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Mexico Motorcycle Adventure: Saved by Jesus in Sinaloa

September 25, 2017

Vic Pittman, an expat who lives in San Blas, tells how Jesus Malverde, a legendary crime figure revered as a saint by many of Mexico's drug traffickers, kept him safe on a motorcycle ride through Sinaloa.

San Blas, Nayarit - For me, getting older has had some wonderful unexpected benefits. I no longer really care too much what others think of me, and I no longer have the restrictive concern of self-preservation that I had when I was younger, had children that depended on me, and had decades of life ahead of me. I am on my last dozen or so years and I know it. I am free to take chances, live a daring, exciting life and do things and go places that I would not have in my younger days. It is way too late to die young. When my father was my age he had one year left.

My wife and I have lived in San Blas, Nayarit for the better part of the last ten years. We love the country, the food, the tropical beaches but most of all, the people. Those of you who live down here know exactly what I am talking about. There is a tranquility, a happy calm that almost defies logic here. Most of my Mexican friends are very poor by American standards but all are happy and content with the little they do have. Family and friends seem to mean a lot more to the people down here and materialism is nowhere as rampant as in the states.

For my wife Glenda and I, this has all been a breath of fresh air and a reminder of what is really important in this life. The kindness and generosity that we have been shown here flies in the face of the official American narrative that this is a very dangerous place and only a suicidal fool would come down here and especially get off the beaten path and away from the tourist zones. I am not naive, I know that there are indeed very dangerous areas here as there are in the US, but I will not demonize this entire beautiful country for the sins of a few.

I enjoy writing and thought this would be a great subject to write about: I would travel alone on an old motorcycle to the places that I was advised to avoid. I read up on the areas I was going to, purposely did not get my bad teeth fixed as bad teeth are an universal sign of poverty, and rode a flat black thirty-two year old Suzuki. No one would think I was a good target for ransom or robbery.

The first area that I had heard warnings about was the mountains of Sinaloa, or what is commonly known as "Narco country." So, in May of 2015, I left San Blas heading North on what I jokingly called my "Narco Country Death Ride." I took the Autopista (freeway) North past Mazatlan and then cut off to the East at the exit for La Cruz, Sinaloa. I had never been to La Cruz before and was struck by what a beautiful little town it was. I got a motel for about $10 US and a fantastic way-more-food-than-I-was-expecting meal for $2.25 US.

Looking at the map I saw that I could continue East maybe another 50 miles before I had to turn North or South. This would put me on El Spina, or the spine of the mountain range, the Western slopes of the Sierra Madres. This was the area that even my Mexican friends told me to avoid. One of my friends told me about the cartels: "These people don't care about anything, they are all jacked up on dope...they will shoot you for sport."

It was a chance I was willing to take, one of the main reasons being that I could write about it later. I did not realize then that I would have a little more to write about than I expected. I have related this story to many but this is the first time I have sat down to write about it.

In my research about the area and the cartels, I learned of the so-called "Narco-Saint of Sinaloa," Jesus Malverde. Legend has it Malverde was a Robin Hood-type bandit who robbed government pay trains and wealthy land barons to feed and support the poor people of his community.

Malverde is often called "The Generous Bandit." To his beneficiaries, he was a godsend... someone who cared and would help the desperately poor by robbing the rich. In 1909 he was captured, and was hung on May 3, 1909. He was unofficially (not by the church) given sainthood by the people and was in essence a saint for the poor and those who have to break the law to survive.

In recent years, Malverde has been adopted by the narco culture and is known as "The Narco-Saint of Sinaloa." There are many products that bear his name and picture, including beer, soap, amulets, T-shirts, etc. Many people believe that he protects them from the police, the border patrol and the Federales. Malverde tattoos are commonplace in this area especially, but not exclusively, among the drug cartels. I know several people who have Malverde tattoos, wear Malverde necklaces and have Malverde decals on their cars, yet are in no way involved in the drug trade. To them, he is a protector of the poor and disenfranchised.

So, before I went on this trip, I got a Malverde necklace and a prayer card, which I put in my wallet behind my driver's license. I figured if I got into a spot with the carteleros, it could be my Hail Mary, my chance to save myself. In a way I was like many before me, counting on him for protection. I practiced what I would say and what I would do if I ever got on the wrong end of a cartelero gun. "Soy un hijo de Malverde... Soy su hermano." ("I am a son of Malverde... I am your brother."

