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Neon lights way to shrine of southern Robin Hood


CULIACAN, Mexico -- Hundreds of bad guys have been killed here in shootouts with police or each other. But Jesus Malverde, hanged as a bandit by the Mexican government in 1909, continues to capture the imagination and devotion of hundreds of Culiacan residents.

Born in 1870, Malverde was a shoemaker for most of his life. Legend says that he became outraged by the selfishness of Mexico's elite and the starvation of the masses. And so Malverde became Mexico's Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to benefit the poor.

He amassed considerable public support until he was captured and executed. But the military was not able to wipe out people's memory of Malverde. It is a battle still being fought by the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic Church.

People here have made Malverde into a celebrated saint. And his followers worship him in a gaudy shed of concrete blocks, the size of a three-car garage.

The Chapel of Malverde has only three walls. A blue neon sign sits on the roof where a bell would sit on a regular church. It has no floors, and on the only wooden bench lay an intoxicated man mumbling incoherently. In the center is a red steel cross and a ceramic bust of Malverde, wearing a Western-style shirt with a black bandanna tied around his neck. He was a handsome man with dark, wavy hair and a thick mustache.

Hundreds of people have left gifts in the chapel to show their thanks to Malverde for granting them various miracles. Posted in strips along the walls are photos of babies he is believed to have saved from disease, horses he has cured, marriages he has blessed. Those who were once crippled leave their crutches. Women leave locks of hair.

"You gave your soul to help my people in the name of God," says one painting.

The chapel is open to visitors 24 hours a day, and at night it is lighted by dozens of candles that sit among the offerings. It is usually after sundown when Malverde's more notorious followers visit.

"The drug traffickers come to ask Malverde to protect them," says Roberto Felix Molina, whose breath smelled of whiskey. He has worked as the night watchman of the shrine for more than 10 years. "Malverde protects everyone."

The Catholic Church has denounced the shrine and the worship of Malverde, saying it is an "ignorant custom practiced only by fools."

But Mr. Molina says, "People still come: old people, young people, poor people and businessmen. They believe in Malverde."

Corridos, crude songs written usually by farmers and ranchers, have been recorded that glorify Malverde's exploits. And from that tradition have come other songs praising the violence of modern-day drug traffickers such as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero.

In one corrido called the "Generous Bandit," Malverde is facing arrest by a Mexican lieutenant:

"You will pay with your life for the good deeds you have done," the lieutenant says.

"I have always known that," Malverde responds. "I am not afraid of death. And you, lieutenant, I'll see you in hell."

Hector Ramos Rojo, owner of a radio station in Culiacan, says the Mexican government asked all stations in the area last year to stop playing such corridos.

"They distort the narcos' lives as a clean existence," he says. "Many times, it occurs to people to experiment with this kind of lifestyle. And they do not need such encouragement."


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