Who Is This Guy? Jesús Malverde, Patron Saint of the Drug Lords

In the nearly two years we have lived in Mazatlán, I’ve become accustomed to seeing political candidates’ names and faces everywhere—posters, billboards, t-shirts, bumper stickers. So, quite innocently some months ago, I asked a local friend who this “Malverde” is that I keep seeing in decals on trucks and in windows of homes. Was he a new candidate for city council, or someone to give the mayor a run for his money?

“He’s the patron saint of the drug lords,” was the response I heard. What??? Drug lords have a patron saint? And people driving around town are stupid enough to advertise their patron saint on their trucks and in the windows of their homes??!! Isn’t that a bit of an obvious clue for police?

“He’s like Robin Hood. He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. There are shrines to him all over the country. I think he was real, but he may be a legend. People sing songs to him. He has a saint’s day.”

Huh??!! As in, the Catholic church sainted the guy? No, of course not, but some people worship him as if he had been canonized. Robin Hood? I know that in many of the poor mountain areas of Mexico, drug lords are seen as the protectors of the local population; they do good deeds, support widows and families, pay teachers or doctors and are, in turn, protected by their communities. It’s part of what makes fighting the drug war so difficult.

In doing a bit of research, I learned that Jesús Malverde, the “narco saint” or “angel of the poor,” is known as the Rey Guey de Sinaloa. Meaning, he originates from my home state! There is no evidence proving he actually existed, though word on the street says he was a bandit who was born in 1870 and died May 3, 1909 (May 3 is his “saint’s day”). Some versions of the legend say that Sinaloan Governor Francisco Cañedo, a good friend of Porfirio Díaz, had put a bounty on Malverde. The first shrine to Malverde is in Culiacán, our state capital, and it is in that chapel, legend says, that his bones are buried.

Jesús Malverde is seen as the patron saint of lost causes, similar to Saint Judas Tadeo or the Sacred Heart. Quite a few miracles, including lives saved, have been attributed to him. While originally revered by those involved in illicit activities, particularly drug trafficking, today prayers to Malverde are said by those who are poor, imprisoned, sick, or hungry, and by illegal immigrants. It is said that if you give your problems to Malverde, they will be resolved. He is said to be particularly popular among women without means, those who have been abandoned or widowed, pregnant or with children but no income. Thus, today, he’s much more than the patron saint of the drug lords; he’s a patron saint for a society in crisis.

Malverde has various shrines along the drug routes from Cali, Colombia through Mexico (DF, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Sonora…) and into California, USA. He has three movies to his credit, quite a few narcocorridos (songs) dedicated to him, various prayers or novenas, at least one novel, a stage play, and even a beer that’s named in his honor! You can buy scapularies, decals, stickers, candles, busts and statues…all sorts of products with the Malverde image. I guess it’s just me that had never heard of him.

A couple of the prayers:
  • Hoy ante tu cruz postrado, ¡oh, Malverde!, mi señor, te pido misericordia y que alivies mi dolor. My rough translation: “Today kneeling before your cross, oh Malverde, my saint, I ask for your mercy and for you to alleviate my pain.”
  • ¡Hay Malverde! Ataron tus manos y dejaron colgado tu cuerpo, pero no ataron tu ánima y no pudieron destruir la fe en ti. Así como has sobrevivido a todo, haz que yo sobreviva y que nada pueda atar mis manos, ni mi cuerpo, ni mi espíritu. Haz que yo salga venturoso. My rough translation: “Oh, Malverde! They tied your hands and they hung your body, but they could not bind your soul nor could they destroy my faith in you. Just as you have survived everything, help me to survive, so that nothing can tie my hands, nor my body, nor my spirit. Make me come through adventurous.”
Some of the narcocorridos:

The police in Mexico have a museum on narcotrafficking, that they use to train officers. This is a link to an article in the Noroeste newspaper.

And finally, here is a link to an insightful article on the Mexican drug war.

