David G. Bromley

Jesús Malverde


c. 1870;  Malverde is reported to have been born near the town of Mocorito, Mexico.

1909 (May 3):  Malverde was reportedly killed by Mexican authorities.

1969: A shrine to Malverde was constructed in Culiacan in the state of Sinola by Eligio González León.

2007:  A Shrine to Malvede was constructed in Mexico City by Maria Alicia Pulido Sanchez.


The actual existence of Jesús Malverde as an individual is debated, even if there are families who claim that their relatives actually knew Malverde (“Jesús Malverde, Angel de Los Pobres,” 2012). It is most often concluded that he is a legendary figure constructed from a number of countercultural folk saints and political bandits. Crechan and Garcia (2005:14) state that “Haraclio Bernal and Felipe Bachomo are the two central influences on the Malverde myth and each lends biographical detail to the social construction of his biography.” “Thunderbolt” Bernal led rebellious “miners against governmental land-grabs on behalf of international investors” while Bachomo “attacked American owned sugar factories, South Pacific railway supply lines, and American distilleries during the revolutionary war” (Crechan and Garcia 2005:14). If there was an historical figure, he is most often described as being born Jesus Juarez Mazo around 1870 near the town of Mocorito, Mexico. His death at the hands of Mexican authorities is reported as May 3, 1909. Most of the varied accounts of his life are therefore best understood as hagiography, in this case constructed largely by those who have elevated his persona to the status of folk saint.

What is known is that the borderlands between northern Mexico and the southern United States have long been a primary center of the drug grade. The historical period that is associated with Malverde’s banditry occurred during the governmental administration of Porfirio Diaz, which began in 1887. Diaz sought to develop and modernize the Mexican economy by supporting corporate expansion and attracting foreign-owned business. The building of a railway system increased the penetration of the national economy into the once relatively independent rural areas. The result was a rapid increase in upper status wealth and power and increased impoverishment of the peasantry. The Mexican state of Sinola, where Malverde, reputedly stole from the rich haciendas and gave to the poor, is one of the areas where the drug trade first became established. Guillermoprieto (2010) reports that “Sinaloa was an ideal location for a clandestine trade catering to the U.S. market. The early traffickers’ operations were restricted largely to growing marijuana in the mountains or buying it from other growers along the Pacific coast, then smuggling it into the U.S. for a neat profit. For decades this was a comparatively low-risk and low-volume operation, and violence was contained within the drug world.

One of the consequences of the desperate circumstances of the poorest elements of the population in this area was the appearance of Marian apparitions, live saints who offered miraculous healings, and dead figures who also offered solace and protection. Arias and Durand (2009:12) report that “Between 1880 and 1940, the northern border saw the appearance and flourishing of two types of cult. On the one hand were living people who gained fame as saints due to their ‘miraculous’ healing abilities…. This was the case with La Santa de Cabora and El Niño Fidencio, both of whom were well-known and venerated during their lives. Santa de Cabora is venerated in Chihuahua after being deported from Mexico for purportedly inciting an uprising by the Indians (Hawley 2010). El Niño Fidencio was a famous healer who treated thousands of sick and injured persons who sometimes traveled great distances to seek his assistance. On the other hand were dead figures who began granting miracles from beyond and whose graves became pilgrimage sites and shrines, as was the case with Jesús Malverde and Juan Soldado.” Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier) was a private in the Mexican Army, who devotees believe was falsely executed and whose protection is now sought by migrants for border crossings around Tijuana. Malverde, of course, was a legendery bandit, in the mold of Robin Hood, who stole money from the rich and gave to the poor, and Pancho Villa, the famed revolutionary war general who seized land from large hacienda owners and redistributed it to soldiers and peasants.

Malverde’s popularity as a folk saint thus has a long history. The physical evidence of his more recent popularity can be traced to the erection of what has become a major Malverde shrine in Culiacan in 1969, as well a series of more minor shrines since then. The recent upsurge in devotionalism, in turn, can be attributed to the fact that t he last several decades of Mexican history have been filled with turbulence comparable to conditions in the late nineteenth century. Crechan and Garcia (2005:14) summarize this period as one of governmental and fiscal crisis, deterioration of government safety-net programs, waves of migration to the U.S. triggered by poverty-level wages and high unemployment, depletion of oil reserves, massive wealth inequality between rich and poor, an authoritarian and unresponsive Roman Catholic Church, and extraordinary levels of violence, and political destabilization produced by the growing power of drug cartels. One specific link that is often made in accounting for the surge in Malverde’s prominence since the 1990s is the escalation in drug-related violence in Mexico. Guillermoprieto (2010) reports that “In the 1990s the fragile peace among the displaced Sinaloa families broke down. They fought each other for control of the major border transit points and then began fighting sometimes with, and sometimes against, an upstart trafficking group with no Sinaloa connections. Across Mexico in 2007, for example, this kind of violence claimed more than 2,500 lives (Agren 2008).


