Visitors to Mexico City come for many things, but may be surprised by what they find. Shrines to a peculiar saint are tucked away in the basements, nooks and crannies of the city and houses, but the Lady on the altar isn’t your average icon… and she doesn’t have your average following. Meet Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, more commonly known as Santa Muerte–literally Saint Death. She’s portrayed in shrines across Mexico, as well as into the United States and Europe, as a skeleton clad in elegant clothes and holding a scythe.
Also known as the Bony Lady, she is the embodiment of death that an estimated 7 to 12 million followers worship–a number that has been steadily rising since the late 1980s to early 1990s. The cult of Santa Muerte is often considered a “cult of crisis,” as her patrons are typically from the urban working class and other underprivileged sectors, including sex workers, criminals, the LGBTQ community, and impoverished communities. Part of the appeal of Santa Muerte is that she is said to not discriminate and offers her assistance to anyone. But that welcoming attitude has drawn the attention and devotion of some of Mexico’s most feared criminals, including drug cartels. As a result, Santa Muerte has been the skeletal source of a lot of controversy.
Santa Muerte’s followers are said to compose a cult, but this isn’t a cult in the stereotypical sense (i.e. Branch Davidians, etc). The most obvious difference is that the center of attention isn’t one individual charismatic leader, but shrines. Her worshipers bring her beverages (as a skeleton she’s eternally thirsty), cigarettes, candy, clothes, and anything else they feel might satiate her. Since she isn’t officially approved by the Vatican, her supplicants also have no problem asking her for assistance in ensuring their drug deal goes through, or wishing for the death of their enemies.
While it’s loosely assumed that Santa Muerte is within a group with all of the other Catholic saints, in reality her pervasive presence in a very Catholic Mexican culture is a source of great controversy. While she is typically associated with Mexico, Santa Muerte’s origins are greatly debated. The most likely scenario is that Santa Muerte is a melding between Mesoamerican, including the Aztecs, and Spanish Catholic beliefs regarding the duality between life and imminent death. The cult of Santa Muerte has gathered such a following that the Catholic church felt the need to denounce the Bony Lady several times. Some priests even go as far to link the blasphemous increase in Santa Muerte followers to the perceived increase in exorcisms and the dwindling number of Catholic church attendees.
The primary issue is that she’s one of two “narco-saints,” in that worship of her is extremely prominent in prisons and drug cartels. She is also considered the patron saint for those involved in illicit businesses. Prisoners pray for her protection while they’re incarcerated and place tiny pictures of her next to their cots. Drug cartel members decorate their bodies with elaborate tattoos of Santa Muerte, and pray to her to protect them during transactions. Santa Muerte has been associated with multiple prominent kidnappings, decapitations, torture, cartel battles, and ritualistic killings–both in Central America and in the United States.
Apparently, the connection between the seemingly benign skeleton and crime is such a prevalent issue that the FBI issued a condemning three part report. The author, Dr. Bunker, says the following about the extreme sectors of the Holy Death cult:
“This variant of the cult promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. Sometimes it can be so extreme that it condones morally corrupt behaviors—what many people would consider as resulting from an evil value system that rewards personal gain above all else, promoting the intentional pain and suffering of others, and, even, viewing killing as a pleasurable activity.”
Despite the large number of followers Santa Muerte has, the more radical followers have emerged to make the news. In addition to her link with cartels, a number of scandals involving Santa Muerte have broken in recent years.In 2009, 2010, and 2012, cult “priests” and their followers were discovered sacrificing victims on the altar of Saint Death by slicing open the victims’ veins, collecting the blood and then spreading the blood around, and on the altar.
Reportedly, the former Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, found the link between Santa Muerte and crime so apparent that he launched a military assault against over 40 of her shrines. Law officials still periodically bulldoze Santa Muerte shrines in the small border towns. In 2009, federal police destroyed a shrine in Del Rio, Texas–meaning this practice is no longer constrained to Mexico. Santa Muerte cult followers protest that law officials’ fight with the drug cartels has gone too far, and is infringing on their religious freedom.
Despite the correlation between crime and the Bony Lady, the majority of the cult followers are simply offering candy, incense, and beer to the ornate shrines across the country. Every month in Mexico, it’s estimated that 1,000 people die related to drug violence, and about 10.7 million households contain at least one person impacted by drug-related violence. In a country where the chance for justice for the victims of poverty, crime, and corruption is highly unlikely, the desperate people turn to a higher power for protection, revenge, and miracles. As Enriqueta Romero, the founder of the primary Santa Muerte shrine in Tepito, said: “Holy Death is our savior, our light… She protects those no one else will protect.”
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