Her sightless eyes, bony face, and glinting scythe preside over narcotics headquarters large and small. Law enforcement officials in Mexico and the U.S. know her well — she’s a regular at drug busts on both sides of the border.
She is Santa Muerte, the "Saint of Death," and her popularity outside of the drug world is growing. A folk saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, Santa Muerte is inspiring a diverse following in the U.S. Latino community that has become disenchanted with the Church, a following that could be the key to reshaping her notorious identity.
An image born of European ideas intermingling with the Aztec spiritual pantheon, Santa Muerte is “new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe,” according to the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. Most commonly depicted with a globe in one hand and a scythe in the other, she is considered a nonjudgmental — even amoral — angel of unique efficacy and speed in bringing about miracles.
“If you have faith in her, she will grant you wishes,” says Padre Sisyphus Garcia, founder and pastor of Templo Santa Muerte in Los Angeles. “Not what you want, but what you need.”
The Templo, a modest one-room establishment on Melrose Avenue with an attached bótanica, sells all manner of candles, amulets, rosaries, and spell books for those wishing to test Santa Muerte’s powers. It is one of many sites dedicated to the saint that have cropped up in the last few decades.
According to Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, more than five million Mexicans worship the saint, and that number is growing. Charting exact numbers in this area is difficult, he writes, because some devotees worship in secret out of fear of being condemned by the Church.
But a large number of the regulars at Templo Santa Muerte are what Padre Garcia calls “born Catholics,” people who were raised Catholic but have become disillusioned with the Church.
“Most of the devotees here, they had experience with the Catholic Church and said they don’t want to go there anymore,” said Mr. Garcia, a born Catholic himself. “They are questioning. Like with the pope thing [the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI] — you’re an emissary of God, and all of the sudden you don’t want to work for him anymore? No, no, there’s something going on.”
Mr. Garcia says the growing number of Santa Muerte devotees look to the “Bony Lady” for help with everything varying from illness and disease to relationships and money. With that comes the rare incidents of the macabre on the extreme fringe of the devotee community that soil the saint’s reputation. Human remains have been found this year in homes in Oxnard and Pasadena as part of altars to the saint, and eight men were arrested in northern Mexico last year for allegedly killing two boys and a woman as part of a ritualistic offering to Santa Muerte.
Still, the strongest contributing factor to the stigma against the folk saint is her constant association with drug traffickers and the dark spirituality of narcocultura, or drug culture. With the high stakes of the drug trade, the offerings by cartel members to Santa Muerte can surpass the normal tokens of food and drink, and dip into the realm of human sacrifice.
Though Mr. Chesnut’s research has found a comparable, though less violent, level of veneration of the saint among law enforcement officials themselves, the Drug Enforcement Agency confirms that educating officers about Santa Muerte is indeed a relevant part of training.
“Here in L.A. you become very much aware of it as soon as you start working in investigations,” says Sarah Pullen, Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles DEA division. “Investigators know about it, and it’s covered in a number of continuing education classes.”
Last year the National Latino Peace Officers Association even hosted a special seminar for law enforcement officers from across the country to learn about Santa Muerte. Part of such education involves realizing that the saint is not canonized and not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, she is an unofficial folk saint whose congregation is presided over by self-proclaimed priests and bishops.
One such high priest is David Romo, founder of the first Santa Muerte church in Mexico. He was imprisoned in 2011 for being part of a kidnapping ring. Couple that with the Mexican government’s official denunciation of Santa Muerte, the destruction of Santa Muerte shrines by the Mexican army, and the saint’s unshakable presence in countless prison cells in Mexico and the U.S., Santa Muerte’s future seems dark. But according to Mr. Garcia, those with need and faith will continue to see her value beyond the stereotype of narcocultura.
“Some temples of Santa Muerte work on the dark side, yes” Mr. Garcia says. “Santa Muerte works everywhere. That’s why people get confused. She’s a being of light. She is a shield to those with faith.”
Shweta Saraswat is a multimedia journalist and Annenberg Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She currently works as supervising producer of the newsmagazine show Impact.