Warning: Long Fiberless Post

I may have seen him before and not taken notice.  He has the appearance of a typical macho but without colorful patriotic trappings.  He wears no  sombrero, no bright kerchief (though sometimes shown with a red neckerchief), no mask, no cartridges across the chest.  He is rumored to have been a railway or construction worker, but his clean white suit and black neck scarf don’t seem quite suited to either occupation. Often he appears more casually dressed in black pants and a white cow-boy style shirt with black pockets.  He is revered as a legendary Robin-hood-like figure, especially in his native city of Culiacan, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa where there is as shrine and annual celebration in his honor.  His popularity is on the rise, even becoming an international phenomenon.  So say the NY Times, Fox News, PBS, The Associated Content… 

He is known as the "Generous Bandit", "The Angel of the Poor" and "The Narco-Saint."  The NY Times tipped me off.  Jesus Malverde makes himself available to the faithful through appearances on votive candles, t-shirts, figurines, household cleaners, prayer cards and perfume sold throughout Mexico and Hispanic communities in the United States including this website.  U.S. drug authorities consider Malverde products as admissible evidence in court against possible drug traffickers.  A bust of Malverde now resides in the drug wing of the Mexican Military Museum.   

Malverde has been the inspiration for 3 movies and a a play, a couple of which are not really about Malverde at all but deal with drug related themes. He is also the inspiration for California based hip-hop artist Malverde.   For the hip-hop artist, the name isn’t merely a reference to Malverde’s possible gangsta leanings, as much as a tribute to "that legend that for me represents those magical things our generation has lost such as the old tales, the expressions and sayings my grandfather used to live by."  Though he acknowledges that his initial  "themes were about street life." He goes on to say "Now my lyrical focus is more universal, about life, action and consequence."

Though media accounts revel in describing Malverde as the Narco-Saint and dropping references to the high-rolling drug-dealing devotees who visit his shrine; which not coincidentally is in the state that some consider to be the birthplace of Mexico’s drug-smuggling, they also acknowledge that many of the petitions to Malverde are not drug related and the petitioners themselves come from all walks of life. 

The real Jesus Malverde, if such a person ever existed, lived during the Porfiriato (1877-1911), an era when big business and foreign investment in Mexico was greatly improving the lives of some and further marginalizing many others.  Legend has it that Malverde was one of many bandits and upstarts in the prelude to the Mexican Revolution, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor.  He was executed by the police in 1909.  His first miracles were the safe return of a woman’s lost cow and a friend’s two mules loaded with gold and silver.  Today’s devotees give thanks for miraculous healings, the approval of passports, a successful shrimp catch and countless other miracles large and small.  (He is not recognized by the Catholic Church, and his holy images invariably include the Virgin de Guadalupe or Christ, often Christ the child for back-up).

Researchers believe that Malverde received the title of "Narco-Saint" during the 1970s at a time when Sinaloa was embroiled in a military strike against drug smugglers of the region.  The smugglers paid tribute to Malverde as a local saint and the media picked up on it and popularized the idea of Malverde as a Narco-Saint.  The title has stuck. While the Mexican military wages a renewed battle against drug-traffickers, smugglers have added weapons of popular culture to their arsenal. Malverde is one such weapon as the shrine has become a way that smugglers can bolster their connection to the community and exert their authority while fostering an image as noble bandit do-gooders.  Narcocorridos are another such vehicle, so it is not surprising that there are several dedicated to Malverde or that they are often sung at his shrine. The one below, with images of the shrine is but one example:

I encountered Malverde through the NY times; the following day Malverde peaked out from an old article in the local English Language Newspaper among a stack of old newspaper at my Mother-in-law’s house. The next day at the post office, Malverde stared blankly at me from the front of a Mexican plastic mesh market bag, tucked at the back of  table of trinkets for tourists.  That night I boarded a bus back to the United States.  Two hrs into the trip we crashed into an overturned 6-wheeler truck transporting horses around a blind curve in the rain.  A small SUV had overturned just before us trying to avoid hitting the truck.  The passengers and the bus driver emerged startled but unharmed. As we waited for the authorities and a ride home, we watched as the driver and passengers of the SUV returned their car to the upright position and drove off. A trail of serene and completely unharmed white horses were led two by two to graze by the side of the road. There were no casualties in an accident involving at least 45 people and animals.  As I thought of the curious newspaper articles tucked in my backpack, I couldn’t help but wonder if Malverde was trying to get my attention.