Of the many semi-mythological figures who are associated with the drug trade, one of the most enigmatic may be Jesús Malverde. Commonly represented through small statues and busts, Malverde is also known as “the Angel of the Poor” or the “Narco-Saint.” Those who believe in Malverde claim he protects narcos from the threat of death or arrest. But where did this enigmatic individual come from, and how did he come to be so closely associated with the Mexican drug cartels?
A Semi-Mythological Folk Hero
Although the foundations of Malverde are debatable and contested by historians, many believe that he was based on a real individual named Jesús Juarez Mazo. Mazo was born in 1870 near Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. According to legend, Mazo was well behaved as a child, but all that changed when his parents were killed. The traumatic death served as a catalyst to transform Mazo into a world-class thief. The story dictates that Mazo was so skilled that he couldn’t be captured by law enforcement — at least not until he was betrayed by the governor. Mazo was then hanged or shot, depending on which version of the story you hear, but his faithful followers believe his spirit continues to assist those who ask for his help.
A Snowballing Legend
Soon, stories that had once been attributed to other thieves were now being attributed to Malverde. He became a folk hero, a Robin Hood-like figure who had no compunction about stealing from the rich to give to the poverty-stricken. The poor embraced him, building a shrine to him in Culiacan. Soon, hundreds of offerings and prayers had accumulated at the shrine, where people gathered to beseech Malverde for his help.
However, the government soon began to perceive the idea of Malverde as something of a threat. They threatened to build government buildings at any location people gathered to celebrate Malverde. In one instance, the government followed through with their threat, but they faced protests and complaints at every step of the way.
Steadily Increasing Notoriety
In the ‘90’s and 2000’s, the drug cartels in Sinaloa faced an image problem: they were generally considered to be a problem by average citizens. In this instance, Malverde provided a sort of blueprint, allowing the cartels to adopt an image of themselves which was more favorable to the poor. By appropriating Malverde’s Robin Hood-esque image and investing in the infrastructure of the community, cartels were able to improve the community’s perception of the cartels. The money contributed by the narcos eventually resulted in better infrastructure for Sinaloa, improving the public perception of the cartels.
Today, Malverde is predominantly represented through small busts and statues of his mustachioed likeness. While he remains an image of hope for many poor people, his association with the drug cartels grows ever stronger. In some instances, authorities will even consider the mere presence of the image of Malverde as proof of involvement with the narco trade.
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