UPDATES to this post, 4 December 2011:

  1. A new movie about Malverde is currently filming in Álamos, Sonora. Titled Yerba Mala, it is being made by Corazón Films.
  2. Quite a few politicians and government agencies in Mexico have attempted to ban, and have urged musicians to stop making narcocorridos, recognizing that these songs lead to the romanticization of a destructive culture.

The Posada

It’s posada season in Mazatlán! Everyone you talk to is a bit bleary-eyed from all the partying going on this time of year. “Posada” is a term for parties traditionally held during the nine nights just prior to Christmas: December 16 through 24. A posada can be a private party held in a family home, but it is more typically a street or block party or an end-of-the-year celebration for company employees or club members. If you didn’t attend a posada last night, you no doubt heard the banda music from the party down the street, well into the early hours of the morning. The badge of honor is to be able to brag that you partied till 4:00 or 5:00 am—desvelarse or stay up till morning. Yes, even if, like me, you are nearly fifty, or if you are seventy, or older. Posadas have no age limit.

Music and Food

A typical posada has music, of course, preferably live music. There may be dancing, and partygoers often sing villancicos or carols. Typical posada dishes include tamales, buñuelos, pozole, colación (candy mix), and atole or ponche. Ponche is made from seasonal fruits like tejocote, guava, plum, mandarin, orange, or prune, sweetened with piloncillo (a brown sugar) and perfumed with cinnamon sticks or vanilla. Some piquete (sting) may be added for grownups—a bit of rum or tequila—to make the ponche “happier.”


Children at a posada enjoy breaking open a piñata in the shape of a seven-pointed star. It is said the piñata originated in China as a springtime festival treat. Marco Polo transported the idea to Italy, where piñatas came to represent the triumph of good over evil. The seven points of a traditional Mexican Christmas piñata represent the capital sins, and the stick that the children use to break open the piñata represents the power of faith to overcome those sins. The people watching the child with the stick, hitting the piñata, sing this song:

Dale, dale, dale,
 no pierdas el tino;
porque si lo pierdes,
 pierdes el camino.

In English:
Hit it, hit it, hit it, 
don’t lose aim;
because if you lose it, 
you will lose your way.

The Pastorela

Traditionally a posada also includes a pastorela, a procession commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem for the census. As the Bible tells us, they searched everywhere for lodging and were turned away, there being no room at any inn. Sometimes a boy and a girl dress as Mary and Joseph, and Mary may even ride a burro. In some pastorelas you may see shepherds, cows, kings—it can be an entire Christmas pageant.

More typically, however, the guests at a posada carry candles, and they parade from house to house along a street or block. One person or several carry a nacimiento or manger scene. Some members of the posada group stand outside, and some stand inside the gate of each house. The people standing outside, carrying the nacimiento, ask for lodging, usually using the song or chant below. The people standing inside the house gates turn them down, again following the chant or song below. This pattern is repeated at each house on the block: the Holy Family and group outside plead for lodging, and the group inside the house turns them down in a threatening manner. It’s a sad and moving scene. Below is the song:

