Think gangsters are godless? Think again! Whether to ease a troubled conscience, secure a place in heaven, or guard against one’s rivals and police, patron saints and deities are common in crime. Some are borrowed from mainstream religions, history, or folklore, while others are entirely new. They also range from good to evil, or at least to darkly amoral. Here are the world’s top ten – from the least to the most fear-inducing.
10. Nino de Atocha
The Holy Infant of Atocha, a Spanish baby saint, is traditionally depicted with a basket of bread to feed convicts. As the patron saint of prisoners, he’s popular with drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín cartel, who had altars in safe houses and visited a shrine while in Spain. El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzman also pays tribute; he was wearing an amulet of the saint when he was arrested in 2019.
The Holy Infant is especially popular with hauchicoleros (gasoline thieves) in Mexico. Hence he’s often depicted holding not a basket but a gas can. In this guise he bears the name Santo Nino Huachicolero.
According to the Catholic Church, gangsters use images of the saint (or pseudo-saint really) to gain the support of the public. But in this case it’s probably the half-price gas that ultimately wins them over.
9. Saint Jude
As one of the Twelve Apostles, Saint Jude is the only “narco saint” recognized by the Catholic Church. He’s also known as San Judas Tadeo (Saint Jude Thaddeus). Traditionally he’s the last choice to pray to for help, just in case prayers to Jude get to Judas Iscariot instead, the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ.
Being the last resort in the way, he’s the patron of hopeless lost causes – first choice for criminals, prisoners, “youth on the edge”, and fugitive drug lords like Benjamin Arellano Felix. In fact, so popular is Saint Jude with the criminal underworld that police stake out his center of worship, the San Hipolito church in central Mexico City. Once a month, thousands of devotees, including some of the best known gangsters, descend on the church and the boulevards around it, giving undercover cops with long distance lenses the chance to update their photos.
The saint, who wears a green robe with a flame on his head, is credited with all sorts of “miracles”, including keeping fugitives, thieves, and drug runners out of jail. According to the priest at San Hipolito, however, criminals misunderstand. “The saints will not help you to do bad things or carry out illegal activities,” he told Vice in 2016. On the contrary, Saint Jude is also popular with police.
Sun goddess Amaterasu is the principal deity of Japanese mythology – daughter of the creators Izanami and Izanagi. Ruling over the Takama no Hara (“High Celestial Plain”), Amaterasu (whose name means “shining in Heaven”), is chief of the kami, or spirits, and worshiped throughout Japan. She’s also revered by the yakuza, who honor her with rituals of worship, as well as the initiation of new members. In one famous legend, Amaterasu retreats from the world to a cave, bringing disasters to heaven and earth.
Different specializations of the yakuza may worship other patron deities. For example, one of the two main branches, tekiya (merchants, originally of medicines), honors Shinno the god of medicine, while the other main branch, bakuto (gamblers), honors Hachiman the god of war. All yakuza, however, honor Amaterasu and the Emperor of Japan.
An important ritual in which she features is the Sakazuki, or “Cup Exchange”. Held in strict secrecy at a time and place not revealed to participants until moments before, the ceremony centers on an altar beneath three scrolls – each representing a god. Amaterasu is on the right, the Emperor on the left and Shinno in the middle.
7. Jesus Malverde
In Mexico, Jesús Malverde is the mythical hero of the poor and downtrodden. He’s basically the Mexican Robin Hood, complete with thick black mustache and neckerchief. Mal verde in Spanish means “bad green”, a name the folkloric bandit earned hiding in shrubs wearing green camouflage to jump out and rob passers-by. Typically, his victims would be wealthy and the spoils would be shared among the poor. Hence Malverde’s other names, the Generous Bandit and the Angel of the Poor.
He’s also thought to have been a real person, at least by those who revere him. According to legend, Malverde’s real name was Jesús Juarez Mazo. Said to have lived between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was (allegedly) hanged by the government on May 3, 1909.
Today, he belongs to a tradition of “narco saints”, prayed to by drug traffickers like El Chapo who see in Malverde an image of themselves – especially in his home state of Sinaloa. There, a roadside shrine to the saint has become a popular place of worship. His image appears throughout Mexico, though, on figurines, candles, key chains, t-shirts, and so on.
6. Guan Yu
The legendary general Guan Yu was a real historical figure, a loyal duke of the warlord Liu Bei. He’s also a character in the Chinese literary classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Also known as Guan Gong and Emperor Guan, he’s become an important deity in Hong Kong with shrines all over the city. He even features in Hong Kong popular culture, including the Young and Dangerous film series.
Statues of Guan Yu typically show him with a halberd in his right hand. But if you see one with the halberd in his left, it may belong to a triad–at least according to rumor.
While Guan Yu is worshiped by all sorts of people, from businessmen and policemen to simple private citizens, triads revere him as the embodiment of their most cherished values: humanity; honesty; obedience; wisdom; loyalty; and faith. He’s also a reminder of their strict moral code.
5. Saint Michael
Mafiosi are known for displays of religious devotion, with altars often found at their hideouts. The Catholic Church, however, to which this devotion is directed, has remained largely silent on the issue. Only recently have popes openly condemned mafiosi. Pope John Paul II was the first, to which they responded by bombing several churches. Then, in 2014, Pope Francis officially excommunicated associates of the mafia for occupational “adoration of evil.” But it hasn’t stopped them.
The ‘Ndrangheta mafia of Calabria, for instance, has two patron saints: the sword-wielding archangel Saint Michael and the maternal Madonna di Polsi (“Our Lady of Polsi”, commemorating a local apparition of the Virgin Mary). ‘Ndrangheta leaders from all over Italy and the world actually used to gather at the Madonna’s famous sanctuary in Calabria.
