On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.
Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.
But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.
Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)
Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.
Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.
Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.
So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.
Now, it gets interesting.
With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.
Maybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.
But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.
He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.
Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.
Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.
Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)
Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.
As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.
Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.
The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.
“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”