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Drug Lords Try to Cast Saintly Aura

Robin Hoods?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 1998



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.

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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."