Dec 27, 2016

La Santa Muerte: 'Patron saint of Narcos' rattles the Catholic Church

Follower of Santa Muerte holds a sacred statue during a ceremony in Tepito
The Telegraph
By Ruth Sherlock And James Fredrick, tepito, mexico city
25 DECEMBER 2016

Holding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other, the Santa Muerte could be easily mistaken for the Grim Reaper. But to her supporters, this skeletal saint, affectionately nicknamed “skinny woman”, has the power to heal illness, bring prosperity and even help them find love.

Known as the patron saint of violent drug cartels for her relative tolerance, Our Lady of Holy Death is perhaps the fastest growing religion in the Americas.

When Jasmin Marquez was sentenced to life in prison but freed after only a year, she attributed the "miracle" to this smiling skeleton in a dress.

Standing reverently before the shrine of the Santa Muerte she carefully lit a cigarette and let it burn without toking.

“It’s for her,” she explained, in a whisper so as not to disturb the other worshippers.

Ms Marquez, 27, spoke from Tepito, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous ‘barrios’ and the principal sanctuary of a cult that now has millions of faithful in its grip, with more joining every day.

“From Chile to Canada, Santa Muerte has no rival in terms of the rapidity and scope of its expansion,” said Andrew Chesnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

“In 2001 when devotion to the folk religion first went public in Mexico, Saint Death was unknown to 99 per cent of Mexicans. In just 15 years Santa Muerte has attracted an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees, primarily in Mexico, Central America, and the US.”

He added that the religion now also has followers across the globe, “including in the UK, Australia".

Worship of the Santa Muerte was initially clandestine, the prayers and rites quietly uttered at alters fashioned by believers in their homes.

More forgiving than the Catholic church - she is said not to punish traditional sins - she grew popular in Mexico's prisons. Inmates inscribe her on cell walls. Some hold on to small pieces of paper bearing her drawing when they sleep. Counter-narcotics teams have often found shrines in raids on drug lord's safe houses.

Ms Marquez, who was coy about the reasons for her criminal conviction, bears a tattoo of the saint on her arm.

But sometime around the turn of the 21st century, the Santa Muerte burst into the mainstream.

One of the people credited with this change is Enriqueta Romero, a charismatic follower often referred to as the religion's “high priestess”.

Mrs Romero bears little relation to a priestess in the traditional sense. Growing up in Tepito, she speaks in colourful slang, peppered with expletives. Her hair is dyed black, but for a shock of white across the top. She wears white high-heels, and you see the flash of a golden tooth when she smiles. Figurines of the saint adorn her ears.

Now in her 70s, she grew up with the deity in her home, and said she simply decided one day to place her outside for all to see: “I believed she shouldn’t stay hidden any more,” she said.

“I love the death, her physique. She shouldn’t be feared; she is not vengeful, she will not hasten your death. She is part of life and she protects those no one else will.”

“They call me the priestess, but I don’t do weddings, confirmations or baptisms,” she said. “The alter is what has faith.”

The skeleton is now protected by a glass panel. When the Telegraph visited she was dressed in a wig of long dark brown hair, and a green and gold silk robe.

Portraits hung beside the Santa Muerte show her past outfits: a silver headscarf dotted with jewels, a wedding dress and veil, a flamboyant green floor length dress adorned with a feather boa and wide-brimmed hat of the same colour.

Mrs Romero is defensive of her skeleton: “Everyone thinks the Santa Muerte is for Narcos,” she said. “But it can be whatever you want it to be and for whoever wants to have faith in her. You can be a prostitute and worship the Santa Muerte.”

On the day the Telegraph visited, worshippers included people from all walks of life. Some were locals; some had travelled from countries around the continent, but each had the intention of forming their own pact with the saint.

One man offered the skeleton a bottle of cheap tequila. He had been an alcoholic, but, Mrs Romero said, she got him sober, and is now the receptacle for his vices. As part of the agreement, he visits the shrine every two weeks.

“I’ve tried to get sober for a year but she was the only thing that has kept me sober this long,” he said, adding he hadn't touched alcohol for eight months, nor had he missed a visit.

Historians say the folk religion has its roots in Mexico’s ancient Aztec culture. But its modern iteration incorporates many of the rituals of the Catholic church.

Mrs Romero believes the two religions are symbiotic: on the front of the shelter that houses the Santa Muerte hangs a statue of Jesus on the cross. They are, she says, both ways of worshipping the same God.

In gifts to the saint, devotees mix traditional religious offerings, with their own interpretations of what the skeleton might enjoy. The alter at her bony feet has both gently flickering votive candles, and Lambrusco wine. Instead of incense, one man lit a Marijuana joint.

These actions have only further incensed the Catholic church, who already viewed the folk religion as a blasphemous threat to its standing in Mexico.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture has declared the faith the"degeneration of religion".

"It's not religion just because it's dressed up like religion; it's a blasphemy against religion,” he said.

The Mexican government briefly tried to suppress the cult, with the army demolishing some 40 roadside shrines close to the US border in 2009.

But the efforts failed, and by the time Mr Ravasi spoke in 2013, the Santa Muerte had come to rival the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s “national patroness” in popularity. Today, the two statues are often sold side by side in shops.

The willingness of worshippers to risk coming to the Tepito district, is another sign of their devotion. Home to a sprawling market of, mostly illegal, goods - you can buy everything from fake Adidas sports-wear to a hitman - the barrio is known for its sky high crime rates.

Strangers are particularly vulnerable. When The Telegraph visited, an elderly lady was robbed at gun point just metres from the Santa Muerte where she had come to pray.

Arriving at the shrine she fainted from the shock. A local resident rubbed tequila on her neck and chest, using the smell to rouse her.

The scene did nothing to deter Amalia Cordero, 55, who spoke of the Santa Muerte with the passion of a born-again Christian coming to Jesus.

She has had “complete faith” from the moment she first laid eyes on a lit figurine of the “Beautiful Lady” on the side of a road, she said, choking up with emotion. And while she’s been Catholic all her life, she said she never truly felt God until finding Santa Muerte.

Defending the saint’s association with narcos she said: “Santa Muerte herself isn’t bad. We make her bad. We make her do those things. She’s an angel God created and each person can ask what they want of her. It’s sad when people use her for evil.”

Away from the shrine, in the centre of Mexico City, not everyone sees the religion this way. Maria, 43, a taxi driver who chose not to give her name was wide-eyed with fear as she spoke of the deity.

She too had worshipped her once, she said. But she felt too controlled by her and so she decided to stop. In the following year, her brother, her son in law, and an uncle all died, one in a car accident and two from illnesses.

“I know its her. She did this,” she said. “Now I see her all the time. When I try to sleep she comes to my bedroom.”

“Be careful,” she said, at the end of the interview, the urgency clear in her voice. “Research her by all means, but don’t join her. Because once you do she won’t let you leave.”

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