A centuries-old cultural icon in Mexico has recently taken on a sinister criminal purpose that has penetrated the U.S. heartland.
The haunting image of a skeleton resembling the Grim Reaper, cloaked in a veil –known as the Santa Muerte (Holy Death)—is traditionally prayed to by the faithful for anything from protection to financial well-being, depending on what color shroud she is adorned in.
For the past decade, however, the scythe wielding figure has been frequently associated with Mexico’s violent narco-culture—and that's beginning to worry law enforcement authorities across the border.
“The…ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States,” warns Robert Bunker a former instructor with the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, in a paper written for the FBI titled, Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings.
In a country that has seen more than 75,000 people killed in drug-related violence over the past six years, the reverence accorded an icon known as “The Lady of the Land of the Dead” is particularly ironic.
But U.S. authorities are watching with increasing concern the spread of the cult to jurisdictions across the country—noting that wherever the Santa Muerte appears, narco activity is not far away.
“I have no doubt these statues can be found all over the United States,” said Robert Almonte, U.S. Marshal, Western District of Texas.
Almonte said he has been studying Santa Muerte for over a decade and has seen a parallel rise in its popularity in both Mexico and the U.S. with the increase in cartel dominance and violence.
“We’ve been seeing it on a regular basis here, for the past three years,” reports Lt. Chris Handy, Vice and Narcotics Unit, De Moines, Iowa Police Department.
The Cult Spreads
Although Iowa seems far removed from the violence of Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, Handy said the presence of the cult illustrates how effectively Mexican cartels have penetrated the U.S.
He said while the Mexican population in Des Moines hasn’t seen any significant population growth, intelligence has revealed direct involvement in his city of the Juarez Cartel with marijuana and the Sinaloa Cartel with methamphetamine.
Jesus Malverdes is another icon exported to the U.S. by cartel operatives.
Considered the “Patron Saint” of narco traffickers, he is a folk figure once regarded as the patron saint of bandits until he was adopted by the cartels.
More benign looking than the Santa Muerte icon, the image of Jesus Malverdes is that of a well- groomed man wearing a white shirt and black tie.
Images of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverdes can be found in body tattoos, neighborhood gang graffiti, jewelry and vehicle accessories around the U.S.
Chief Nicholas Roti of Chicago's Bureau of Organized Crime says the icons have been appearing in the Windy City for some time.
“It’s very well know and common here,” Roti said of the Santa Muerte. “(They are) frequently worshiped by local drug dealers.”
A 'Pure Death'
Since before the Spanish conquest, the Mexican culture has revered the dead. Santa Muerte emerged as a hybrid of ancient and Catholic beliefs, where praying to this entity assures a “pure death” as well as requested favors. It is not recognized by the Catholic Church. In may, the Vartican espoused worship of the Santa Muerte as “blasphemous”.
For the faithful, the narco association is unmistakable in border cities like Ciudad Juarez.
Photo by Joseph J. Kolb
On a recent visit there, I found the only church in this city of 1.5 million, once known as “The Murder Capital of the World,” dedicated to the Santa Muerte.
Located on Gomez Marin Boulevard, a busy street lined with vibrant pastel facades of the bakeries, cell phone stores, and auto repair shops, the Santa Muerte Church is hard to miss. A black gate shields the entrance to a store front. Inside the gate is a grassy courtyard with a gravel pentagram and glass cases of Santa Muerte statues, each in different-colored gowns representing different meaning to the faithful. The church appeared to be a converted residence with the living quarters behind the small church that was nothing more than the size of a living room. Worshipers came and went most of the day.
At the door is a life-size statue of the Santa Muerte, shrouded in black, holding a globe and scythe.
Worshipers enter the dimly lit church, which is little bigger than a typical living room, and first approach a large crucifix hanging on the wall, asking God for permission to speak to the Santa Muerte.
Efforts to gain favor with the icon are evident everywhere you look in the church. Gifts of tequila, pastries, cigarettes, soda, and other items, line the altar with statues clad in different colors appropriate for specific petitions.
Many believers insist that the Santa Muerte should not be associated with narco-terrorism.
Late on a hot Juarez afternoon, 21-year-old Cynthia Martinez emerged from the church. She has been a believer for slightly over one year.
“I was arrested at the border and while sitting in jail she came to me in a dream,” Martinez said. “I thought I would spend nine months in jail but was only there for 25 days.”
Praying to 'The Lady”
Brandon Rodriguez, whose mother Yolanda is the head priest for the Santa Muerte church in Ciudad Juarez, concedes that narcos pray to the “lady,” as she is referred to, for protection, just as other faithful do.
One of the big attractions of the iconic figure is that she is regarded as a saint who does not judge her worshippers.
Neither does Rodriguez.
“(What they do) doesn’t bother me as long as they believe in her and pray to her,” Rodriguez says. “It is up to the lady to decide whether to answer their prayers or not.”
Rodriguez admits he has prayed for the families of people involved in the Juarez drug trade because of the uncertain future each day brings in that life.
One area that concerns Almonte is the sacrificial element of the cult.
“I know firsthand they have done human sacrifices in Mexico,” Almonte said.
He said he was not aware of any specific cases of human sacrifices in the U.S. but that police should be aware that is not out of the realm of possibility in the violent world of the narcos.
The popularity of the cult has also gotten the Vatican's attention.
In May, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture, denounced worshiping the icon as blasphemous while he was attending a conference in Mexico City.
“It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” said Cardinal Ravasi.
The dispute over where the Santa Muerte sits in Mexican culture is growing.
As the number of worshipers steadily increases, its association with the violent Mexican narco trade is unmistakable.
Narcos are known to pray to the Santa Muerte before conducting drug deals and even committing murders.
And as Mexican immigrants permeate the U.S., Santa Muerte has worried U.S. Latino church leaders because of its association with criminality.
Echoing the Cardinal, Father Samuel Rosales of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso, TX, just across the border, condemns the Santa Muerte as a cult of “death and violence.”
And for U.S. narcotics investigators, such as Chris Handy of Des Moines, the cult's sinister associations are hard to ignore.
“Every time we make a sizable narcotics arrest, we see Santa Muerte or Jesus Malverdes figures in the house,” he says.
Joseph J. Kolb is an adjunct instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University where he founded the undergraduate and graduate certificate program in Border Security Studies. He is also a regular contributor on border topics to Fox News.com. He welcomes comments from readers.