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Rosemary Westwood: The voice of Metro.

Why El Chapo's Catholic faith shouldn't surprise you

El Chapo, the world’s most powerful drug trafficker, has charisma as well as the blood of thousands of Mexicans on his hands. And he believes in God.

In this Jan. 8, 2016 image released by Mexico's federal government, Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin

Mexico's federal government via AP

In this Jan. 8, 2016 image released by Mexico's federal government, Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, stands for his prison mug shot with the inmate number 3870 at the Altiplano maximum security federal prison in Almoloya, Mexico.

If you slogged through Sean Penn’s sometimes unintelligible ode to drug kingpin El Chapo in Rolling Stone magazine, you perhaps know a few more things than you used to.

Penn loves his own penis. Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera — or El Chapo, the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — has charisma as well as the blood of thousands of Mexicans on his hands. And he believes in God.

In the interview, such as it was, El Chapo recounts asking God for help escaping from prison (he’s since been recaptured). He thanks God that his mother is still alive and says he wants to be with his family for “the days God gives me.”

If this devotion comes as a surprise to you — as it did to some — it shouldn’t.
Drug traffickers across Latin America are typically religious, and Catholic, like just about all their neighbours.

“Latin America is the most Christian region on earth,” says R. Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and an expert on Latin American religious history. Ninety per cent of Latin Americans are Christians, and 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, he says.

It is Colombian traffickers who exported St. Jude — the patron saint of lost causes — to Mexico, where he’s now widely popular, Chesnut says.

Traffickers’ faith is “not so much about Christian morality,” he says. Since the threat of death is everywhere, divine protection “is the most important function of both the Catholic and folk saints popular among narcos.”

That creates a fraught relationship, to say the least. On one hand, Latin American churches have been accused of money laundering, via cartels’ donations or “narcolimosnas.” Meanwhile, a slew of priests who publicly oppose drug cartels have been murdered in recent years.

Then there are folk saints, most notably Santa Muerte, figures not recognized by the Catholic Church but wildly popular among traffickers.

Saint Death is also known as a healer, a miracle worker and agent of prosperity, says Chesnut, who wrote a book on her. “If you’re looking at narcos in Mexico, the most important religious figure for them is Santa Muerte.”

That has made her “religious enemy No. 1” to the Mexican government, he adds, and a challenge to the church, too. But fighting the spread of beliefs is as hard as fighting the spread of drugs.

As for God’s guiding hand in El Chapo’s life, I imagine, in the drug lord’s familiar old place behind bars, he’s got a bone to pick with the Almighty.