Statues of Jesús Malverde are selling like hotcakes in East Portland—as well as aerosols, trading cards, and candles emblazoned with his picture. Dressed in his distinctive white suit, with a prominent moustache, he's either the patron saint of narcotics, or the Mexican Robin Hood... depending on whom you're talking to, and why you're asking. Some people even believe having one of these statues close by makes their stash of drugs invisible—which is just fine, if you happen to be a cop.
Malverde and La Policía
Accounts of Malverde's life differ, but his association with law enforcement goes back to when the Mexican State Police shot him in 1909. There is general agreement he was a railway or construction worker who turned into a bandit and was later shot—or possibly hung—by the Federales, in the Sinaloa state of northern Mexico. But that's where the consensus ends.
In modern-day Portland, East Precinct Block Captain Coordinator Dave Smith has noticed a connection between statues of this "saint" and local drug dealers. Smith also has his own take on the Malverde mythos.
"Drug dealers believe that by building a shrine to Malverde, they can protect themselves from detection by the police," Smith said, citing findings from the precinct's Crime Reduction Unit (CRU). According to CRU reports, the statues are often found alongside drugs, guns, and ill-gotten money.
CRU officers say these shrines to Malverde have been increasingly noticed on drug "knock-and-talks"—wherein cops will drop by the homes of suspects, based on information derived from people buying drugs, and ask to be invited in for a "look around." A Malverde statue in the home of an already suspected drug dealer is considered a red flag to officers, indicating illegal substances may be on the premises.
"We look for indicators of criminal activity," CRU Officer Rob Jackson told the Mercury, on a night-shift ride-along of East Precinct. "And if we're at a location where we have reason to believe there are drugs, and we see a Malverde statue, then there's a correlation between finding that statue and finding what we're looking for."
Of course, if you're a drug dealer, and happen to believe that a Malverde statue might make your drugs invisible to the police, you're probably more likely to give consent to a "knock-and-talk" look around of your house. But judging from the CRU's success in finding drugs recently, Malverde's mythical powers aren't working so well.
Malverde: The "Saint" of Narcotics?
Ever since the CRU was formed two years ago to focus on reducing neighborhood burglaries, its focus has widened considerably—mainly, it seems, to recovering drugs. Two walls of the CRU office at East Precinct are now plastered almost floor to ceiling with 8.5" x 11" photos of the team's considerable finds.
"5/24/06, 21 ounces cocaine, $5,040," reads the label on a photo of cash laid out next to bagged portions of blow. "14 ounces cocaine, 3/21/06," reads another caption, under a fat, pink, Saran-Wrapped tube of the stuff—worth enough for a down payment on a house, once it's broken down into grams and sold on the street.
There are dozens of photos of handguns and automatic weapons, more and more drugs, and then there's a picture of Malverde. Or more precisely, a tattoo of Malverde—with his distinctive moustache, thick eyebrows, and black hair—four inches tall on the upper arm of a dealer once based at the sleazier end of Sandy Boulevard, arrested last year.
While the Catholic Church refuses to officially recognize Malverde as a saint, there are several shrines to him in Mexico, and he's often treated as such—but not everyone automatically connects him to the sale of drugs.
El Brillante is a shop just south of 181st and Stark that sells statues of this "saint," and the store's owner has quite a different take on the Malverde myth.
"He's a Latino Robin Hood," says the owner—who won't give his name, but is happy to share his personal research on Malverde. "People would ask him for guidance and miracles to help them come to the US, but now he has a bad name. Nowadays people are saying he is the king of the drug lords, which is a bunch of bull."
Inside, a three-inch Malverde bust costs $15, while an eight-inch, full-length statue, holding bundles of ceramic cash, goes for $45. For just $5 more, you can buy a foot-high bust, just like the CRU cops have in their office.
Aside from the statues, you can also buy aerosols with Malverde's image on them, candles, and cologne—even protective talismans to wear around your neck. The shop is expanding, and now has a new Malverde shrine, complete with a Malverde bust, candles, flowers, and photographs, all encased in a wooden showcase with a mirror in the back. There are a lot of dollar bills in a glass box next to it, donated by people believing in Malverde's power as a saint.
"A lot of police officers come in here interested in Malverde," says El Brillante's owner. "And I try to set them straight."
The shop owner admits he was once a heavy crack user, and that several trips through Portland's Hooper Detox Center did nothing for his addiction. Then in 1990, he went to Malverde's shrine in Sinaloa, Mexico.
"I asked him to clear me of my addiction and it worked," he said. "I believe, and have faith in him. But I told this cop who came in asking about the statues, it's not because I use drugs, you idiot."
El Brillante is doing a heavy trade these days—mainly in Malverde artifacts and in likenesses of another Mexican saint, La Santísima Muerte, to whom he is also building a shrine in the shop's front room. Muerte, like Malverde, offers luck and protection, but has no association with drugs.
There are also candles offering quick money and luck to gamblers, and some saying "Contra la ley," or "Against the law/Stay away." The shopkeeper shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot when asked about these—they feature unflattering images of cops with nightsticks drawn. Other candles also offer strong advice to those dealing with the law: "Tapa boca," or "Keep your mouth shut."
Cultural or Criminal?
The so-called narco-saint's Latino heritage is a tricky issue politically, in light of traffic stop data released by the cops on February 15. This report shows that Latinos are more likely than ever to be stopped in East Precinct, compared to their percentage of the population. Whatever Malverde's prominence in his district might suggest, East Precinct commander Mike Crebs insists that Portland's problems with drug dealing east of I-205 aren't just with Latinos. Malverde is just a recognizable image—that's all.
"We have been experiencing problems with drug dealing," he tells the Mercury. "But I do not want to pin it on one race or ethnicity because that's unfair."
Nevertheless, Malverde's use alone as a possible indicator of criminal activity is of concern to Alejandro Queral—the executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. He's worried that the cops may end up inadvertently targeting innocent Latinos, just because they happen to be fascinated with Malverde's legacy.
"There is a strong tradition in Mexico of using saints as protectors against evil and curing ills," he says. "I'm not saying drug dealers do not believe in Malverde, but we need to be careful of saying his statue is a good indicator of criminal activity without other evidence to back it up. The question becomes, how do the police separate Malverde's ethnicity and cultural significance from the criminal issue?"
"Historically, people of Mexican origin have made folk heroes out of those aengaging in some kind of defiant activity," says Isidro Ortis—a professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. "So this may not just be about glorifying drug dealing, but could be seen in that larger context of defiance."
So who is Jesús Malverde? Whether you're a police officer patrolling the streets, a drug dealer looking for protection, a fan of Latino culture, or simply someone admiring statues and candles in the strip malls of East Portland—Malverde's mystery holds something different for everyone. It's up to you what to make of him.