Luis Alberto's devotion to St. Jude started when his cousin died in January while robbing a bank.

"I have all sorts of friends who are criminals, and they pray to St. Jude," said Alberto, 23, who joined a throng of people in downtown Mexico City today for one of this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country's most unusual religious celebrations. "The drug addicts say when they pray to him, they always have drugs, and the robbers say they rarely get caught."

St. Jude Thaddeus, known in many countries as the patron saint of lost causes, is also known in Mexico as the patron of criminals and prisoners. On the 28th of every month, thousands of devotees come to San Hipolito church, a downtown church nearly 500 years old that hosts the city's most famous adoration of St. Jude. The crowd at San Hipolito is always so huge -- as it was today -- that it spills into major boulevards around the church.

Enough outlaws show up that undercover detectives come to observe. With long lenses, they update their photo files with images of some of the city's best-known hoodlums.

According to a high-ranking police official, better-known gangsters stay in their cars, hidden behind tinted windows, dispatching flunkies to the altar with flowers or money to give thanks to St. Jude for the fact that they have not been caught. "A lot of criminals are very religious," the police official said.

Jorge Ramirez, a tattooed butcher who admits he hasn't always been a law-abiding citizen, agrees. He recently walked four hours to the church, carrying a four-foot-tall statue of St. Jude. The wooden statue, he explained, belongs to a friend who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for robbery. He said he hoped the pilgrimage might get his friend freed sooner.

Many Mexican prison cells have statues of St. Jude. Benjamin Arellano Felix, Mexico's most famous drug lord, said in a recent prison interview that he kept a St. Jude statue in his house while he evaded police for nearly a decade before his capture in March.

"He is the patron saint of hopeless cases like mine," said Arellano, who is awaiting trial in the La Palma maximum-security prison outside Mexico City. "I know St. Jude performs many miracles. I want to believe in something, to believe that St. Jude will help me somehow."

St. Jude, according to the Catholic Church, was an apostle who was clubbed to death by a mob. Even after he was elevated to sainthood, many people were said to have avoided praying to him lest their prayers be mistakenly directed to Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. And so, the legend goes, by the time St. Jude heard someone's prayers, people had tried every other saint with no luck, making him the patron of long shots.

As Ramirez, the butcher, arrived at the church, he neared a pair of uniformed police officers. One of them, Robinson Hernandez Armenta, had just purchased a St. Jude votive candle from one of the dozens of stalls outside the church selling St. Jude shirts, calendars, key chains and clocks. Many police officers are also devoteesMany police stations here keep St. Jude statues on display, and priests regularly hold special Masses for police devotees.

When several police officers accused of links to the Arellano Felix drug cartel were released without formal charges in April, they went on a high-profile pilgrimage to San Hipolito church to give thanks.

"He's the patron saint for both sides of the law," Hernandez said. "We all entrust ourselves to him."

St. Jude also commands a following of people who do not carry guns. Guadalupe Perez del Castillo prays to him for difficult things. She comes to the church every month to give away two dozen statues of St. Jude. She said it is her way of saying thank you for the recovery of her daughter, who regained her ability to walk after she became incapacitated when she was 14 years old.

"St. Jude gave me a miracle. So I give away these statues," she said.

Many people who say St. Jude has answered their prayers -- including a banker who came in a Cadillac and a housewife who came pushing her stroller -- also come every month to hand out food, money or clothing outside San Hipolito. This has made the saint all the more popular with the poor who get the handouts.

One businesswoman recently came with a monstrous case of spaghetti, handing a bag out to everyone she saw. Others brought jars of mayonnaise and bottles of cooking oil. Irene Cruz Moncada and her husband, Roberto Lugo Marin, came with a bag of coins to give thanks for what they describe as the miraculous recovery of their sick daughter.

"We believe in St. Jude deeply. When you give away money, it multiplies," she said.

Divina Ruiz said she came six hours on a bus from her home state of Veracruz to see if the saint could help her financially. She had made three-foot-long rosaries to sell to the crowds. After only a few hours her business was going so well, she said, she hoped to sell 250. "He makes a lot of miracles," said the 48-year-old woman.

Mexico City police officers Robinson Hernandez, left, and Miguel Garcia stand outside San Hipolito church with statues of St. Jude.Jorge Ramirez, a butcher, said he pays tribute to St. Jude in hopes that a friend will be released early from jail. St. Jude Thaddeus, known in many countries as the patron saint of lost causes, is considered in Mexico to be the patron of criminals and prisoners. Many police officers are also devotees.