Authors: Ioan Grillo
But La Familia is only the most defined voice in a chorus of narco religion that has been rising in volume for decades. Other tones of the choir include some morphed rituals of Caribbean Santeria, the folk saint Jesús Malverde, and the wildly popular Santa Muerte, or Holy Death.
Many who follow these faiths are not drug traffickers or gun-toting assassins. The beliefs all have an appeal to poor Mexicans who feel the staid Catholic Church is not speaking to them and their problems. But gangsters definitely feel at home in these new sects and exert a powerful influence on them, giving a spiritual and semi-ideological backbone to narco clans. Such a backbone strengthens El Narco as an insurgent movement that is challenging the old order. Kingpins now fight for souls as well as turfs.
Jesús Malverde is the oldest religious symbol associated with El Narco. The real Malverde is renowned as a Sinaloan bandit executed a century ago. Images of his saintly face adorn amulets and statuettes from marijuana fields in the Sierra Madre to prison cells in San Quentin, cattle ranches in Jalisco to migrants’ shelters in Arizona. But the most revered shrine of all is in the heart of Culiacán, right across the road from the grandiose state-government palace. Analysts have long observed this symbolism: the twin powers of Sinaloa—political and narco—are side by side.
The shrine lies inside a simple brick building painted dark green and decorated with green tiles.
in Spanish literally means “bad green”; in Sinaloa,
can also refer to the green of marijuana, as well as the green of dollar bills. The shrine’s walls are plastered with photos of visitors that meld together like a mosaic wallpaper. The snaps show newlyweds and newborn babies, girls in white Communion dresses and tattooed teenagers with shaved heads, as well as plenty of rugged men in cowboy hats. Visitors also stick placards on the wall with messages of veneration. JESÚS MALVERDE. THANKS FOR THE FAVORS YOU HAVE GIVEN ME says one plaque from Ventura, California. THANK YOU JESÚS MALVERDE. FOR ILLUMINATING AND CLEANING OUR PATHS says another from Zapopan, Jalisco. Many plaques illustrate how the faithful mix the folk saint with orthodox Catholic symbols, addressing messages to Malverde alongside the Virgin of Guadalupe and San Judas Tadeo, both popular Catholic icons in Mexico.
In a small inner room of the shrine sits the main attraction: a painted bust of Malverde surrounded by white and pink roses. He has pale skin, jet-black hair, a finely trimmed mustache, and a traditional white Mexican suit. His face looks sad, in the godly, wise, suffering way that many images show Jesus Christ looking sad. Visitors wait in the outer rooms drinking and singing before praying silently next to the bust and touching Malverde’s despondent face.
Shrine owner Jesús González has a room to one side jumbled with crucifixes and Malverde paintings. He is in his thirties, the son of the founder, who built the holy place with his own hands back in the 1970s. I catch González on a summer afternoon so hot that the street feels like an oven. He is sweating profusely in a white vest. We drink Coca-Cola from plastic bottles and he tells me about the meaning of Malverde.
“Jesús Malverde loves and cares for the poor, for the humble. He knows about their struggles. The rich exploit and the poor suffer today as they did in the time when Malverde lived. Malverde understands what people have to go through. He knows they have to fight. He doesn’t discriminate against those that are marginalized.”
Again, a symbol of El Narco is associated with the idea of struggles of the poor, of social rebellion. Gonzalez goes on, “Every country has its Robin Hood. I’m sure in your country you have—”
“Robin Hood,” I finish his sentence for him. “My country is where Robin Hood comes from.”
He smiles knowingly. “So you understand then.”
Jesús Malverde was born in Sinaloa in 1870, González tells me. In that time, the dictator Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico with an iron fist, his friends building huge haciendas in Sinaloa, while poor Indians were driven from their ancestral land. In those wretched days, González goes on, Malverde’s parents were so poor they died of starvation. The young orphan struggled to survive, taking dangerous jobs building railroads. After brushes with cruel bosses and police, he was forced to be an outlaw. Malverde ran to the hills and led a band of merry men who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. But the ruthless governor of Sinaloa put a price on his head and one of his own men betrayed him for gold. Malverde fell before a firing squad in 1909, his head hung from a tree as a warning to other rebels.