Outside Singers
Inside Response
Outside Singers
Inside Response
En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante. Yo no debo abrir, no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven I beg you for lodging, for she cannot walk, my beloved wife.
This is not an inn, so keep going. I cannot open; you may be a rogue.
No seas inhumano,
tennos caridad, que el Dios de los cielos te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir y no molestar porque si me enfado os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens will reward you for it.
You can go on now and don’t bother us, because if I become annoyed I’ll give you a thrashing.
Venimos rendidos desde Nazaret, yo soy carpintero de nombre José.
No me importa el nombre, déjenme dormir, pues que yo les digo que nos hemos de abrir.
We are worn out coming from Nazareth. I am a carpenter, Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name. Let me sleep, because I already told you, we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging dear man of the house. Just for one night for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen who solicits it, why is it at night that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo y madre va a ser del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres ú José? ¿Tu esposa es María? Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven and she’s going to be the mother of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter, pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague, señores,
vuestra caridad, y que os colme el cielo de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Viren pura, la hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks, your charity, and thus heaven heap happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house that shelters this day the pure Virgin, the beautiful Mary.
Finally, at the last home, the owner of the house throws open the gates and joyously welcomes in the Holy Family. Upon opening the doors at the final stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses in unison:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos, reciban este rincón, que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims, receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor, I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada.
Oh, graced pilgrim, oh, most beautiful Mary. I offer you my soul so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos, mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give my soul for them and my heart as well.
Cantemos con alegría todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy, all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary honor us by having come.
To conclude the pastorela the guests often sing “Ave María” and perhaps “El Rorro” (Babe in Arms).
Flores de Noche Buena/Poinsettias
Poinsettias are native to México, and their name in Spanish means “Flowers of the Holy Night.” Its name in English comes from the last name of the American man who popularized the shrub. It is a very typical Christmas gift as well as a decoration here in Mexico.

There is an interesting legend surrounding the poinsettia. A young child, Pepita (the child is variously a boy or a girl and with varying names depending on the storyteller), is heading to church on Christmas Eve. Pepita’s heart is filled with sadness; she very much wants to give the Christ Child a gift, but she is poor and has nothing to give. The child’s cousin, Pedro (or variously her mother, friend, or brother, again depending on the storyteller), tells Pepita that even the most humble gift when given in love will make Jesus happy. Pepita kneels down by the side of the road, her heart full of love, and gathers a bouquet of weeds. When Pepita places her weed bouquet beside the baby Jesus in the church, miraculously the weeds burst into blooms with bright red, star-shaped petals and brilliant yellow centers.

Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

El Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
December 12
The Virgin

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of the Americas, and she is often referred to as the Queen of Mexico. Her image appeared both on the flags of the Mexican War of Independence and of the Revolutionary War. Most Mexicans pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe for their most intimate and heartfelt desires, as do many people throughout Latin America. She is seen as an indigenous saint, the saint of the Indians and the poor, someone to whom the humble may turn to ask for help. She is a symbol of pride and comfort to indigenous people of Latin America.

In Flagstaff Arizona, where I grew up, we have a parish church named La Virgen de Guadalupe. My father dearly loved the Virgin, and his funeral mass was held in that beautiful small church, with the parish priest wearing robes with the Virgin’s image. She is near and dear to my heart.

The Tradition

Guadalupe Day is today, December 12th. This year it falls on a Saturday, so the Virgin’s feast is even more festive than usual. Every woman named Guadalupe also celebrates her saint’s day today, which in Mexico is celebrated much like a birthday.

The most enjoyable tradition for me is that many children are dressed in indigenous costume. While during the rest of the year many Mexicans strive to look less Indian, on Guadalupe Day even young babies have long black braids clipped into their hair.  In Mazatlán, where we live, the emphasis is on “costume.” The clothes may not be real or even typical, but the kids are darling. Take a look at a few:

Each year on the eve of Guadalupe Day there are processions all over town. People parade her image through the streets to various churches. There is usually a midnight mass. A picture of one of the floats that is carried, holding the Virgin’s image, is below.

Then, on Guadalupe Day itself, there are masses nearly every hour on the hour from early morning. Parents bring their young children in to be blessed by the Virgin, and by the parish priest. The church is filled with gorgeous and fragrant flowers, people, and activity from the evening before Guadalupe Day to late that night. Masses are said, the Virgin’s image is front and center on the altar, and the priest blesses the children with holy water.

 All around the church and filling the plazas in front of the churches are food stands and stalls with toys and holy images, as well as numerous bands playing, creating a very festive atmosphere. It’s a great day for photographers, as many of them set up studios around the cathedral with images of the Virgin and props such as donkey-drawn carts. Parents and grandparents pay them to take photographs of their costumed children on this important day.

