(Reuters) – Mexican police have arrested the leader of Mexico’s “Saint Death” cult and accused him of kidnapping and posing as a member of the feared Zetas drug cartel.
David Romo, considered the high priest of a cult with millions of followers across the Americas, was presented to the media on Tuesday in the Mexican capital after being arrested in late December along with eight others including a minor.
Romo, 42, is accused of helping to kidnap two elderly people and depositing the ransom payment in his bank account, Mexico City’s attorney general’s office said.
The Zetas are one of Mexico’s most violent drug gangs that are fighting rivals and security forces across the country in a four-year-long battle that has killed more than 30,000 people.
Romo has denied any wrongdoing and said his church condemns violence and has no links to drug traffickers, but that he leaves the door open to everyone.
The church’s followers have long protested what they say is an undeserved reputation as criminals. They say people from all backgrounds worship the Death Saint, at ceremonies that include an altered version of the Roman Catholic Mass. They place offerings of candy and cigarettes before images of the saint, usually depicted as a robed skeleton. At Romo’s church, chains are hung on walls as examples of favors granted by the saint, often including getting out of jail.
The church’s website features ceremonies to help prisoners get out of legal problems.
In 2005, the government canceled the church’s official recognition as a religious group, arguing it had violated its own statutes. Only officially recognized churches are allowed to raise money and own property in Mexico.
When the group registered with the Interior Department in 2003, it declared its purpose was to “conserve the Holy Tridentine Mass” of the Roman Catholic Church. A dissident priest from the group said it had violated that precept.
The group did not mention in its registry application that its main activity is to pray for the intercession of Saint Death. The saint is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, but followers use elements of Catholic rites.