email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMexican Saints
Page [ 5 ] of 7

In the 1970s the Mexican government, in coordination with the U.S., carried out a series of offensives against the Sinaloa traffickers. It was like trying to get rid of a virus by flushing it into the bloodstream. A number of drug "foot soldiers," as they were beginning to be called, were imprisoned or killed, but most of their leaders escaped Sinaloa unharmed and set up operations in neighboring states and in the major cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. With every new military offensive, the traffickers slipped into a new region and became stronger. As the stakes grew, so did armaments and the number of traffickers, and in each new city and region they bought off more politicians and police. There was no stopping the drug trade itself, because it was run according to a perfect formula: Sell illegal goods at a huge markup to consumers with money, and recruit your labor force primarily among young men with no money and no future, who are desperate to look sharp, act tough, and feel powerful. By the 1980s a new order was in place. The drug lords controlled the underworld and key members of the security forces in cities like Guadalajara, Tijuana, and Ju�rez. In a shaky peacekeeping arrangement that nevertheless lasted for years, the drug lords parceled out each city to a particular family.

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. This was the self-styled Cartel del Golfo, from the Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas. An offshoot of this group was the Zetas, a band of rogue military personnel originally trained as elite antinarcotics forces. Ordinary Mexicans had their first inkling of how much more brutal the drug violence was going to be in September 2006, when a group of men dressed in black walked into a roadside discotheque in the state of Michoac�n and dumped the contents of a plastic garbage bag on the floor. Five severed heads came rolling out.

The new era had arrived, and the foot soldiers in the escalated drug wars, facing the prospect of such a terrible death, increasingly turned to death itself for protection. It was during the first antidrug campaigns that the myth of Jes�s Malverde, the original narco-saint, spread beyond the borders of Sinaloa. According to legend, Malverde was a 19th-century outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, was hanged for his sins, and then worked miracles from the grave. His cult took off in the 1970s, after a former street vendor, Eligio Gonz�lez, began praying to him. Sitting outside the Malverde shrine in Culiac�n, Gonz�lez's sturdy, relaxed, and unsmiling young son, Jes�s, told me the story of the miracle. Eligio had been working as a driver in 1976 when he was knifed and shot in a holdup and left for dead. He prayed to Malverde, whose only monument at the time was a pile of rocks where his grave was said to be, promising to erect a proper shrine in Malverde's honor if the saintly bandit saved his life. When he survived, he kept his word.

Page [ 5 ] of 7