Gangsters pray to Our Lady of Death for protection on Mexico’s meanest streets
The heavily tattooed Mexican thief Angel La Rata, known on the streets as the Rat, patted down the brocaded gown of the skeletal figurine and clamped a lit cigarette between its jaws as he waited for the service to begin.
A twice-jailed armed robber, he is among thousands of pickpockets, car thieves, kidnappers and prostitutes in one of Mexico City’s toughest neighbourhoods who have flocked to join a booming death cult.
The first day of each month, hardened criminals of the capital’s no-go Tepito neighbourhood clutch death figures to their chests and flock to a kerbside shrine of Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Death, to pray.
Bedecked in a sequined cloak and wielding a life-sized scythe, the death’s head saint gazes out from a glass casket over a blaze of candles, flowers, tequila bottles and cigar stubs, brought by believers to sway her favour.
“Jail is a no man’s land where you can be stabbed or killed in an instant,” Angel said. “But Santa Muerte is the guardian with the scythe who looks over you and your family while you are in there.”
A few steps up the street, a feared local underworld figure stood over two cases of shiny red apples which he handed out to pilgrims in the gathering darkness on Saturday. Having been arrested and with a shipment of “merchandise” in the hands of police, he prayed fervently to Santa Muerte for a miracle that would set him back on the streets of the Wild Neighbourhood, as Tepito is known.
“She helped me, and I promised her I would do this every month for a year, and that’s just what I’m doing,” the devotee said. “If you promise Santa Muerte something, then you have to comply.”
The thriving death cult can be traced back to the Aztecs, who founded the modern city amid the blood and bones of thousands of sacrificial victims. Banished by the Catholic Church in the Conquest, it then went underground.
Almost unheard of until a decade ago, the macabre cult is now booming. Around 30 shrines have sprung up across the capital recently and Mexican communities in the US and South America now contain adherents.
One of the leading experts on the phenomenon is the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis, a former president of the international writers’ group PEN, whose novel about the booming cult became an instant bestseller on publication earlier this year.
“Santa Muerte is the goddess of the desperate,” Aridjis said. “Belief in her is bursting out of this den of thieves and into society at large as people become less trusting of bureaucratic and corrupt governments and an authoritarian Church.
“You can ask favours of Santa Muerte that you couldn’t ask of the Virgin.
“People say to her, ‘Protect me – tonight I’m going out to kidnap and to steal,’ because she doesn’t ask any questions.
“But if she helps you, that help always comes at a price.”
As the 8pm start to the service drew near, the broad street filled with some five thousand faithful, many clutching death figures. Some were bought from shops, others were rough-hewn from wood or knocked up out of papier-mâché. All were cherished.
The crowd recited the rosary, led by a lay priest. Pausing to pray for the sick, the poor and the jailed – “whether rightly or wrongly” – they called on God, the Virgin and Santa Muerte. The healer Ana Luisa Mendez, picking through the eclectic mix, was quite clear where her loyalties lay.
“I believe in God and the Virgin, but Santa Muerte is like a mother to me,” she said as she exhaled pungent cigar smoke in a cleansing ceremony.
“She takes care of me, my family, and all my loved ones, and that’s what really counts around here.”