- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

TIJUANA, Mexico A soldier accused of the rape-murder of a girl and executed by firing squad would seem an unlikely candidate for sainthood.

But for the poor and the downtrodden who come daily to the tomb of Juan Castillo Morales near the U.S. border, he was a man wronged by the system, a symbol of those failed by justice.

As the story goes, the mob that handed him over to be killed in February 1938 realized too late that the penniless soldier had been framed by a superior, who actually committed the crime. Burdened with guilt, people placed stones at his unmarked grave and soon began talking about the miracles he performed.

Affectionately known as "Juan Soldado," ("Soldier John"), he was later adopted as the unofficial patron saint of the impoverished Mexicans who sneak illegally into the United States in search of a better life.

Details surrounding the circumstances of Juan Soldado's death vary, but most believe he was ordered by a higher-ranking officer to dispose of the body of Olga Consuela Camacho. In doing so, he stained his uniform with her blood and was chased down by a mob.

The army quickly declared him guilty, and he died in a hail of bullets as he ran across a dusty hillside in what is now part of the cemetery.

Juan Soldado is among a group of unofficial saints not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church but who are revered by people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. His shrine is a testament to the hardships of border life and the suffering of migrants who pass through the region's rough cities.

Taped to one wall of the shrine here is a Texas wanted poster seeking a man for the murder of a Mexican-American woman. A note scribbled in English on it reads: "This is the man that killed my daughter, I ask that you help me by bringing him to justice. Thank You. Gracias."

The poster said the man is believed to have fled to Mexico.

A handwritten note dated 1995 reads: "I thank God and the spirit of Juan Soldado for the miracle granted that saved this person from kidnappers."

Another note thanked Juan Soldado for reuniting a man with his family. Attached to it was a letter from the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, saying that the man's request for an immigrant visa was approved.

"He is very miraculous," said Luis Jimenez, 60, who prayed at the tomb with his wife on a recent afternoon.

Mr. Jimenez said Juan Soldado came to his rescue after he broke his ankle when he fell in a ditch while crossing the border. Mr. Jimenez, who was alone, thought he would die out in the isolated desert, but then a pickup truck drove past and spotted him.

The California family agreed to drive him back across the border to a hospital in Mexico.

"I believe Juan Soldado sent them to find me," Mr. Jimenez said.

Mr. Jimenez, who settled in Tijuana, has visited the tomb to give thanks every month for the past two years.

Many of the region's folk saints were underdogs with checkered pasts who battled the system or were failed by it.

Among them is Jesus Malverde, a Robin Hood-style outlaw from the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. Hanged in 1909 and believed to be one of Mexico's first marijuana growers, today he is the unofficial patron saint of drug traffickers.

Malverde's tomb is in Sinaloa's state capital, Culiacan, but there is also a small shrine to him outside Tijuana. Vendors sell leather braided necklaces with dual pictures of Juan Soldado and Malverde.

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