The same story, with a few details changed here and there, can be heard far and wide in Sinaloa. The years Malverde reportedly lived coincide almost exactly with the reign of Don Porfirio, and the bandit saint died right before the Revolution. Typical of a saint story, documents confirming Malverde’s life and death cannot be found, and it is not certain if he ever really lived at all. What is corroborated is that throughout the twentieth century, poor Sinaloans attributed miracles to the spirit of Malverde. The village cow was dry until people prayed to the bandit and suddenly the animal gave milk; a young boy was blinded, then one day woke up with the gift of sight; a man was dying of cancer and was unexpectedly cured. Stories spread from village to village, breeding more stories of miracles, and Malverde became a legend.
González plays down the association of Malverde with narcos, rightly pointing out that all kinds come to pray. On one visit, I find the owner of an Arizonan building company who is the son of Sinaloan immigrants. He tells me he drove fifteen hours to ask the bandit saint for the success of a medical operation on his son in Pheonix. On another occasion, I meet an elderly woman praying for her dying husband.
But drug traffickers certainly do venerate Malverde. Symbols are found in the hands of arrested kingpins and on corpses of gunslingers shot down on the street. On weekends, young
pack the Malverde shrine and hang outside in cars and trucks, narco
blaring out of stereos.
The Catholic Church does not recognize Malverde, but priests do not rail hard against him either. Folk saints have long been tolerated throughout Christiandom as a way for the faithful to reconcile their beliefs with local traditions. Malverde is just one figure rather than a new religion. Most Malverde believers still consider themselves Roman Catholics as they kiss the mustachioed bust.
Inside the shrine, a band plays ballads to the faithful for $5 a tune. I pay to hear as many Malverde
as they can remember and record them with a tape recorder, but I soon run out of money, and they say there are dozens more I haven’t heard. Several ballads they play tell tales of the bandit fighting the governor’s men. Others talk explicitly about gangsters praying to Malverde and becoming rich smuggling drugs. As one goes:
My hands full of gum [opium paste], I greeted Malverde,
Making promises to him, and he put his trust in me,
God doesn’t get involved, he won’t help you with the bad stuff.
I know drugs aren’t good, but that is where the money is,
Don’t blame Sinaloa, blame the whole of Mexico,
The business is growing, and in the whole world, my friends.
Today, I am going to Culiacán, driving a brand-new truck,
I’m going to a shrine because there I have a date,
It is with Jesús Malverde, to sing him happy birthday.
The Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, is physically a much more aggressive symbol than that of Jesús Malverde. While the bandit is just a mustached man in a white suit, Santa Muerte looks like the grim reaper. The skeletal figure has hollowed eyes, sharp teeth, and a head-chopping halberd in its right hand. However, one marked difference from the reaper is that Santa Muerte is a woman, referred to by her devotees as
She dresses up in a variety of clothes, from black capes to frilly pink dresses and often sports a colorful wig.
Catholic critics say veneration of Santa Muerte is the work of Satan. They accuse it of being a cult led by narcos and argue this diabolical figure has driven Mexico’s orgy of violence. Assassins hack off craniums, they claim, in tribute to the death incarnate. But defenders of Santa Muerte retort she is just a popular spirit who cares for the poor and downtrodden. She existed in Mexico before the Spanish conquest, they claim, and is featured in the Bible. Her faithful also call her the Niña Blanca, or White Girl.
A big part of Santa Muerte’s attraction is simply the power of her image. Statuettes and paintings of her cannot help but grab attention. There is now an entire art form of thousands upon thousands of images of the Santa Muerte, and they all look a little different. She is in huge statues and in tiny earrings; on the end of necklaces and tattooed on chests; printed on T-shirts and painted into murals; and even made into clocks and incense burners. But as well as being an art and fashion accessory, she has also become an influential religious figure, adorning street altars, shrines in houses, and her own special churches.
Her rise in popularity has been meteoric. Within a decade, Santa Muerte shot from an obscure symbol only a few people had seen to being in almost every city and neighborhood in Mexico, across Mexican communities in the United States, down in South America, and as far away as Spain and Australia. But the heart of her faith is in Tepito, in the center of Mexico City.
