Narco-Religion in Mexico: A Cultural Fusion with Social Implication — Jiaming Xie

I took English 177 this semester, which is a course that explores the global genre of narco-narratives—in the context of literature, film, and television—and studies the different social, racial, and cultural constructions of illegality and violence that emerge around it. To my surprise, religion has deeply emerged in narco-culture and thus has various social implications, especially in Mexico. 

What is narco-culture? The term “narco-culture” describes the cultural phenomenon that has arisen in nations where the drug trade has significantly impacted society, such as Mexico. It includes a variety of cultural manifestations and behaviors that have been impacted by the drug trade. The lifestyles and actions of drug lords and their accomplices are frequently exalted in narco-culture, which presents them as glamorous and powerful people. It can also be understood as a reaction to the socioeconomic reality of life, reflecting the experiences and aspirations of individuals who are entangled in its web.

Then, how does religion entwine with narco-culture in Mexico? One way that religion is used in narco-culture is through the veneration of narco-saints, figures who are believed to provide protection and success in the drug trade. These narco-saints often have roots in indigenous and syncretic religious traditions, and their worship involves a mixture of Catholic and pre-Columbian rituals. While some religious leaders have condemned the worship of narco-saints as a corruption of traditional religious practices, others have recognized that the practice reflects the lived experiences and cultural traditions of marginalized communities. One of the most prominent examples is the use of Jesús Malverde. He has an image similar to Robin Hood because he was supposed to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, which made him the “generous bandit” or “angel of the poor”. This outlaw image caused him to be the patron saint of the illegal drug trade, supporting drug traffickers’ argument that they are taking money from rich people who were drug-addicted and giving some of their profits back to the poor through the construction of schools and improving transportation infrastructure. Thus, one of the social implications of narco-religion is legitimizing drug trafficking as social justice.

Another way religion is used in narco-culture is through appropriating Catholic symbols and practices, particularly the Virgin of Guadalupe. Drug traffickers and their associates have used the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe to seek her protection from law enforcement and rival drug cartels. Both pious orthodox Catholics and superstitious criminals often utilize statues and images of the Lady of Guadalupe. Criminals who believe in magic invoke her for protection and to identify with Mexico. She can often be found in their cars and homes along with unorthodox folk saints and good luck charms. Other examples include orthodox Catholic saints like Saint Jude. He is a recognized Roman Catholic saint considered the patron of hopeless or desperate causes. In the criminal underworld, Saint Jude is invoked to protect smugglers and bandits because of their desperate situation. Also, Saint Toribio Romo was a Catholic priest who was martyred in 1928 during the persecution of Catholics by the Mexican government in the Christero War that followed the Mexican Revolution. He became the patron of immigrants or illegal immigrants and is invoked by both coyotes and border crossers who must cross the dangerous border area. However, the use of religious symbols by criminal organizations has been criticized by some religious leaders, who argue that it is a violation of the sanctity of religious imagery.

As religion gradually fused with narco-culture in Mexico, this emergence has caused severe social impacts, like reinforcing the existing power structure and exacerbating inequality in the name of faith. Moreover, this phenomenon will further strengthen the cultural norms and values, especially among the new generation. The use of religious symbols and practices in narco-culture has created a moral ambiguity around the drug trade as many people in Mexico see it as a necessary evil rather than a criminal activity. This normalization of violence and corruption has resulted in an erosion of the rule of law and a weakening of democratic institutions, making it more difficult for the government to combat organized crime. In conclusion, I think understanding narco-religion is crucial to develop strategies to address social problems associated with drug trafficking. 

A Prayer to Jesus Malverde

Today before your cross prostrate,

Oh, Malverde my Lord,

I beg your mercy to relieve my pain.

You who dwell in glory,

And you who are so close to God,

Listen to the suffering of this humble fisherman.

Oh, miraculous Malverde,

Oh, Malverde my Lord,

Concede this favor and fill my spirit with joy.

Give me health Lord,

Give me rest,

Give me well-being,

And so let it be.

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