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Drug Lords Try to Cast Saintly Aura

Robin Hoods?

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Off a main street in this Mexican city, three musicians sing their hearts out in a chapel that is a center of both high kitsch and high faith.

For five hours - with their accordion, guitar, and bass never letting up - the three sing the region's ranchera ballads to Jess Malverde, a turn-of-the-century Mexican Robin Hood in whose name the chapel was built.

The musicians have been paid 500 pesos - $60, or about 18 times the daily minimum wage here - supposedly to implore Malverde's help for a group of farmers' corn crop. But a young man who often visits the chapel to seek Malverde's intervention in personal problems says he doesn't buy the explanation.

"Corn farmers around here don't have that kind of money, so don't believe it," he says. "They may be singing for a crop, but I'd guarantee it's not corn. They're singing for the narcos."

Since he was killed by government officials in 1909, Malverde has become a popular saint here, increasingly sought out by the poor in a land of both great faith and faltering adherence to the Roman Catholic Church.

But here in Sinaloa State, a center of marijuana and heroin production in Mexico, Malverde has also become something else.

Since sometime around 1980, in a deft move that has helped put a growing segment of desperately poor rural peasants in their corner, drug traffickers in this Pacific coast state have adopted Malverde as their patron saint.

"Malverde was nothing more than a common thief, but it appears that he did share what he robbed with the poor," says Herberto Sinagawa Montoya, a historian of Sinaloa State.

"Looking to improve their image, the narcos chose him as their example, their 'saint,' and it worked," he says.

Church condemns the cult

If it "worked," Mr. Sinagawa adds, it's because the miserable living conditions of Sinaloa's mostly indigenous rural population have changed little from the days of Malverde.

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