.
To order, call 1-800-249-7737. Or write: University of New Mexico Press, Order
Dept., 3721 Spirit Drive SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106-5631.|
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