In the hagiographic account, Malverde is described variously as having been a construction worker, a tailor, and a railway worker. Malverde’s parents were part of the desperately poor underclass and ultimately died of hunger or treatable disease. It was this injustice that led Malverde to become a bandit in the State of Sinola, Mexico, raiding rich haciendas and giving the profits of his banditry to the poor by throwing money at the front doors of their houses under the cover of darkness. Malverde became known as “The Angel of the Poor” and “The Generous One.” In one version of the hagiography the corrupt and wealthy state governor promised Malverde a pardon if he could steal a sword kept in the governor’s house. Reputedly, Malverde successfully stole the sword and left a message “Jesús M. was here” on a wall. It was then that the governor organized the manhunt that ultimately led to Malverde’s death (Smith n.d.). He was reportedly turned in to the authorities by a friend for the reward offered for his capture and then shot, left to die from the ravages of nature, or hung from a mesquite tree shot on May 3, 1909. In some versions of the story his feet were cut off by the friend who betrayed him His body was left to the elements by order of the governor.

In the Malverdes saga, miraculous powers began with his death, and there are many different accounts of miracles. In one account of Malverde’s power, the friend who betrayed him died a few days later, and the governor who sought to have him captured died a month later. Miracles began immediately after his death: One day, in hopes of Malverde’s beneficence continuing beyond death, a milkman, bemoaning the loss of his income, his cow, asked Malverde to return the animal. As he threw the stone on Malverde’s ersatz tomb, he heard the ‘mooing’ of the cow behind him. In another case a devotee mules that had become lost that were loaded with gold and silver (Price 2005:176).

Malverde, “The Generous One,” is noted for protecting a variety of vulnerable groups, particularly those that are linked to his hagiography. Price (2005:179) reports that “In addition to his overseeing the activities of tailors, railroad workers, the lame and limbless and the downtrodden, Malverde is said to helps drug growers produce good harvests. He protects dealers from stray bullets and police raids, gets relatives out of jail, and watches over shipment of narcotics.”

Rituals / kev xyaum

Worship at Malverde shrines is not structured as formal religious services As Quinones (n.d.) notes concerning the Sinaloa shrine, “…faith in Malverde remains above all a private affair. There is no ceremony here. A constant stream of people arrive, place a candle near one of the busts, sit for a while, bless themselves, touch Malverde’s head, and leave. Some are poor. Others arrive in shiny trucks and cars, looking very middle class.” There are some celebrative occasions. A party is thrown annually on the putative
anniversary of Malverde’s death where there are “banda groups playing narcocorridos — songs glorifying narcotics traffickers — and pantries (giveaways) of food, household items and toys” (Agren 2007).”On the third day of every month, some 30 to 70 adherents gather at the sidewalk shrine to pay homage to the bandit-turned-unofficial saint, whom they attribute miracles to and in many cases ask for intervention.” Periodically the statue of Malverde is placed in the bed of a Ford pickup truck beside St. Jude (the saint of lost causes) during the evening and paraded through the Colonia Doctores neighborhood. (Agren 2007). At shrine gatherings both likenesses of both Malverde and Santa Muerte may be present. “Worshipers gaze on the plastic portrayals of Malverde, a blue bandanna peeking out from beneath a cowboy hat jauntily perched on his head, and La Santísima Muerte, the skeletal patron saint of death. La Santísima Muerte, who carries a scythe a la the Grim Reaper, wears a frilly white wedding dress. They look like a couple about to say their vows (Roig-Franzia 2007).

In addition to the requests for assistance found a the Malverde shrines in Sinaloa and Mexico City. A devotee at Sinaloa, Dona Tere, was diagnosed with cancer but decided against taking medication. “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'” (Quinones n.d.). A devotee in Mexico City, Cesar Moreno, reported that he was flat broke and his paycheck had not arrived. “Desperate and hungry, he visited a shrine in the Colonia Doctores dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of narcotics traffickers, where he asked for a miracle. While walking home, he stumbled upon a 100-peso note” (Agren 2008).


