Mar 28, 2014

The battle for a nation’s soul: How the cult of Santa Muerte has infested Mexico’s drug cartels with gruesome consequences

Herald Sun (Australia), March 28, 2014
By Josh Whittington

SHE’S a Grim Reaper goddess with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

She specialises in protecting you from your enemies and will help smite those you wish to harm.

She is a jealous and vengeful deity who demands you conduct rituals and sacrifices with proper care to avoid her divine wrath.

And while she will deliver you safely to the afterlife, most important of all, she will never, ever judge you.

She is the skeleton saint, the saint for sinners and the saint of last resort.

She is Santa Muerte — the personification of death gathering a growing following among the infamous drug cartels of Mexico and sparking a modern-day battle between good and evil for the very soul of a nation.

ON November 1 each year thousands of people descend on the rough and gritty neighbourhood of Tepito in Mexico City. Some walk on their knees for blocks, tightly but carefully clutching small skeletal figures, as they slowly near a shrine depicting a life-size image of their female deity. Others proudly carry babies to be presented. Some arrive with only prayers.
The goddess they approach is a skeleton, dressed as a bride and wearing hundreds of pieces of glittering gold jewellery that have already been offered up by her devoted followers.
A carnival atmosphere pervades the throng around her. Food is served, bands play and candles are lit. Flowers, fruits, sweets and money are readied as gifts. Colour abounds. Senses are in overload.
But there is no incense lit. In a clue to the dark nature of their idol, the faithful blow marijuana smoke for her to inhale instead.
For while this may look like and carry many of the trappings of a traditional religious gathering, it is something no church official would take part in. This is the cult of Santa Muerte’s most important ceremony of the year and images of death are everywhere.
SANTA Muerte translates into English as “Saint Death” or “Holy Death” — and it most certainly becomes her.
Usually, but not universally, represented by a cloaked female skeleton wearing a wedding dress and clutching a scythe or globe, she is both fearsome and alluring. Sometimes strikingly draped in colourful, extravagant garb at other times she appears garishly resplendent in gold jewellery, trinkets and sequins. In different incarnations, she is either darkly foreboding all in black or glowing all in white.
Clearly many things to many people, she is fittingly known by numerous other sobriquets — the Skinny Lady, the Bony Lady, the White Girl, the White Sister, the Pretty Girl, the Powerful Lady or the Godmother to name but a few.
Although worshipped like a goddess, she is in effect a folk saint — albeit, as author and professor R. Andrew Chesnut explains, a rather special and unique one.
“Folk saints, unlike official Catholic ones, are spirits of the dead considered holy for their miracle-working powers. However, what really sets the Bony Lady apart from other folk saints is that for most devotees she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being,” he says.
While the burgeoning cult surrounding her cannot be considered a fully-fledged religion it does boast many of the fixtures — self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualised elements. Devotees pray at homemade altars and often offer up candles, fruit and even tequila in the hope she will grant their wishes.
Her followers have, in effect, merged traditional ways of venerating saints with their own local beliefs.
This has led to varied and often personalised faith systems surrounding Santa Muerte — and has meant the made-to-measure saint has become more and more popular.
ENRIQUETA Romero decided to build her shrine to Santa Muerte in Tepito more than a decade ago.
A religious woman of simple means, she shocked her neighbours by placing her simple homage to the Saint of Death outside her modest home.
The astounding, if gradual, transformation of her small tribute into a focal point of the entire nation’s reverence of the “Bony Lady” perfectly illustrates the growth in Santa Muerte’s adoration as a whole in Mexico.
Thought to have been around as an object of reverence for about half a century, a staggering eight million people around the nation are estimated to follow the saint for sinners today. There are more followers in the US and Central America.
Once an underground movement — most prayers and rites were traditionally performed privately in people’s home — it is well and truly out in the open now.
The real explosion in popularity came during the 1990s as Mexico faltered economically. Typically poor, uneducated and superstitious members of a struggling population looking for answers were drawn inexorably to the deathly folk saint who could grant miracles without judgment.
Journalist and author Jose Gil Olmos said those who found themselves living in misery were in desperate need of one thing — hope. They found it in the welcome embrace of Santa Muerte.
THE saint of last resort is amoral and does not judge.
More than any other reason for Santa Muerte’s enthusiastic support among those in need, her unwillingness to stand in judgment stands out.
“Since she’s not an official Christian saint, you can ask her for things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise ask a canonised saint for,” Professor Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, told NBC last year.
“She’s got a reputation as a very prompt miracle worker. That, I would say, is the number one reason for her mushrooming cult.
“Here you’re asking a figure of death, a representation of death, for a few more grains of sand in the hour glass.”
For each follower, however, the reasons for worshipping the skeleton saint can vary, depending on circumstance. Yes, she may represent death and dark desires but she can also fill a basic need for love and affection if required.
“She loves us and heals us. People come here to ask her for help — a son in prison or with Aids, or something to eat,” Romero said. “Holy Death is our saviour, our light. It’s very difficult to explain what she means to us. She protects those no one else will protect.”
It does not need to be an exclusive devotion.
Many of those who kneel at the bones of Santa Muerte still view themselves as staunch Catholics — the dominant religion in Mexico. They simply feel they get something from the Skinny Lady they cannot get elsewhere.
“Many of the pilgrims who gather around shrines to the saint of death still see themselves as devout Catholics. Some self-appointed ‘priests’, claiming to be leaders of a cult that has no hierarchies or structure, have even tried to insist that their temples are part of the official church,” Prof Chesnut says.
WITH pews increasingly empty across Mexico, the Catholic Church has found itself looking on at Santa Muerte’s growing flock with offended but uncertain eyes.
