For some, this saint’s past is that of the benevolent bandit. The most marginalised see him as an accepting and approachable saint, a companion in their daily lives in violent neighbourhoods. He is also seen as the protector of the drug traffickers. For others he is quite simply someone who never existed.
Urban legend has elevated Jesús Malverde to the status of a Mexican Robin Hood. The story goes that at the end of the 19th century he robbed the wealthy despots of Sinaloa state (in northern Mexico) to then distribute his bounty amongst the very poor. He carried out so many robberies that the local governor offered a reward for his capture. In one of many hold-ups, Malverde was shot and wounded, and gave himself up.
He was hanged on 3 May 1909. It was forbidden to bury him, and his body was left hanging from a tree as an example. Over time his remains fell to the ground and the local people covered him, little by little, with stones. Jesús Malverde became known as the poor people’s bandit.
The elevation of Jesús Malverde to become the saint of drug traffickers can be explained by where he came from: Sinaloa, a state that has been home to several of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. But not only that. Another reason is the story of Raymundo Escalante.
Two well known figures from Sinaloa are Julio Escalante and his son Raymundo. It is said that when Julio found out his son had been doing business with a rival gang, he ordered him to be killed. The hired assassins shot and wounded him, but Raymundo prayed to Malverde to save his life, and in what is considered to be a miracle by the saint, Julio was listened to and saved by a sinner.
Ever since then drug traffickers of every level have kneeled at Malverde’s chapel to ask him for protection. They include the well-known drug barons Rafael Caro Quintero, Amado Quintero, Amado Carrillo, alias Señor de los Cielos, and the followers of El Chapo.
Today Jesús Malverde has many followers, and ostentatious alters throughout Mexico. He has even crossed borders: Los Angeles (United States) and Cali (Colombia) have also built alters in his name.
Colonia Doctores (Mexico City) has a simple chapel to Saint Jesús Malverde. A bench on Dr Vértiz street, where the chapel is located, houses a window display illuminated day and night, showing a statue of Jesús Malverde and of the Santa Muerte (Holy Death) – both life-size – that startles passersby.
To those who struggle to survive day-by-day, facing violence and poverty, someone like Jesús Malverde is seen as accepting and approachable, unlike the saints of the Catholic Church. Every day along Dr Vértiz street, whether the chapel is open or closed, people in flashy cars or on foot stop in front of the image of Jesús Malverde to talk to him or leave offerings.
It is the third of the month, and nearly 20.00. Alicia Pulido, who is in charge of the chapel, takes out two solid mannequins, 1.8 metres, high, and puts them on display. It is Jesús Malverde, dressed in tight black trousers and a white cowboy shirt, with his neat moustache and his northern style hat (worn by some of the inhabitants of Sinaloa state).
When the chapel is open and you go inside, the first thing you notice is the smell of tobacco. On the tables, walls and alters there are scapulars, pictures, stamps and ’miracles’ (articles of faith used by the Catholic Church for its saints, but customised with a picture of Malverde or the Santa Muerte.) His followers leave offerings of flowers and apples, as well as paintings, cigars, cigarettes, bottles of tequila or whisky, and money. In return they ask for riches, in the home and in business.
People of all ages are beginning to gather at the chapel. Some carry models of Saint Jesús Malverde as an offering, to thank him or to ask for a miracle. The worshippers of Santa Muerte hold a mass for him on the first and twenty fifth of the month. The mass for Jesús Malverde is on the third and seventeenth of every month. The faithful meet on those days to pray, to ask for his help or to thank him for everything they believe he has helped them in.
Alicia, looking defiant and serious, stands to the side of the saint, sets up an illuminated loud speaker and announces the beginning of the mass. The prayers then begin, with the words repeated by the faithful (as if it were the Catholic rosary). And between each prayer, they repeat phrases such as: “
“Jesús Malverde, pray for us; Jesús Malverde, listen to us”.
When the mass is over, some of the faithful go up to the saint to with requests of all kinds, including for miracles. Men and women of all ages form a queue in front of the image of Jesús Malverde, and one after the other talk face to face, hand in hand, with the saint.