As Malverdes’ popularity has grown numerous small shrines have sprung up in northern Mexico and the southern U.S., many along drug smuggling routes leading to cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix (Crechan and Garcia 2005:12). The major shrine to
Malverde is located in Culiacan, which is located in Sinola, a state in which the drug trade accounted for 20 percent of the local economy in 2009 (Hawley 2010). The chapel was built in 1969 by a local farmer, Eligio González León, to thank Malverde for healing him after he had been shot by bandits. “The original concrete shrine is now covered by a tin-roof building with windows of colored glass and a neon sign that says ‘Jesus Malverde Chapel’. It sits in downtown Culiacán within sight of the Statehouse and a block away from a McDonald’s” (Hawley 2010). Eligio González’s son, Jesus González, has become the shrine’s custodian. “The shrine features a large mural of Malverde, featured beside the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ himself. Busts and statues of Malverde are spread throughout, along with trinkets, letters, mementos and candles left behind by the many visitors who visit the shrine every year” (Butler 2006). The drawing power of Malverde’s name is evidenced by the fact that “Nearby are Malverde Clutch & Breaks, Malverde Lumber and two Denny’s-like cafeterias: Coco’s Malverde and Chic’s Malverde” (Quinones n.d.). According to Lizárraga Hernández (1998), visitors to the Sinaloa shrine are predominantly from the underclass, and principally those who are most stigmatized: “while people from all socioeconomic levels visit Malverde’s shrine, those who most visit his chapel on the Avenida Independencia in Culiacán, Sinaloa, are the socially marginal of all types: the poorest, the handicapped, pickpockets, thugs, prostitutes, drug traffickers and drug addicts, in sum, the stigmatized who, in civil or religious iconography don’t find anyone who looks like them, in whom to confide and in whose hands to put their lives.”

Jesús González asserts that midlevel drug cartel members are the primary supporters of the temple; poorer drug dealers favor
Saint Death (Hawley 2010). Price (2005:178-79) also connects support for the chapel to drug cartel members: “Burnished brass plaques line the walls of the chapel, bearing the family names of the state’s drug king-pins, thanking Malverde for his assistance and bearing the key words de Sinaloa a California (‘from Sinaloa to California’, alluding to the drug corridor between these two places). Efraín Benítez Ayala, assistant Malverde chapel caretaker, reports that large amounts in U.S. dollars are deposited in the collection box with some frequency, and intimates that it is the narcos who are responsible for these donations.” The chapel sates that it uses these donations to pay for funerals and coffins for families that cannot afford final expenses as well as to provide wheelchairs and crutches for the disabled (Agren 2007).

More recently a shrine in Mexico City was erected by a local housewife, Maria Alicia Pulido Sanchez in 2007. The shrine is located inthe poverty stricken and crime ridden Colonia Doctores neighborhood. Sanchez constructed the shrine to thank Malverde for accelerating the recovery of her son, Abel, from a serious automobile accident. The shrine features a statue of Malverde encased in glass. “The life-size mannequin wears Malverde’s trademark neckerchief, a gold chain with a bejeweled pistol charm and a huge belt buckle with a gun motif” and “The figure’s pockets are stuffed with dollar bills” (Stevenson 2007).


There has always been resistance from the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic Church to Malverde devotionalism. The Roman Catholic Church rejects Malverde as a saint, and the government has resisted Malverde shrines and linked Malverde worship to drug trafficking. More recently Malverde has faced competition as well from other folk saints.

Jesús Malverde has a rich history as a folk saint with a committed coterie of devotees, initially among the poor and centered in Sinaloa. In recent decades Malverde shrines have been springing up in Mexican cities and American cities in the Southwest that are located along drug trafficking routes. While Malverde devotion remains strongest among the impoverished elements of the Mexican population, the spread of shrines and the growth of drug cartels has diversified the Malverde following. However, in the last two decades Malverde has been experiencing competition from Santa Muerte, Saint Death, and St. Jude, the saint of desperate causes. Beginning in the 1990s, Santa Muerte began achieving popularity that dwarfed that of Malverde (Gray 2007). The archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico City (“Archdiocese of Mexico City Issues Clarification” 2008) has been sufficiently concerned about the cooptation of Saint Jude, who has long received official church recognition, that it has publicly opposed the saint’s new constituency: “many people who commit crimes believe that St. Jude is their patron saint….In no way would this saint be interceding before God in heaven for those who act contrary to the commandments of Christ, violating the precepts of Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not commit adultery.” In the same press release the church also condemned Santa Muerte: “The archdiocese added that true devotion to St. Jude ‘is completely the opposite of the devotion to ‘Saint Death’.” Official rejection notwithstanding, the three saints continue to vie for popular devotion and are now often displayed together at ritual sites.

