The cult of Santa Muerte making inroads in the US

NBC 12 in Richmond, Virginia has taken a look at the growing cult of Santa Muerte — the saint of death.

She’s the face of death. Cloaked. Bones exposed. But Santa Muerte is no longer in the shadows — millions are following her.

“She’s got a reputation as a very prompt miracle worker,” said VCU professor of Religious Studies, Andrew Chesnut. “That, I would say, is the number one reason for her mushrooming cult.”

Santa Muerte has many nicknames, including: the bony lady, the grim reapress, the saint of death. Chesnut is one of the world’s leading experts on Santa Muerte. He even wrote a book, ‘Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.’

“Here you’re asking a figure of death, a representation of death, for a few more grains of sand in the hour glass,” said Chesnut.

She caught his curiosity after he saw the Mexican government bulldoze more than 40 Santa Muerte shrines on the US/Mexican border.

“I thought it was just amazingly intriguing that this folk saint had become spiritual enemy number one of the Mexican government in its war against the drug cartels.”

That’s because some call her the saint for sinners.

She’s not an official canonized Catholic Saint. In fact, she’s been condemned by the Mexican Catholic Church. She’s what you call a folk saint.

“Since she’s not an official Christian saint, you can ask her for things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise ask a canonized saint for,” said Chesnut.

She’s attractive to the criminal element. She’s big in Mexican prisons and among drug traffickers, and prostitutes. She’s also made her way across the border.

This photo was snapped by Immigration and Customs agents. It’s a Santa Muerte shrine found during the raid of an illegal document ring with ties to Richmond.

“The fact that she’s here in Richmond, where the Latino population doesn’t exceed six percent, is really significant,” said Chesnut.

She’s also quite important to the working class. Santa Muerte has an estimated five million followers world wide.

In 2008 the Chicago Tribune wrote that

as Mexican immigrants journey north, devotion to Santa Muerte has grown immensely in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson, Ariz., and other urban areas. In one of the more unusual religious phenomena to cross the border, statuettes, candles, charms and medallions of the skeletal figure are sold in supermarkets, dollar stores, malls and flea markets.

Last September Tim Stanley, a historian of the United States, said in the Telegraph

Santa Muerte is part Virgin Mary, part folk demon. The image of a cloaked saint wielding a scythe is supposed to offer those who venerate it spiritual protection. Offerings come in the form of flowers, alcohol, sweets and tobacco. Contraband can be used to invoke protection from the police. For the poor of Mexico – a nation torn between extremes of wealth and injustice – Santa Muerte is a very pragmatic saint. Like the gang leaders who offer hard cash in return for allegiance, she provides material blessings that the Catholic Church can no longer afford to bestow.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic: in North California, the Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is tended by a woman of Dutch-American descent. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.

The Mexican conflict has claimed 35,000 lives since it began in 2006. Recently, the violence has spilled over the border and spread throughout the US along narcotics routes that stretch from Arizona to New York. The warring cartels are bound by a perverse ideology, with Santa Muerte as a unifying icon that terrifies opponents into submission.

SANTA MUERTE
While the Santa Muerte movement — which originated in Mexico but now also has a growing number of followers in the USA — is referred to as a cult, it is not an organized religious group.

There is no central authority, and consequently there is much diversity in rites and beliefs associated with the saint.

Research resources on Santa Muerte
Devotees seek to soften image of Mexico death cult

Arrests made following three human sacrifices by Santa Muerte devotees

Eight people have been arrested for allegedly killing two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman in ritual sacrifices by the cult of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, prosecutors in northern Mexico said Friday.

The Associated Press reports

Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for Sonora state prosecutors, said the victims’ blood was poured around an altar to the saint, which is depicted as a skeleton holding a scythe and clothed in flowing robes.

The grisly slayings recalled the notorious “narco-satanicos” killings of the 1980s, when 15 bodies, many of them with signs of ritual sacrifice, were unearthed at a ranch outside the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

While Saint Death has become the focus of a cult among drug traffickers and criminals in Mexico in recent years, there have been no confirmed cases of human sacrifices in Mexico to the scary-looking saint, which is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Worshippers usually offer candy, cigarettes and incense to the skeleton-statue.

Larrinaga said the first of the three victims was apparently killed in 2009, the second in 2010 and the latest earlier this month. Investigations indicate their throats were slit, they had cuts on their wrists and their blood was poured around an altar to the saint, he said.

“The ritual was held at nighttime, they lit candles,” Larrinaga said. “They sliced open the victims’ veins and, while they were still alive, they waited for them to bleed to death and collected the blood in a container.” […]

The “narco-satanicos” killings of the 1980s were committed by a cult of drug traffickers who believed that ritual sacrifices would shield them from police. […]

The narco-satanicos have no connection to the Saint Death cult, which gained widespread popularity around the 2000, although the two share some similarities.

Apologetics Index has research resources on Santa Muerte, including a video documentary

Mexico arrests leader of “Saint Death” cult

Santa Muerte David Romo, considered the high priest of a cult with millions of followers across the Americas, is accused of kidnapping and posing as a member of the feared Zetas drug cartel.

The “Santa Muerte” cult has become popular among drug traffickers in Mexico, in part because followers believe the skeletal figure of the female “saint” may protect them from death or arrest. [Read more...]

Santa Muerte in L.A.: A gentler vision of ‘Holy Death’

Santa Muerte Santa Muerte is not a Catholic saint, and in recent decades her popularity in Mexico, especially among the poor and criminal classes, has led to clashes with church officials and government authorities.

But in and around Los Angeles, where Santa Muerte services are held in at least three storefront shrines, a dash of pop theology and Southern California sunshine seems to have given the movement a mild New Age flavor. [Read more...]

Mexico destroys ‘Death Saint’ revered by criminals

Santa Muerte Mexican federal authorities used bulldozers to bring down more than 30 chapels devoted to “Saint Death” – a figure that is worshipped by drug traffickers – in the northern city of Nuevo Laredo, the daily Reforma reported Wednesday.

Although the figure is venerated by people from many walks of life, the saint — Santa Muerte — has been adopted by drug gangs. [Read more...]

Mexican police suspect that heads burned in ritual

Santa Muerte The heads of 11 decapitated bodies discovered in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula last week may have been burned in a ritual, investigators said.

Police said they found an altar to the skeletal figure of the “Santa Muerte,” an unofficial patron saint of death, in the home of two men arrested in connection with the slayings, while several scorched spots were discovered in a nearby clearing. [Read more...]