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González appears to have understood that people would grasp Malverde's real importance only if there were an image of him they could worship, but unfortunately no photograph of Malverde existed—and, in fact, no evidence at all that he'd ever lived. In the 1980s González asked an artisan in the neighborhood to create a plaster bust: "Make him sort of like Pedro Infante and sort of like Carlos Mariscal," Infante being a famous movie star from Sinaloa and Mariscal a local politician.

The Malverde shrine is a makeshift cinder-block temple directly in front of the Sinaloa state government office complex, and its green walls are covered, inside and out, with testimonials left by the faithful. The plaster bust is enshrined in a glass case and surrounded by dozens of flower bouquets, mostly plastic. Many accompanying photographs and engraved plaques feature the image of a marijuana plant or a "goat horn": an AK-47 rifle. No one seriously disputes Malverde's status as a narco-saint—in Sinaloa it is stated as fact that whenever a major trafficker wants to pray, the entire street is closed down so he can worship in peace. But as a warden of the Culiacán prison pointed out, Malverde is now so popular among Sinaloans in every walk of life that he is really more of an identity symbol.

In Mexico City the director of penitentiaries refuses admission to reporters unwilling to sign a statement promising that they will not write "propaganda" in favor of the cult of La Santa Muerte. At the Center for Enforcement of the Legal Consequences of Crime, on the other hand, the director of the prison lets me talk with­out preconditions to some of the prisoners about their faith. Escorted by the prison guards past a series of checkpoints and corridors, I am startled to end up in a long open-air corridor whose left wall has been decorated with cheerful car­toon images of Snow White, Tweety Bird, Sponge­Bob SquarePants, and the like. These were painted at the prisoners' request, a guard explains, so that children might feel less terrified when they came to spend the holidays with their fathers. Facing the cartoon wall is a high wire fence and behind it, a collection of hangarlike buildings surrounded by grass and even a few trees.

This is where Antonio, the accused kidnapper, writes corridos, or outlaw songs, a couple of which have even been recorded. And where El Niño, the convicted murderer, sticks pins into black velvet and winds brightly colored threads around them in elaborate patterns to frame cutout images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, and La Santa Muerte. He first learned of Holy Death through television, which might seem a strange source for such a spiritual revelation, but it was the path open to him behind his wire enclosure. Now nothing can break his faith in his new protector.

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