Strange and Curious Sects: Jesus Malverde

Malverde’s shrine stands near the railroad tracks on the west side of Culiacan, well-known to just about everybody in town. Nearby are Malverde Clutch & Breaks, Malverde Lumber and two Denny’s-like cafeterias: Coco’s Malverde and Chic’s Malverde. Outside the shrine people sell trinkets, candles, and pictures. Inside the shrine are two concrete busts of the man. Malverde, supposedly a poor man from the hills, turns out to look a lot like a matinee idol — dark eyes, sleek mustache, jet-black hair, resolute jaw. Near the main busts are stands of pendants, baseball hats, tapes with corridos to the bandit, countless picture cases with photographs of the bandit and a prayer to him in thanks, and rows of plaster busts wrapped in plastic.

English society has the legend of Robin Hood, a heroic outlaw who fought back against unjust rulers on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed. That story could be a template for today’s entry in “Strange and Curious Sects”, for Jesus Malverde, like Robin Hood, is a semi-mythical figure who fights against repressive authorities. But whereas Robin Hood stole from the greedy rich, Jesus Malverde grants his followers prosperity in a somewhat different way. Malverde is the folk saint of Mexican drug smugglers, and the “miracles” he performs for them tend to involve keeping them safe from the police on their cross-border runs.

Mexican drug smuggling began in Sinaloa. Here smugglers are folk heroes and a “narcoculture” has existed for some time. Faith in Malverde was always strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which Mexico’s drug traffickers emerged. As the narcos went from the hills to the front pages, they took Malverde with them. He is now the religious side to that narcoculture. Smugglers come ask Malverde for protection before sending a load north. If the trip goes well, they return to pay the shrine’s house band to serenade the bandit, or place a plaque thanking Malverde for “lighting the way”; increasingly plaques include the code words “From Sinaloa to California.”

As with John Frum, it’s uncertain whether Malverde ever was a real person, even though the origin of his cult is in the recent past. He’s alleged to have lived in the early twentieth century, around the time of the Mexican Revolution. Like the conflicting gospels of early Christianity, there are a variety of stories about his early life. All agree, however, that he ended up turning to an outlaw life to protect the poor against corrupt rulers. Most agree that he was eventually betrayed by a friend, captured and executed by the government, which hung his body from a tree in May 1909. Local historians believe Malverde may have been a composite figure created from several historical bandits. Today, almost a hundred years after his alleged death, he is still a major center of worship and devotion for the impoverished people of the Sinaloa region, and miracles are attributed to him on a regular basis. Here are some:

The summer when Florentino was 23, he was working as an oyster diver in Mazatlan. One day he became tangled in his rope underwater. He wrestled with the cord and began to drown. Then suddenly the face of the bandit Jesus Malverde appeared to him. Florentino finally freed himself. He rose to the surface and came immediately to Malverde’s shrine to give thanks.

They leave behind photos and plaques with grateful inscriptions: “Thank you Malverde for saving me from drugs,” writes Isaias Valencia Miranda, from Agua Zarca Sinaloa; “Thank you Malverde for not having to lose my arm and leg,” reads the dedication on a photo of a man in sunglasses identifying himself as Lorenzo Salazar, from Guadalajara.

To one side sits Dona Tere, rocking the day away. She is a cheerful, plump woman, made up with bright red lipstick. She, too, has her tale of faith. Eight years ago, doctors diagnosed Dona Tere with cancer. She decided not to take medicine. “I said, ´Malverde, they say you do miracles. I’m going to ask you for a miracle. I don’t believe in you. I know I’m going to die.’” Dona Tere’s still around. “I have four Malverdes in my house,” she says. “One in the kitchen. One in the dining room. One going up the stairs and one in the bedroom. I bless myself every time I’m at the foot of the stairs.” Last time they operated on her, Dona Tere paid for two hours of music to be played to Malverde.

Even after death, Malverde’s grave was reputed to possess miraculous power:

They say all of Culiacan turned out for the demolition of the pile of stones and pebbles. They say, too, that stones began to jump like popcorn and that the bulldozer operator had to get drunk to have the guts to roll over it; they say the machine broke down when it touched the grave.

It’s remarkable how similar Malverde’s miracles are to those of mainstream religions – miraculous visions, rescues, healings, transformed lives. Of course, there are also the aforementioned protections of drug smugglers, which has earned Malverde descriptions like “The Narcosaint” and “The Generous Bandit”. In a region where brutal anti-narcotics crackdowns are all too frequent, it’s not surprising that the government is no friend of most of Malverde’s worshippers. And, like nearly all new religions, his cult started among the poor and the voiceless – the people most likely to seek supernatural assistance, and to console themselves with the thought that God is on their side and against the corrupt rich.

If Malverde’s cult survives much longer, it will doubtless soon spread to the middle-class and the wealthy and acquire a veneer of respectability; the article gives several indications that this process has already begun. With further time, his stories could be collected into a canonical form and polished to remove theologically troubling elements. For all we know, in some distant future age, there may be Malverdian apologists claiming that his life, miracles and resurrection are historically established facts, and only hard-hearted atheists would say otherwise.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Guns and Butter
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
Atlas Shrugged: The Marketplace of Ideas
Atlas Shrugged: Motive Power
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.