Only on 9: The Dark Religion of the Santa Muerte
POSTED: Thursday, March 26, 2009 - 6:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 3:20pm
Tijuana mexico, 2006, four people are arrested and charged with murder. Police say the four were drug smugglers, who turned on one of their partners. The victim, was tied to a chair. His captors wanted the money he had taken from them. They weren't happy when they found out he had spent it. "This subject gets a saw and cuts off his leg, cuts off another leg, cuts off his arm. He's dead and then this girl gets the cutting saw and cuts off his head and takes his head and offers it up to Santa Muerte." says Robert Almonte, the head of the Texas Narcotics Officers Association. Santa Muerte, the saint of death, was given the head as an offering. "They never recovered the head and she kept insisting that Santa Muerte had it." says Almonte. Two years later and 1,400 miles away, nearly 7,000 people gather on a street in Tapita, a barrio in Mexico City. It looks like your typical procession. Crowds of believers praying, bringing their sick for healing and their children for blessing. But, there is nothing typical about the object of their worship. Again, it's Santa Muerte. The saint of death is not a real saint, recognized by the catholic church. That doesn't matter to her worshippers who blow marijuana smoke into her face to activate her power. Depicted as a woman, she is nothing more than a skeleton, draped in cloth. But her increasing popularity and rise to god-like status among believers in Mexico is unprecedented. Like most saints, Santa Muerte can be found as a figurine, attached to charms, on the ends of rosaries or on candles or clothing. She also has become a common sight as a tattooed image on the bodies of her followers. Typically, she is depicted, holding either a globe, or a set of scales. "The globe, the world is her domain. The scales of justice, that's what she is going to look at when she comes to get you after you die and that is going to determine whether she takes you to heaven or hell. Part of that determination is did you worship her, did you worship her properly." explains Almonte. Almonte says Santa Muerte is drawing two distinct groups of followers. The first, those in Mexico's poorest neighborhoods. Far more alarming, the second group, Mexican drug traffickers. "You can pray to have a load of drugs smuggled in United States safely. You can pray for someone to get killed." says Almonte. Among narcos, Santa Muerte is not simply a cultural icon. She is real power and real protection. At the Webb County Jail in South Texas, inmates can be found praying at an altar that the Jail's director allowed them to set up. The altar is to Santa Muerte. On the table, several pictures of the death saint. There are prayers written on notebook paper and around those prayers are offerings. Candy bars, soda, anything inmates can buy, they will offer. These men, arrested on charges of drug trafficking, continue to ask for protection and help. "The santa muerte influences people who want to justify a destructive way of living. The santa muerte is an outward symbol of their inner destructive lifestyle." says Father Arturo Banuelas, Pastor at St. Pius Catholic Church. Banuelas is very familiar with the growing popularity of Santa Muerte. He is also very concerned about what it means for her so-called followers. "When you get close to symbols of darkness then the things of darkness flow into your life like killing and violence and revenge." explains Banuelas. He goes on to say that Santa Muerte is not some dark power from which drug traffickers are gaining strength and protection. She is actually a symbol of what is happening in their souls. "All people have goodness inside themselves but sometimes they make choices to use the worst parts of the themselves and therefore create a system, create a structure, create a religious symbol that justifies not having to use their better side." For many drug traffickers, the worship of Santa Muerte goes beyond simple offerings. Human offerings are also part of the equation. "The Sinoloa Cartel were taken to a couple of public shrines in Nuevo Laredo last year and they were taken there by members of the Gulf Cartel and they were executed at the Santa Muerte shrine. So yeah, they wanted to execute them but why at the Santa Muerte shrine? I believe it was an offering to Santa Muerte at the same time." says Almonte. In Juarez, we have no official record of killings associated with Santa Muerte but that doesn't mean they are not happening. Of the 1,600 murders in Juarez last year, there were two predominant kinds. First, the executions where someone is shot 300 times. Second, where bodies are found decapitated and stacked. In fact, in 2008 those decapitated and stacked bodies were found at least five different times. September, 2008, Yucantan, Mexico, just outside of cancun. Eleven bodies are found, heads cut off, and the bodies stacked on top of each other. In a nearby field, police find a circle where there are eleven burned spots. Authorities believe the heads of the eleven victims were burned here. Days later, when police raid the homes of the men they say were involved they found shrines to Santa Muerte. Investigators believe that was also an offering to Santa Muerte. Banuelas explains the human offerings this way. "Just cut off somebody's head and give it to the Santa Muerte and you think you're being religious and they are violating everything that is religious in their soul."