Malverde in Chamula

The shrine of Jesús Malverde in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

Jesús Malverde is a historical folk hero in Sinaloa, a sort of Robin Hood or angel of the poor. He is worshipped as a saint and believed to perform miracles, much to the dismay of the Catholic Church. Although often referred to as the “Narco-Saint,” his shrine in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, is visited by a steady stream of common people, including some who work in the drug business, who pray to him for healing or protection, a good harvest or a successful journey. [1]

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

In the back seat of a luxury van, an African lion looks out the right window at the streets of San Juan Chamula. The driver of the vehicle listens to El Comando Suicida del Mayo, (The Suicide Command of El Mayo) [2] by Los Buchones de Culiacán, and shows the list of narcocorridos waiting to be played (

The scene, which seems to be taken from a TV drama, is real. It circulated on social networks at the beginning of last September. It is part of the emerging culture in this Tsotsil municipality, along with homemade indigenous pornography and the songs of Los Cárteles de San Juan: “Not only in Durango are there successful men, / in the state of Chiapas there are also badass dudes) / who wear boots and hats and have good guns.

Screen shot of the African lion in the back seat of a luxury van.

It’s a cultural production that is manufactured and consumed by the first indigenous cartel in the country: the San Juan Chamula Cartel (CSJC), a criminal group that, instead of subcontracting its services to other gangs, decided to control the trafficking of drugs, prostitution networks, migrant trafficking, extortion, arms sales, piracy and trade in stolen cars, without intermediaries in its territories.

Although they are not the only smugglers linked to organized crime, as part of the CSJC’s activities, the martomas (a shortened form of mayordomos, a word for manservants), who used to take charge of part of the patron saint’s feast, now continue to do so, in tasks such as “good migrating.” To move day laborers from the other side of the border, they charge between 200 and 270 thousand pesos, 50-thousand for religious expenses. They get temporary visas to work in agricultural labor in Virginia, Florida and the Carolinas. At the end of their contract, the migrants remain there with the support of family networks.

The traces of the economic boom triggered by the criminal industry in Tsotsil towns and developments can be seen not only in the proliferation of ostentatious 4×4 vehicles, and in the increased consumption of the most elegant brands of whiskey, but also in luxurious residences built in a peculiar architectural style reminiscent of California, in places like Milpoleta, Moxviquil, adjacent to La Hormiga, communities near Jovel, such as El Arcotete, or in the center of Chamula itself.

The depth of drama has also been portrayed in novels. “There are forms of human suffering,” affirmed philosopher Richard Rorty, “that literature can make vivid in a way that philosophy cannot.” This is the case of  La ira de los murciélagos (The Wrath of the Bats) [3], by Mikel Ruiz, a Tsotsil from Chicumtantic, San Juan Chamula, which describes the suffering experienced in the region, as well as the weave that linked power to the criminal industry before the reign of the CSJC, in a way that the social sciences are unable to elucidate.

Ruiz’s book narrates how Ponciano Pukuj, a former evangelical victim of the Chamula chiefdom protected by traditionalist Catholicism, becomes, after migrating to the United States, a very rich drug trafficker associated with El Chapo, who entrusts himself to Valverde and disputes, in a bloody and unscrupulous fight, the municipal presidency of Chamula.

Cherishing the possibility of victory, Ponciano imagines his future: “How much pleasure,” he says to himself, “it would give my friend El Chapo if he knew that I have eliminated one more stone in my path; when I am president, everything will be easier. We can even expand the business with new routes.

Pukuj faces the traditionalist Pedro Boch, who has the support of the outgoing mayor, Rigoberto de Jesús, the man of Los Zetas, who turned the municipal presidency into a center of drug dealing operations, uses official vehicles to transport Chapines (Guatemalans) with drugs and sells them birth certificates. They accuse Ponciano of being a traitor to his people and traditions, as well as appearing in the Christian film Chamula, Tierra de Sangre (

In the electoral dispute for the control of a municipality that left behind machetes only to be filled with “goat horns” (slang for AK-47’s), the candidates buy votes, give away cokes, kidnap and murder opponents, and win favors from the electoral and governmental authorities.

As a scriptwriter for a documentary for his campaign, Ponciano hires writer Ignacio Ts’unum, who wondered as a child if the Chamulas could also fly, because he had the impression that only gringos deserved to have superpowers. A literary man who in his early years did not know how to speak or read Spanish, nor did he know how to write in his own language. And in elementary school he was made to learn in Spanish.

Torn by the tragedy of his people, Ts’unum recounts that, among the young people of his generation, no one saw a future on the land or in living from the milpa. They only wanted to go to the United States. He states: “Now it is not only the whites who fuck us, today our brother bat is also our master. How many Tsotsiles have their feet on the neck of another Tsotsil? In the villages the young people dream of being mules, hit men, dealers. Their heads are full of narcocorridos, their noses irritated from snorting cocaine instead of chewing pilico (tobacco).”

Mikel Ruiz tells, through Angel, an evangelical hero, how, in order to protect their brothers of faith before drug trafficking changed everything, the religious dissidents of San Juan had to confront the traditionalist caciques who murdered and expelled them to dispossess them of their lands -under the pretext that they did not comply with ritual charges- by arming themselves and organizing the Guardián de los Murciélagos (Guardian of the Bats).

In an episode that synthesizes the political plot, Pukuj says to his rival: Nobody is legal in the fight, one moment you are rough, the next you’re the expert. Nothing is legal in these territories. A work of fiction, La Ira de los Murciélagos, The Wrath of the Bats, masterfully illuminates a part of Mexico that actually exists, in which African lions are driven around in luxury vans.


[1] With references to Jesús Malverde, El Mayo Zambada, Los Buchones, the African lion (some drug traffickers in the Sinaloa Cartel have acquired large wild animals as pets”) and the book’s reference to El Chapo, Hernández Navarro seems to be saying that the Chamula Cartel is adopting the style of the Sinaloa Cartel.

[2] El Mayo refers to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

[3] The Tsotsil peoples are known as Bat people because their name translates into “bat.”

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Tuesday, November 22, 2022,
and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee, Schools for Chiapas and compañeros in Sinaloa.      

One Comment on “Malverde in Chamula

  1. Pingback: Being different, to save the world – The Free

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