Santa Muerte: Know Your Narco Saints

The religious iconography of the drug trade.

Santa Muerte 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, and 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.

Here are two of the saints. Go to www.houstonpress.com for the rest of the set.

Jesus Malverde
Jesus Malverde
San Ramón Nonato
San Ramón Nonato

Jesús Malverde
Folk saint

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 Jesús Malverde II: La Mafia de Sinaloa and Jesús Malverde III: Infierno en Los Angeles.

As with Santa Muerte, Malverde devotees petition him for miracles and many botánicas 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.

San Ramón Nonato
(Saint Raymond Nonnatus)
Official saint

Born in Catalonia in 1204, San Ramón headed the Mercederians, an order founded to ransom Christians kidnapped by the North African Moors. Near the end of his life, San Ramón himself was taken prisoner, and he continued preaching the gospel to his Muslim captors. This had dire consequences: According to tradition, the Moors drove hot spikes through his lips and then padlocked shut Ramón's mouth. Only then was the priest rescued by his order, just in time for him to die a martyr, albeit among friends, in 1240.

And that was how San Ramón became the patron of the secrecy of the confessional, of priests keeping their mouths shut. In narco culture, that secrecy is extended to more secular arenas. Namely, police interview rooms and witness boxes at the courthouse. "If you get arrested, you're gonna pray to this saint hoping that your witness or whoever is gonna testify against you will be silent and keep the secret of your dirty deed," says Garza. Petitioners sometimes offer padlocks at San Ramón's altar or place tape across his mouth.

Juan el Soldado
(Soldier John)
Folk saint

A young Mexican army private convicted of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl while stationed in Tijuana in 1938, Juan el Soldado was executed after a court-martial. (This sounds legendary, but it was true: The army used la ley fuga (the law of flight), wherein Juan was turned loose in a cemetery and told to flee while a firing squad took potshots at him. If he made it out of the graveyard, he was to be set free. That was not his good fortune.)

After his death, many of the poor in Tijuana began declaring Juan's innocence. The cry went out that Juan's commanding officer had actually committed the crime and pinned it on poor, ignorant Juan. People swore they saw blood seeping from Juan's grave and heard his voice echoing around the cemetery on dark nights. A chapel soon went up, and his cult has only grown since, especially in western Mexico, California and Arizona. (Garza says he's seen him here fairly frequently as well.) Juan el Soldado has become the unofficial patron of illegal aliens, the falsely accused and safe border crossings, some of which involve drug smuggling.

San Judas Tadeo
(Saint Jude Thaddeus, or Saint Jude the Apostle)
Official saint

The patron of lost causes is wildly popular among Mexico's marginal youth, and of the official canonized saints, Jude likely has the most popularity in the drug trade. Many of those who engage in smuggling come from poor backgrounds and there are frequent catastrophes requiring urgent prayers to the patron of desperation. Earlier this year, ICE agents found 233 pounds of marijuana stuffed inside two plaster Saint Jude statues at the Reynosa-Hidalgo-McAllen international bridge. Devout Catholics were not amused, and the fact that many of Saint Jude's followers pray to him for assistance in criminal enterprises is seen as even more of an outrage than asking the same thing of folk saints such as Jesús Malverde or Santa Muerte.

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