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.
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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.
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 the 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 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.
Born in Catalonia in 1204, San Ramon headed the Mercederians, an order founded to ransom Christians kidnapped by the north African Moors. Near the end of his life, San Ramon 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 Ramon'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 Ramon 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 witnesses 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 Ramon's altar, or place tape across his mouth.
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 Jesus Malverde or Santa Muerte.
This Nahuatl-speaking Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to the peasant Juan Diego during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1531. That miracle helped fuse Spanish and native Mexican beliefs and her Mestizo-looking icon is now one of Mexico's national symbols. Garza says she is known as a patron of forgiveness, so he occasionally sees her altars in the homes of regretful suspects. Narcos know better than to ask her for criminal favors; for those, they turn most often to Santa Muerte or Jesus Malverde.
Like San Ramon, the Holy Child of Atocha's roots are in Moorish Spain. There in the city of Atocha, all the adult men were held captive by the Moors, and only young children were allowed to bring them food and water. A mysterious child wearing what Garza describes as "Little Dutch boy" clothes appeared with a seemingly inexhaustible supply, and the faithful soon noticed that the shoes on a statue of the Christ child at the local church were dirty and tattered. They believed that mysterious boy was Christ Himself leaving his perch at the church nightly on his missions of mercy.
Centuries later, the Holy Child appeared in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where he performed a similar miracle to aid trapped silver miners.
Today, the Holy Child is the patron of prisoners and travelers, both of whom are plentiful in the drug trade.
Some of the Holy Child's significance in narcocultura is geographical: He is also the patron of Zacatecas, a much-contested frontline between Mexico's drug cartels, and Arellano points out that Chimayó, New Mexico, the site of the Holy Child's most prominent North American shrine, is also known as the "Heroin Capital of the Southwest," with much of the supply of the Mexican black tar variety.
The shrine was not created to aid this trade. Around 1940, the army stationed many New Mexicans in the Philippines because of their facility with Spanish, and hundreds were taken prisoner by the Japanese. While captive, many prayed to the Holy Child, and those that survived built the shrine on their return.
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