THE BLOG
03/13/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

San Hugo Chavez and San Naza Moreno: Latin America's Newest Saints

Meet two of Latin America's newest folk saints, San Hugo and San Naza. While the Vatican has recently accelerated the canonization process for holy women and men born in the Americas, Latin Americans keep creating their own grassroots saints who exist beyond the realm of the Church. Santa Muerte, the Mexican skeleton saint, is by far the most popular of these fascinating folk saints of the region, but no single unsanctioned miracle worker can satisfy the heterogeneous tastes and preferences of the millions of consumers of informal religion. So it's in this context that two of Latin America's most notorious leaders, one a former president and the other a drug trafficker and both recently deceased, have already been sanctified by believers in Venezuela and Michoacan, Mexico.

Already venerated in life by millions of working class Venezuelans who saw him as their savior from poverty and oppression, President Hugo Chavez made a seamless transition to becoming a folk saint in death. The first signs of Chavez's posthumous role were his messages from beyond the grave, communicated to his successor President Nicolas Maduro via tweets not on Twitter but through a mysterious bird that would occasionally alight in the vicinity of the polemical new head of state. Among the various communiques issued by San Hugo to Maduro one stands out in importance. As cardinals met behind closed doors a year ago to choose the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, the spirit of recently deceased Chavez was busy lobbying Jesus. Almost a year ago to the date President Maduro declared on Venezuelan TV "We know that our commander ascended to those heights and is face to face with Christ. Something must've influenced [Jesus] to call for a South American pope. Some new hand arrived and Christ said, 'Now, it is South America's time.'"

Beyond avian tweets to his successor, San Hugo continues communication with his loyal followers in the chapel dedicated to him in Caracas. Filled with images of the charismatic folk saint in the form of statuettes, portraits and busts the shrine invites devotees to both pray for the soul of San Hugo as well as to petition him for favors and miracles. Capturing the intense devotion felt by many of his followers, a bust of his likeness found at the chapel is inscribed with the following dedication "You were, are and will be our giant for eternity. We will love you forever."

If a socialist saint communicating with his political heir via a winged messenger seems taken from the pages of a Garcia Marquez novel, the story of San Naza can only be described as magical surrealism. Known both as el Chayo and El Loco, Nazario Moreno was one of the founders of la Familia Michoacana, the now defunct drug cartel of Michoacan, the state that has been the epicenter of Mexico's drug war. Unique among cartel capos el Chayo integrated an idiosyncratic type of Evangelicalism into the organization. Cartel soldiers were issued bibles and Knights Templar costumes along with orders to present the organization as noble defenders of Michoacan from the incursions of both rival syndicates and law enforcement.

A native of Morelia, the state capital, former President Felipe Calderon launched his war against the cartels, or at least some of them in early 2007 by sending the army to crush la Familia Michoacana in his home state. The cartel that specialized in methamphetamines was largely able to evade the troops and continue daily operations. However, the news in 2010 that government forces had killed El Chayo in a firefight seemed to give the Calderon administration the upper hand and cast doubt on the future of the cartel. Just as a significant number of Mexicans, especially Sinaloans, don't believe that the man paraded in front of cameras a few weeks ago is really el Chapo Guzman, at the time of Moreno's reported death, many, especially in Michoacan, doubted the government's story. And the lack of a cadaver raised even more suspicion. It would seem (with emphasis on "seem" since all is not what it appears in Mexico's surreal drug war) that El Chayo was killed, again, last week in a gun battle as he was surprised celebrating his birthday in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan. This time, however, there is a cadaver, and the Mexican government claims to have positively identified it as Moreno's.

What makes San Naza's sanctification among Knights Templar (the new cartel created after Moreno's fake death in 2010) members and other Michoacanos even more extraordinary than that of San Hugo is that it apparently took place while he was still alive. Throughout the Tierra Caliente region, which was largely controlled by the Knights Templar, the ruthless cartel erected chapels dedicated to their patron saint, San Naza. It would seem now that Moreno is probably dead his stock as a folk saint would rise. Many of the towns, however, where devotion to him has been strongest are now under control of the self-defense groups who have dislodged the Knights Templar.

Thus in the religious economy of Latin American folk saints, San Hugo would appear to have a bright future while San Naza probably will be around only as long as the Knights Templar are. But since little is as it seems in Mexico and Venezuela, this could play out in an entirely different way. What we can be sure of, however, is the enduring vitality of grassroots religious practice in Latin America beyond the pale of institutional Christianity.