Know Your Narco Saints: The Religious Iconography of the Drug Trade
Santa Muerte, the newly-popular Grim Reaper-like Mexican folk saint, and subject of this week's cover story, is not the only object of supernatural devotion in the drug trade. Far from it. In fact, she's something of a Johnny-come-lately in Mexican folk religion.
For as long as there have been smugglers in the borderlands, people have prayed to a litany of saints, some authorized by the Catholic church (even if the supplicant's intentions are not) and others granted unearthly powers by the people themselves.
Some of these figures are true "Narco-Saints," forthright patrons of illegal acts. Others are simply saints that narcos pray to, holy figures asked to intercede in unholy doings. Even Jesus and Mary are not considered beyond the pale.
Malverde was a legendary bandit-king from remote, mountainous Sinaloa state. If Kansas is "America's Breadbasket," Sinaloa is "Mexico's Pot Sack," so closely and for so long has it been associated with the drug trade and narcocultura. Malverde's tale has Robin Hood-like qualities: it is said he stole only from the rich and gave to the poor. Legend has it that he was killed by the police on May 3, 1909, though stories vary on whether he was shot or hanged. Since then, he has become the non-approved patron saint of drug dealers, bandits, and outlaws. A Mexican rapper performs under his name, and he has spawned a trilogy of drug-drenched action adventures with names like Jesus Malverde II: La Mafia de Sinaloa, and Jesus Malverde III: Infierno en Los Angeles.
As with Santa Muerte, Malverde devotees petition him for miracles and many botanicas carry a full line of Malverde products: candles, statues, soaps, and prayer cards and the like. He too has made a cameo in Breaking Bad, and a Guadalajara brewery recently introduced Malverde beer to Sinaloa. "J.G." Garza, a 20-year veteran of the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division, says this handsome, mustachioed old-school patron of the drug trade, usually depicted wearing a neckerchief and sporting a pistol charm on a gold necklace, is still hanging in there, despite the advent of Santa Muerte.
Earlier this year, a federal judge in New Mexico ruled that Malverde paraphernalia could be used as evidence for the prosecution in drug cases.