Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killing in the Name of Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte figurines in Mexico City. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Originally published on 08/02/2012.


They call her Santa Muerte, or Holy Death. Sometimes this female Grim Reaper gets the affectionate nicknames Flaquita (Skinny Girl) or Huesuda (Bony Lady). She’s depicted as a skeleton, usually wearing a loose robe and carrying a scythe. Her cult blends Catholicism with pre-Colombian and African traditions — but, even if her popularity is catching up to that of Saint Jude or the Virgin of Guadalupe, she isn’t a saint that the Catholic church officially recognizes.

Her home is the streets, not the cathedrals. She has many working- and middle-class adherents, and she’s the topic of a film produced by Eva Aridjis and narrated by Gael Garcia Bernal, but many of her followers come from Mexico’s — and the States’ — poorest of the poor, and she’s established a prison following that any evangelist would envy.

Several crimes allegedly perpetrated by her followers have grabbed international headlines. In January 2011, one of her “bishops,” David Romo, was accused of kidnapping and money laundering. And in April 2012, Silvia Meraz and her family were accused of sacrificing three human victims to buy Santa Muerte’s favors.

Border Saint

Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain.

Roadside shrines to Santa Muerte have multiplied on both sides of the US-Mexico border, offering the lady of death cigarettes, alcohol, spare change and — it’s rumored — ever greater sacrifices in return for her protection and rewards. Her figurines, candles and prayer cards are available at botanicas in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Her cult seems to have sprung up along the Gulf of Mexico, then flourished in Tepito, (Mexico City’s roughest barrio) and in the Sonoran border towns before spreading throughout North and Central America. It’s not an uncommon occurrence within Mexico’s religious history: local folk heroes, Aztec deities and Afro-Cuban traditions have long been worshipped alongside the dominant framework of Catholicism. But Santa Muerte isn’t a saint the Catholic church recognizes; indeed, some Catholic leaders in Mexico have condemned Santa Muerte worship, and many of her disciples consider her worship a religion of its own.

In 2003, Mexico’s Interior Ministry added Santa Muerte to its list of registered religions. But in 2005 the Ministry changed its mind, alleging that the loosely organized religion wasn’t upholding its own statutes. Stripping Santa Muerte of its national recognition means that the church isn’t allowed to raise money or own property in Mexico. In 2009, officials acted on this ban: City workers and the army bulldozed dozens of shrines in and outside Nuevo Laredo.

That crackdown isn’t stopping her followers, of course. Neighborhood bodegas sell videos on how to worship Santa Muerte, and her legion of followers insists she’s answered their prayers when no one else would, granting them love and riches, and saving them from despair, financial ruin, dangerous neighborhoods — protecting them from each other and even from the cops. National Geographic recounted the tale of a young murder who believes that Santa Muerte prevents his jailers from seeing the contraband he smuggled into his cell.

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