The Story, or The Legend

Saturday December 9, 1531, 10 years after the fall of the Aztec empire to Spanish forces, a young girl of about 15 years of age appeared to a 57 year old Indian man (Juan Diego, born Cuauhtlatoatzin) while he was walking in the mountains just north of Mexico City. He frequently walked three and a half hours to church in bare feet, and was doing so when he saw the girl. By the words she used and the message she conveyed, Juan Diego knew her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Virgin addressed Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl language, and asked him to speak to the local Catholic bishop, so that a church in her honor might be built on the site where they’d met (Tepeyacac, Capilla del Cerrito). The bishop, a Franciscan Spaniard named Fr. Juan Zumarraga, is said to have received and listened to Juan Diego’s story, but did not believe him. Juan Diego returned to Tepeyacac, apologized to the Virgin, explained he had done what she requested, and asked that she please enlist the assistance of someone with more stature than he to talk to the bishop. The girl told Juan Diego to return to the bishop the next day, which he did.

The following day, after Sunday Mass, Juan Diego again secured an audience with the bishop. The bishop asked him to explain his story in more detail this time, and sent Juan Diego away telling him to bring him a sign to prove his story. Juan Diego walked home and met the Virgin on the way, telling her this latest news. She asked him to return to her in the morning, and she would give him the sign.

On Monday Juan Diego did not return to visit the Virgin, because his uncle, Juan Bernardino, had fallen gravely ill. On Tuesday morning before dawn Juan Diego set out walking to town to call the priest, to provide the last rites to his uncle. He did his best to avoid the site where he saw the Virgin, so as not to be delayed in his quest to get the priest quickly for his uncle. Nonetheless, the Virgin saw him. She assured him that his uncle would be cured of the disease and would not die from it. She told Juan Diego to climb to the top of the hill where they had met, and to cut the unusual flowers that he would find there. Juan Diego did, gathering in his cape (tilma) many different types of beautiful and fragrant Rosas de Castilla from the bishop’s native Spain, in full bloom during a time of freezing weather.

When Juan Diego finally was able to appear before the bishop, he opened his tilma to show the bishop the flowers, and there on the fabric to everyone’s surprise was also imprinted the image of the Virgin! The bishop this time agreed to build a temple in the Virgin’s honor at the site where she appeared in Tepeyacac.

The following day, Tuesday December 12, the bishop and his staff accompanied Juan Diego to the site of the apparition, so that they could know where to build the temple. Once they arrived, Juan Diego asked to be excused in order to visit his uncle who had been ailing, and make sure his Uncle Bernardino was healthy. The bishop and his entourage made the journey with Juan Diego. When they arrived at the home of Juan Bernardino, they found him to be healthy and happy. He reported to the group that he had been cured when the Virgin visited him, and that she had told him her name was the Holy Mary of Guadalupe.

The above story is based on the Nican Mopohua, or Huei Tlamahuitzoltica, written in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, by the Indian scholar Antonio Valeriano around the middle of the sixteenth century. 
Unfortunately the original of his work has not been found. A copy was first published in Nahuatl by Luis Lasso de la Vega in 1649. Its cover is shown here:

Nearly 500 years after the Virgin’s appearance, Juan Diego’s cactus-cloth tilma shows no signs of decay, and the image of the Virgin remains. 25 Popes have honored her, and in 1999 Pope John Paul II declared December 12 a liturgical holy day for the continents of the Americas. 18-20 million people per year make the pilgrimage to her basilica.

More information on the story can be found in English, Spanish or Portuguese:

Also you can read more at:

Carnaval Parade 2009

We thoroughly and completely enjoyed our first Carnaval in Mazatlán. We live in the absolutely perfect spot. Good friends joined us for the parade, and we have posted some of the parade pictures to a
Kodak gallery slide show–take a look if you’d like.