Although different ranks in the ‘Ndrangheta’s complex hierarchical structure are each associated with a different saint, it’s to Saint Michael and the Madonna that members swear allegiance. The initiation ritual, or “baptism”, involves cutting a finger and dropping blood on a prayer card of Saint Michael or the Madonna, which is then burned and the ashes applied to the cut. Hence in 2007 when a bitter blood feud culminated in the murder of six young people outside a restaurant, investigators found prayer cards and a statue of Saint Michael, as well as images of “Our Lady” in the back.
Seeing some depictions of Maximón, aka San Simón, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was Jesús Malverde; he often has the same mustachio’d “cowboy-cum-gangster aesthetic”. But this wish-granting saint is a Mayan god, belief in whom dates back to pre-conquest Guatemala. He’s also a bit of a trickster; in one legend, fishermen asked him to keep their wives faithful and Maximón slept with each one.
Although Maximón’s devotees are mostly Catholic (hence his association with San [Saint] Simón), the Church tends to see him as the devil and worship of him as witchcraft. It’s easy to see why. In one prayer for protection, he’s conjured “in the name of Satan, Luzbel, and Lucifer.”
His priests are chain-smoking drunks, often practicing in private homes surrounded by bottles of Quetzalteca rum. But there’s also the Temple of San Símon at San Andres Itzapa, a town in the Guatemalan highlands. This is Maximón’s mecca, a blue and white temple shrouded in incense. Pilgrims come from all over Central America to pour rum on Maximón’s effigy and tobacco on its lap before praying for some tangible help – a new house, perhaps, or protection from jail. Alternatively, they might ask the witches outside to place a curse on their enemies.
3. Bawon Samdi
In Haitian Vodou, Bawon Samdi (aka Baron Samedi) is in charge of the largest family of lwa (spirits), the Gede, who represent death and fertility. He therefore has unparalleled knowledge of the land of the dead. Whenever he leaves for the land of the living, he wears dark colored glasses that allow him to keep an eye on that realm. He’s also depicted wearing purple and black top hat and tails and carrying a long, black, skull-handled cane.
Bawon is a trickster god, ridiculing the living with his careless and offensive behavior. He smokes heavily, swears, is “lewd and licentious”, likes to eat black goats and roosters, and drinks intoxicants such as black coffee, vodka, and gin. He also srinks kleren, a type of rum he makes himself with 21 hot peppers and which no other lwa can handle. Worship traditionally takes place from October 31st until November 2nd. This is Haiti’s Festival of the Dead or Fet Gede, during which death and sexuality are celebrated with songs, drumming, dancing, prayers, and possessions by the lwa. Bawon Samdi and his wife Granny Brijit are the guests of honor.
It’s easy to see why Bawon appeals to criminals. In 2021, Wilson Joseph – leader of the 400 Mawozo gang) – actually dressed up as him, invoking the spirit to threaten politicians and police in a publicly recorded video. Haitian dictator François Duvalier also channeled Bawon Samdi. Like many gods, he appears in various guises, one of which is even more crime-specific: Baron Kriminel, the “Saint of all Criminals”, is called upon to intervene in worldly criminal justice. It’s said that when he appears, he forces people to question what’s truly right and wrong – beyond the law – and who is truly innocent.
The Nigerian gang Black Axe, notorious for its email scams, is more vicious than many people realize. In addition to sharing templates (or “formats”) for scams on secret message boards, members (known as Axemen) share photos of their mutilated victims. They call these unfortunates mugu or maye, meaning “idiots.”
At home, Black Axe is seen as a cult. Not only does it selectively recruit young men with few legitimate prospects, it also has an occult-style initiation ritual featuring savage beatings, symbolic rebirth, and an oath of loyalty to the gang. This is where Korofo comes in, invoked in words like “may Korofo squeeze life out of you if you ever betray the movement” – the “movement” being the Neo-Black Movement (NBM) from which Black Axe emerged.
Often abbreviated to “Krf” or “Kf” online, Korofo is fairly nondescript for a god. It’s not clear what he looks like or even what he does, aside from snuffing out life – possibly because he’s only a few decades old. He, or rather it, appears to have been mistakenly deified in the 80s. According to the NBM’s own research, Korofo wasn’t originally a god at all but an aja ile (“underground cult”). The traditional Yoruba incantation that mentions his name says: “Korofo is the one which consulted the oracle about Olodumare [God] and declared that it’s death would never be held of.” Black Axe simply substituted its own name for Olodumare’s, henceforth venerating Korofo as protector.
1. Santa Muerte
Unlike the other “narco saints”, Santa Muerte is not thought to have been a real person. In fact, she’s the embodiment of death. Also known as Holy Death, she’s portrayed as a skeleton in a white gown, carrying a scythe and globe – “a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin of Guadalupe”. Her devotees aren’t all criminals, but criminals tend to be devotees – appeasing her with offerings of tequila, cigarettes, cash, jewelry, and corpses. Although she’s often worshiped side-by-side with Malverde, only to her are human lives offered. One common practice among Mexican gangsters is to leave severed heads at her shrines. They also pray to her before undertaking hit jobs.
And the cult of Santa Muerte has been spreading. Authorities in the US have recorded a number of Santa Muerte killings, as well as bumper stickers, tattoos, altars, and cash bands adorned with images of the saint. In Las Vegas, there’s a whole sanctuary complete with life-sized effigies.
Since 2000, when her popularity took off, Santa Muerte has accrued upwards of 12 million followers. This makes the cult one of the fastest growing new religions in the world. And while the Catholic Church has officially condemned her worship, calling it “blasphemous and satanic”, they’re reluctant to deal with it further – probably out of concern that many prefer her to the pope and would rather leave the Church than Santa Muerte.