Oct 5, 2016

Drug traffickers pray to 'Santa Muerte' for help

Earl Rinehart
The Columbus Dispatch
October 4, 2016

A skeletal figure representing the folk saint known in Mexico as "Santa Muerte" or "Death Saint," sits in a vendor's stall at a market in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
State Highway Patrol troopers stopped an eastbound tractor-trailer on Interstate 70 near Cambridge last month for swerving and having a broken tail light.

When they talked to the driver, Efrain Gama Hurtado, and his passenger, Luis Armando Ruiz, something just didn't seem right. The truck's log books didn't match their travel from California and both men seemed overly nervous for a traffic stop.

Then one of the troopers spotted a medallion hanging from Ruiz's neck. It featured a skeleton dressed as the Virgin Mary.

It was Santa Muerte, or Sacred Death, the patron saint of drug traffickers.

That necklace, as well as "criminal indicators consistent with illegal narcotics activity," warranted a search, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Frank Eichenlaub wrote in an affidavit. A drug-sniffing dog led to a stash of more than 66 pounds of cocaine in a hidden compartment behind the dashboard.

Hurtado 46, and Ruiz, 40, both from California, were indicted in federal court on charges of possession with intent to distribute the drug. They were being held in the Franklin County jail.

According to Eichenlaub's affidavit, Ruiz said he and Hurtado, owner of Destiny Transport, made regular trips hauling narcotics.

Police and drug agents are familiar with Santa Muerte. "It's just something you pick up working the streets," said a law enforcement official who asked not to be named.

Drug traffickers adopted Santa Muerte in the late 1980s, said R. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint."

"If you want your shipment of meth to arrive safely, it's easier to ask her than the Virgin of Guadalupe," Chesnut said.

In one episode of the popular TV show "Breaking Bad," drug dealers in suits arrive in a dusty Mexican village, get out of their Mercedes and crawl on their bellies to pray at a shrine to Santa Muerte.

There are prayers to Santa Muerte. One reads, "Holy mother death: Defend us from our enemies and protect us now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

In the Southwest, law enforcement officials use possession of Santa Muerte paraphernalia as a probable cause for search and seizure in suspected drug-trafficking cases, Chesnut said.

One origin of the "saint," which is condemned by the Catholic Church, is traced to Spanish conquistadors, who brought the faith and images of the Grim Reaper to Mexico, he said. The indigenous people merged their own deities of death with the Catholic practice of praying to saints.

Devotion to Santa Muerte went public when quesadilla vendor Enriqueta Romero placed a life-size effigy of it in front of her Mexico City house on Halloween 2001. Some accounts say the rising tide of drug-related kidnappings and gruesome killings turned many Mexicans to Santa Muerte for protection.

Sometimes, she is dressed in elaborate, jeweled robes. Other times, she holds a scythe. Statues often are carried in parades on Halloween and All Souls' Day. Sometimes the skull is real.

The number of devotees exceeds 10 million, predominately in Mexico, the U.S., and Central America, making it the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas, Chesnut said.

The figure is popular with women, who turn to her to find love, or to bring back or punish a straying spouse or boyfriend and wish ill will on the "other woman."

Although the church might disagree, many who pray to Santa Muerte for their darker wishes consider themselves devoted Catholics, Chesnut said.

He noted that Mexican esoterica shops sell more Santa Muerte figurines than they do icons of Our Lady of of Guadalupe, Mexico’s longtime patron saint, who has her own medallion.


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