Also known as El Barrio Bravo, Tepito is a crowded quarter that dates back to before the Spanish conquest and is famous for street traders, boxers, and gunslingers.
Residents celebrate El Barrio for being a bulwark of street culture but admit the narrow alleys can be as forbidding as the casbah. Within Tepito’s huge market, they say, you can find anything on the planet—the latest plasma TVs, surfer clothes, pirate copies of cinema blockbusters, guns, crack, and then quaint tea sets. There is also a never-ending collection of Santa Muerte memorabilia in stalls and entire shops devoted to her.
Two main points in the Barrio compete as Santa Muerte’s spiritual center. The first is an altar near one of the main avenues, which may have been the first public worshipping place to Santa Muerte in its contemporary explosion. The owner is sixty-two-year-old Enriqueta Romero or Don Queta, who built the shrine outside her tenement block in 2001. Don Queta’s altar is incredibly popular, and a constant stream of faithful turn up to give the White Girl presents of bouquets, candles, fruit, and even bottles of beer and cigarettes (Santa Muerte likes to drink and smoke). Hanging around the shrine, I find all types: a middle-aged street vendor praying for her troublesome son; a muscular, tattooed policemen who says the Holy Death protects him from bullets; a peroxide-blond prostitute who says La Santa shields her from aggressive clients. On the first day of every month, thousands of such believers pack the street around the altar for a special celebration, singing, dancing, glugging beer, puffing reefers, and showing their love for death.
A few blocks away, David Romo takes a more formal approach to the death cult. The swarthy, self-proclaimed bishop has built an indoor church, where he gives Communion and other quasi-Catholic rites beneath skeletal images of La Santa. He even blessed the marriage of one famous Mexican soap opera star (and former table dancer).
Romo claims to be a Catholic, but argues the conservative Vatican has lost touch with the people; gays, divorcées, and other sinners are all welcome at his temple. Santa Muerte is actually the Angel of Death as described in the Bible, he contends.
I film a mass in Romo’s temple, which has a rather somber atmosphere. As I am staring through the camera lens, I feel a pinch on my leg; a viscious-looking black rooster that apparently lives in the church is trying to bite me. Some Christians say the black rooster is a sign of Lucifer. Then again, some have a grudge against goats as well.
Romo’s cult has battled with the government as well as the Catholic Church. He registered his faith with the Interior Ministry, but under clerical pressure officials struck him off the list of recognized sects.
In answer, Romo led the faithful on protest marches through the capital bearing images of La Niña Blanca. He claims there are 2 million Santa Muerte faithful and says he is organizing affiliate churches all over Mexico and in the United States. Clerics then accused drug traffickers of funding Romo. Finally, in December 2010, police arrested Romo for banking the funds of a kidnapping gang linked to a cartel, and as of 2011 he was incarcerated awaiting trial. He continued to lead his sect from a prison cell.
It is hard for Romo or anyone else to dominate the Santa Muerte cult. The faith spreads fast and organically from town to town and barrio to barrio. Anyone can set up a congregation in his or her own style. It is a golden opportunity for wannabe messiahs.
In an industrial suburb to the north of Mexico City, a towering sixty-foot Santa Muerte overlooks warehouses, factories, and breeze-block homes. The skeletal titan, sculpted from fiberglass and painted in black and gray, is the child of a slim twenty-six-year-old called Jonathan Legaria. He constructed the statue in an empty lot and invited locals to pray with him beside it; hundreds now turn up every Sunday. The faithful fondly refer to Legaria as Comandante Pantera or Commander Panther.
Comandante Pantera wrote his life story in a self-published book he called
Son of the Santa Muerte.
He was born in Sinaloa, he wrote, but moved to Tepito as a baby. Abandoned by his parents, he became a champion teenage boxer while also witnessing bloody killings in El Barrio Bravo. After one murder, he saw a vision of the Santa Muerte and found a million pesos in the backpack of the victim. He discovered his mission, he wrote, and funded his faith. By 2008, his Santa Muerte congregation had become one of the most popular in Mexico.