CULIACN, MEXICO — Off a main street in this Mexican city, three musicians sing their hearts out in a chapel that is a center of both high kitsch and high faith.
For five hours - with their accordion, guitar, and bass never letting up - the three sing the region's ranchera ballads to Jess Malverde, a turn-of-the-century Mexican Robin Hood in whose name the chapel was built.
The musicians have been paid 500 pesos - $60, or about 18 times the daily minimum wage here - supposedly to implore Malverde's help for a group of farmers' corn crop. But a young man who often visits the chapel to seek Malverde's intervention in personal problems says he doesn't buy the explanation.
"Corn farmers around here don't have that kind of money, so don't believe it," he says. "They may be singing for a crop, but I'd guarantee it's not corn. They're singing for the narcos."
Since he was killed by government officials in 1909, Malverde has become a popular saint here, increasingly sought out by the poor in a land of both great faith and faltering adherence to the Roman Catholic Church.
But here in Sinaloa State, a center of marijuana and heroin production in Mexico, Malverde has also become something else.
Since sometime around 1980, in a deft move that has helped put a growing segment of desperately poor rural peasants in their corner, drug traffickers in this Pacific coast state have adopted Malverde as their patron saint.
"Malverde was nothing more than a common thief, but it appears that he did share what he robbed with the poor," says Herberto Sinagawa Montoya, a historian of Sinaloa State.
"Looking to improve their image, the narcos chose him as their example, their 'saint,' and it worked," he says.
Church condemns the cult
If it "worked," Mr. Sinagawa adds, it's because the miserable living conditions of Sinaloa's mostly indigenous rural population have changed little from the days of Malverde.
"This cult is the reflection of a misery that isn't being resolved," says the retired state historian. The rural poor "are finding no answer in either the government or the Catholic Church, and so they develop a sympathy for their only benefactors - the drug traffickers." The drug traffickers, or narcos, give the peasants jobs and provide services like electricity and water, he says.
The local hierarchy of the Catholic Church has condemned the cult of Malverde as a sham. But as the church's authority has broken down, Malverde's popularity has reached beyond the destitute into other sectors of Sinaloan society. "The rise of Malverde here coincides with the crisis of faith in Catholicism and the boom in alternatives for people to believe in," says Francisco Padilla, a researcher at the Sinaloa cultural office.
And as Sinaloa's drug gangs have carried their business beyond the state, and the poor have emigrated to more promising lands, the phenomenon has spread throughout the region and into the Southwest United States.
In Phoenix and other Arizona cities, police increasingly find Malverde medallions around the necks of the drug thugs - often from Sinaloa - they encounter in drug busts. In Los Angeles, Malverde believers light candles and leave offerings at another chapel to the dark-eyed, heavy-browed "saint." And when Sinaloa's migrants return home, often the first place they stop is Malverde's chapel.
But at the Culiacn chapel - a hodgepodge collection of small shrines to their black-scarved hero and engraved plaques thanking him for his help, all encased in a stained-glass faade and corrugated metal roof - Malverde's association with narcos is dismissed.
"People come here from all [social] classes, from all activities," says Eligio Gonzlez, the chapel's founder and manager.
"Malverde is here for everybody, narcotraficantes or not, 24 hours a day," he adds. "That's why so many people come."
Mr. Gonzlez came to Culiacn in 1960, when he began visiting what was then only a cross and a pile of pebbles in Malverde's name. The pebbles accumulated from passing Mayo Indians, whose custom is to leave a stone at any grave they pass.
Then in 1973, while driving a taxi, Gonzlez was shot four times in a robbery.
"I promised Malverde I'd serve him if he helped me," he says, "and I lived."
By that time, interest in Malverde was dying out, the historian Sinagawa and other local observers say.
Events changed that.
In 1980, the state government - never too fond of Malverde for obvious reasons - decided to build a new state capital on land that included the Malverde cross.
"Their original idea was simply to destroy it," Gonzlez says, "but they found out that meant trouble."
Street protests ensued, and, according to Malverde followers, the construction project was slowed by strange occurrences: Windows in the new building shattered on their own and equipment disappeared.
He 'still helps people'
Finally, the state relented and moved the cross to a nearby plot, throwing in a chapel shell for good measure. Gonzlez took care of the rest - joined by the drug traffickers who knew a good thing when they saw it.
On a recent sultry weekday night, Pedro Aviles was at the chapel with his wife and children to thank Malverde for his protection during a business trip. The director of transportation for a regional supermarket chain, Mr. Aviles is religious about visiting the chapel before he travels, and then to give thanks when he returns safely.
Aviles laments Malverde's growing association with drug traffickers "because it's hurting the good image of someone who was good and still helps a lot of people." The father of two realizes he has put his faith in a "criminal," but he says, "If he did something bad, it was to help people."
It is this blurring of the line between good and bad that the area's narcos - drug traffickers and growers - want to encourage, says Jos Luis Estban Martnez, Culiacn's police chief.
The idea that the narcos are ultimately doing "good," like Malverde, breaks down resistance to them, Mr. Estban says, and can even be an impetus for narcos to expand their activities.
"The narco-farmers and traffickers and other delinquents are [the ones] who believe most in Malverde, but then there is the other facet of average people who simply want a miracle or who want to do good deeds," the police chief says. "We can't ignore the fact that Eligio [Gonzlez] has used the money the chapel takes in to help a lot of people."
Did Malverde exist?
Gonzlez says the chapel has used donations to give out almost 10,000 coffins to families who couldn't afford a decent burial for a loved one, as well as thousands of wheelchairs, crutches, and other aids. The chapel also throws a party on Mexico's Children's Day and hosts a large celebration of the Day of the Dead, Mexico's Halloween.
Yet despite all the "history" and devotion surrounding Malverde, some people here say the bandit - who legend has it got his last name, which translates as "bad green," because he hid himself in tree branches - never existed.
"We have no records of Malverde's existence: no birth or death certificate, nothing," says Sergio Lpez, a Sinaloan actor and writer.
If the legendary thief did exist, it's a noteworthy story, Mr. Lpez says. But if he didn't, it's "an amazing example of how creative the popular imagination can be."
Either way, Malverde is a phenomenon that observers here say will prosper. "As long as the drug-trafficking continues to grow and the people's misery is left unanswered," says Sinagawa, the historian, "Malverde will continue to gain followers."