I did not really expect to find myself in a bad situation, but figured why not cover all the bases? The only downside that I could see would be if I were to be searched by the police and they were led to believe that I was involved in the drug trade as a result of my Jesus Malverde accessories. I figured I had more to worry about from the cartels than the police.

The next morning I left La Cruz and headed East. About forty miles later I stopped at a cemetery that was even by Mexican standards, fantastic. Some of the crypts were two-story buildings with AC, decks and elaborate furnishings and decor. None of the nearby towns were as plush. I saw many graves of young men between 18 and 35, and many renderings of Jesus Malverde on the crypts. "How ironic," I thought, "that these poor guys who entered the dangerous drug trade and probably did so hoping to one day own a nice house have instead, a very nice crypt.

At this point of the story I am going to stop naming towns and other details that could create problems. I travel these areas every year and do not want to become a target. Even if pressed by the authorities, I will not say any more. I am old. I forget.

The libre roads are a world apart from the Autopista. They wind through the small towns hazy with pollo asado smoke, dusty depositos (beer stores), grinning children walking to school, chickens crossing the road (why?) and colorful little houses. If you are nervous or just in a hurry, take the Autopista. If you really want to experience Mexico, take the libre roads.

I rolled into one of these small towns on the afternoon of my second day on the road. It was hot and I was thirsty. Sure enough, on the edge of town was a deposito. I pulled in and parked my bike. I noticed what I thought was a group of eight or nine soldiers sitting on one side of the building. This is not an unusual sight in Mexico. The Mexican army is very active in these areas.

I bought a 24 oz beer and sat down on the curb by my motorcycle to drink it. I noticed the soldiers looking at me and talking, and about then I wondered where their truck was, as I saw no military vehicle nearby. They were all wearing camo BDUs and white T-shirts. Most had belts with a variety of gear on them. They all seemed to have walkie talkies.

One of them got up and came over to me and asked me what I was doing... it was then that I realized that these were not soldiers, but carteleros. As I had practiced in my head so many times before, I pulled out my wallet and my Jesus Malverde prayer card. "I am going to Culiacan to the Capilla de Malverde," I told him in Spanish. "Malverde has helped me many times and I want to say Thanks."

He got on his radio and talked to the others. I could not hear what they were saying to him. He said something and laughed and then shut off the radio. At that point the others came over to where we were standing. I was nervous but did not show it. They were not threatening or aggressive, although some were friendlier than others. Some were unnervingly quiet, just staring.

One of them had a handkerchief in his hand which was filled with crystal meth. "Perico?" he asked me. Perico is slang for "little parrot" ... it means a snort of meth which gets you chattering like a parrot. I politely declined and told them that I no longer did meth but smoked pot on occasion. One of them told the first guy I had talked to roll me a joint. I accepted it, thanked him and lit up.

Meanwhile, the "pericos" were nonstop. They would use their keys to dip into the handkerchief and get a little bit of the white powder, then snort it. They seemed surprised that I would turn down free meth. "No quieres crystal? Porque no?" they asked. Without going into details, I watched several drug transactions take place.

About fifteen minutes later, "El Jefe" pulled in. He was the boss of the others, I deduced. He came over to me, we shook hands, and once again I was offered a "perico." "This is the good stuff!" he told me in English. A few more transactions took place... I felt uncomfortable being there and witnessing this, but what could I do? I didn't want to do anything to make them worry about me, but was concerned by the constant meth use. I knew this situation could get bad quickly.

A really nice 4x4 truck roared past, honking it's horn. El Jefe pointed to the truck and made machine gun shooting gestures. "That guy... he is an exterminator, a killer." A Bronco pulled up. The guy standing by the road shook his head no... it pulled off. The next car made a purchase. A man on a horse rode up and made a buy. The sun was starting to set and I had finished my beer. I thanked the men for their hospitality and once again was offered a perico for the road, shook hands again with El Jefe, started my bike and pulled out... no gunshots, no problems.

"Gracias, Malverde," I said to myself, "Thank you for your protection."

The next day I actually did go to the Capilla de Malverde, the Church of Malverde in Culiacan. I exchanged my worn out prayer card for a new laminated one - because you never know...