Malverde: The Story Behind The Man Who Became The Patron Saint Of Drug Dealers

Every year thousands set out on a joyous pilgrimage to Jesús Malverde's hometown. But how did this Mexican Robin Hood became the patron saint of drug dealers?

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a wooden key holder right by the front door of my parent's house. It bears the image of a man with black hair, a neat mustache, and a white shirt. My godfather gave it to my parents as a gift after one of his long trips to the north of Mexico. Honestly, I never paid attention to that key holder until I was in my teens and a friend I had invited over asked me why we had the image of the patron saint of drug dealers in our house. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I refused to believe it was him, but my dad agreed with my friend and told me the story of Malverde, the miraculous saint that many people, drug dealers especially, worship.

Also known as the “generous bandit,” the “angel of the poor,” or even the “narco saint,” this Mexican Robin Hood is one of the most popular folk heroes in our country, not only because he allegedly stole from the rich to give to the poor, but also because by doing so he exposed the corrupt dictatorship that kept people in the worst hardship. However, despite his undeniable popularity, we still don't know if he really existed because there isn’t that much information about him. In fact, some people think that he’s just an urban legend that became more and more popular over the years to the point that now he’s seen not only as a hero but also as a really powerful saint. Still, whether or not he really existed, we can’t deny his story is truly fascinating.


The legend

Allegedly born on December 24th, 1870 (remember the date) in northern Mexico, Jesús Juárez Mazo was a young man of humble origins whose parents died either of hunger or a minor illness that they couldn’t afford to get treatment for (it all depends on the version of the story you get). Either way, it’s said that he blamed poverty for their death, and that from that moment on, he decided to do something to keep more people in his home state of Sinaloa from meeting that terrible end. This is when he became a bandit who would only steal from rich and wealthy people and then divide his plunder among those in need. 

Soon, he became one of the most wanted thieves in the region, earning himself the nickname of Malverde, a play on the words “bad” and “green,” or better said, a distortion of “hierba mala.” As the story goes, he even faced the governor of the state, Francisco Cañedo, and told him that he was mistreating the people and that labor conditions were actually slavery. From then on, he became Cañedo’s number one enemy. His men whipped him, and believing he was dead, threw him into the river to get rid of the body. Little did they know, Malverde wasn’t dead and that his people, who had seen everything, rescued him. Soon, he was back to stealing from all those who were taking advantage of the people in his community.


The governor put a price on his head because he wanted him gone for good. In some versions of the story, he was shot by the local police while trying to escape, whereas in others, he was betrayed by one of his followers, who gave the police his whereabouts (keep this in mind as well). Either way, in 1909 he was hanged from a tree and denied proper burial. It’s said that his dead body was left there to teach a lesson to everyone. According to the legend, people started throwing rocks at his bones until they were all buried, thus allowing him to finally rest in peace. This was the moment the saint was born. The people thought that Malverde’s spirit would guide and help them out of gratitude for giving him a proper burial. Since then, people go to him for miracles.

The story today

These days, it’s believed that the story of the great Malverde is actually a compilation of the deeds of two bandits from the pre-revolutionary period: Heraclio Bernal and Felipe Bachomo. Bernal was one of the most prominent anti-Díaz (Mexico’s president at the time) rebels, who was betrayed by one of his followers, and Bachomo was an indigenous rebel who helped the poor of his community by targeting federal members and stealing goods. From these two characters, there’s a lot of documentation and evidence while there’s barely anything proving Malverde’s existence. Still, with the Mexican Revolution in 1910, people started worshiping the image of this hero who opposed power to help his people and died for all of them.


Now, remember I told you to keep some information in mind? Well, it’s not surprising to find several parallelisms between Malverde’s story and that of Jesus Christ (see? even the names are similar), starting with the date. Leaving the stealing aside, if you think about it, he was betrayed by one of his followers and then died sacrificing himself for the good of the people. All of these similarities ended up giving him the status of a saint, especially in the northern regions of the country. People make the pilgrimage to Sinaloa to visit the place where he died (the original location was later turned into a parking lot, but there’s still a huge shrine in his honor) to leave presents and tributes. The question here would be: why is he so associated to drug culture?

According to sociologists and historians, this association is the result of a smart strategy of cartels of using him as a mirror of their own figures. It’s no secret that for a long time cartels have been the ones funding schools in northern cities and even paving the streets. In a way, by worshiping Malverde, they’re sending a message that they’re doing illicit actions for the benefit of their communities.


However, as we were talking about before, Malverde isn’t worshiped by criminal organizations only. Moreover, his deeds aren’t just shown in “miracles.” For instance, most of the money people donate to his shrine is used to tackle urgent problems in the region, and the food left to honor him is given to the poor. So, in many ways, he’s still there for those in need.

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