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Drug Lords Try to Cast Saintly Aura

Robin Hoods?

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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."