One notable governmental-Malverde devotee conflict has taken place over the Malverde shrine in Sinaloa. There had long beenan informal Malverde shrine, a pile of rocks believed to be the place where Malverde’s remains were left at the time of his death, in Sinaloa’s capital city of Culiacán, The Governor of Sinaloa, Alfonso Calderón, undertook a development project, the Sinaloan Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Sinaloense) during the 1970s on the site of the informal shrine. When the devotional site was to be moved, Malverde’s power once again manifested itself: “As workers prepared to break ground, all of Culiacán turned out to witness the event. The governor, who usually donned his hard hat to ceremoniously turn the first shovel of dirt in such projects, decided judiciously to blend into the crowd instead. When he did, ‘the stones [over Malverde’s remains] jumped like popcorn, as if they wanted to entomb he who, sacrilegiously, wished to move the immovable’” (Price 2005:181). Public resistance ensued, and after several years of protest the municipal government made a parcel of land available for the building of what is now the new chapel. What is thought to be the original site, now in a used car lot remains a devotional site as well (Price 2005:181). The land parcel provided by the municipal government is the site of the current Malverde chapel.

A major challenge to Malverde’s devotees has been the link between Malverde worship and drug trafficking. There certainly is no doubt that many drug traffickers are Malverde devotees. According to one report (Butler 2006), for example, in ” Bakersfield, California, 80% of Mexican nationals involved in the drug trade possess at least one likeness of Jesus Malverde: such as on a prayer card, a candle, or a statue.” However, one consequence of linking Malverde to drug traffickers is that it ignores the much larger number of socially marginal devotees who worship at Malverde shrines whose lives have been disrupted by the social dislocation that has occurred in Mexico. As Quinones (n.d.) notes, ‘The Chapel of Malverde is “a gathering place for the marginalized and powerless, a cultural symbol of Culiacán’s identity, a link to past traditions and a symbolic expression of hope.” The constant paring of Malverde devotionalism and drug trafficking in the media obscures the fact that a much more profound class struggle is taking place and that Malverde devotionalism is an important symbol of resistance by impoverished groups in Mexico.

The association of drug trafficking with worship of Malverde has also meant that devotees have become targets of law enforcement agencies as police seek to identify drug dealers. Murphy (2008) reports that “To law enforcement, particularly in the United States, he is seen as an emblem of crime and drugs, a tipoff to assist them in finding drug traffickers. Police agencies use Malverde symbols of drug trafficking connections: “We send squads out to local hotel and motel parking lots looking for cars with Malverde symbols on the windshield or hanging from the rearview mirror,” said Sgt. Rico Garcia with the narcotics division of the Houston Police Department. “It gives us a clue that something is probably going on” (Murphy 2008). Courts in several states have ruled that Malverde symbols are admissible as evidence in drug trafficking cases (Bosh 2008; VeVea n.d). One Drug Enforcement Agency investigator commented that “It’s not a direct indication of guilt, but it would definitely be used in combination with other things” like piles of cash, baggies and scales….(Murphy 2008).

More broadly, the labeling of Malverde as a “narco-saint” leaves unexplained any rationale for support of Malverde by the underclass. The relationship between underclass desperation, drug dealers, and Malverde devotion is considerably more complex than the law enforcement narrative. As Price (205:188) notes, drug dealers are not without redeeming qualities in the eyes of residents in the southern borderlands, despite the enormous devastation caused by the drug wars. “Scores of drug related jobs are created for local residents, while the state, traditionally modern Mexico’s largest employer, is forever downsizing and rural areas like most of the state of Sinaloa are left further and further behind. Unlike the government, drug traffickers have financed a host of local improvements in Sinaloa. The late drug king-pin Amado Carrillo Fuentes, for example, built a church, a kindergarten and a volleyball court in his hometown of Guamuchilito.” Commenting on a parallel situation in Columbia, Castells (1998:199) makes a similar observation about the attachment of drug traffickers to their home territory: “They were/are deeply rooted in their cultures, traditions and regional societies. Not only have they shared their wealth with their cities, and invested a significant amount (but not most) of their fortune in their country, but they have also revived local cultures, rebuilt rural life, strongly affirmed their religious feelings, and their beliefs in local saints and miracles, supported, musical folklore (and were rewarded with laudatory songs from Columbian bands), made Colombian football teams (traditionally poor) the pride of the nation, and revitalized the dormant economies and social scenes of Medellin and Cali – until bombs and machine guns disturbed their joy.

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