“On the one hand, the cult is un-Catholic, extravagant, and sometimes horrifying,” Prof Chesnut says. “On the other hand, churches are losing their flocks at alarming rates, even in predominantly Catholic Mexico, and it may be that Rome is anxious not to alienate millions of practising believers who might worship a different kind of saint on the side.”
Nonetheless, the Vatican’s view appears to have indirectly been made clear by comments from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
 “It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” he said late last year. “Everyone is needed to put the brakes on this phenomenon, including families, churches and society in its totality.”
And just in case people didn’t get the message, he declared that devotion to Santa Muerte “is the celebration of devastation and of hell”.
Unfortunately for the church it is a view carrying little weight with the Bony Lady’s burgeoning group of devotees.
Jose Roberto Jaimes, one of those who came to Tepito to thank Santa Muerte, told the BBC: “I also believe in God, in the Virgin, and all the saints, but I am more devout to [Saint] Death. She is the one that helps me the most.”
IN a country racked by a deadly and protracted drugs war, the adoration of Santa Muerte has taken sinister and gruesome forms.
Father Ernesto Caro simply cannot forget the drug gang hitman who came to be exorcised at his Monterrey church. The cartel member confessed to cutting up the bodies of his victims into pieces and burning others alive. He also told how he enjoyed hearing their screams as he did so. The man, believing himself to be possessed by demons, explained he was devoted to the service of Santa Muerte.
And he is not the only disciple among the murderous and brutal gangs and cartels of Mexico.
“Santa Muerte is being used by all our drug dealers and those linked to these brutal murders. We’ve found that most of them, if not all, follow Santa Muerte,” Father Caro told the BBC.
For men and women dealing daily with death and the threat of death, the attraction of an amoral deity is not surprisingly potent.
 “For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, brutal deaths prove almost certain,” Robert J. Bunker, author and visiting professor at the Strategic Studies Institute in the US, writes in an article published on the FBI website. “Such a form of imminent mortality facing adherents makes the worship of Santa Muerte spiritually dark. The death of someone’s enemies, protection from harm (or, at least, hope for a quick and glorious death), cultivation of a dangerous reputation, and ability to enjoy the benefits of fabulous riches, including the company of beautiful women become paramount.”
The implications of such “dark” worship are terrifyingly clear.
“With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Rather than plates of food, beer, and tobacco, in some instances, the heads of victims (and presumably their souls) have served as offerings to invoke powerful petitions for divine intervention,” Bunker says.
FOR Father Francisco Bautista, from Mexico City, there is no doubt the link between the drug cartels and Santa Muerte has mushroomed in the last decade — with increasingly horrifying consequences.
“From approximately eight years ago we have seen Santa Muerte having a big presence with drug cartel members, from the bosses all the way down. Why? Because these people say that Jesus or the Virgin Mary can’t provide what they ask for, which is to be protected from soldiers, police and their enemies,” he told the BBC.
“In exchange they offer human sacrifices. And this has increased the violence in Mexico.”
The evidence of this disturbing correlation is both illustrative and shocking. For example:
* A powerful criminal figure in Tepito is said to have killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to gain magical protection;
* Gang members have taken rival cartel members to Santa Muerte shrines and executed them as offerings;
* Police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims; and
* Authorities found 50 victims of a mass murder in the northern state of Sinaloa, all with tattoos and jewellery depicting Santa Muerte.
Just a small, if nonetheless sickening, taste of the violence linked to the Bony Lady — there are far worse examples so appalling as to defy belief.
The Saint of Death indeed.
WHILE the battle between drug gangs, government forces and, more recently, vigilante groups rages on, the rise of Santa Muerte has imbued the clash with a frightening spiritual aspect.
It appears a conflict of religion is being waged side-by-side with a conflict of law.
On one side are the gangs who worship the Saint of Death and on the other, the authorities defending the nation’s more established and traditional religious views.
The result: shrines to the Grim Reapress have become legitimate targets for the military as it attempts to quell the influence of the drug cartels.
 “Members of the Catholic Church and the army see the growth of this cult as a dangerous development,” Bunker writes.
Indeed, Prof Chesnut says his interest in the saint of death was first piqued after he saw the Mexican government bulldoze more than 40 Santa Muerte shrines on the US/Mexican border.
“I thought it was just amazingly intriguing that this folk saint had become spiritual enemy number one of the Mexican government in its war against the drug cartels,” he told NBC.
A high priest linked to the cult was even arrested on kidnapping charges in 2010.
A bizarre by-product of this theological clash is an explosion in the number of exorcisms being conducted in Mexico.
Journalist Vladimir Hernandez recently reported on the nation’s exorcists facing an unprecedented demand for their services, ridding people of demons every day of the week.
“There is an infestation of demons in Mexico because we have opened our doors to death,” Father Bautista bluntly told the BBC reporter.
The fantastical appears to have become an everyday problem.
“We believe that behind all these big and structural evils there is a dark agent and his name is The Demon. That is why the Lord wants to have here a ministry of exorcism and liberation, for the fight against the Devil,” Father Carlos Triana, from Mexico City, says.
 “As much as we believe that the Devil was behind Adolf Hitler, possessing and directing him, we also believe that he (the Devil) is here behind the drug cartels.”
Father Caro makes no bones about it — the Church has been drawn into a fight for the nation’s soul.
“He [Former President Felipe Calderon] started a war against them [the cartels] and he started a war as well against the cult of Saint Death, and he asked the church to help him,” he said.
The Catholic Church, for its part, says Mexico has to send out a clear message to its young generation.
“The mafia, drug trafficking and organised crime don’t have a religious aspect and have nothing to do with religion, even if they use the image of Santa Muerte,” he said.
Meanwhile, millions keep praying to the Saint of Death.