April 3, 2014
“THE CULT OF DEATH
ON November 1 each year thousands of people descend on the rough and gritty neighbourhood of Tepito in Mexico City. Some walk on their knees for blocks, tightly but carefully clutching small skeletal figures, as they slowly near a shrine depicting a life-size image of their female deity. Others proudly carry babies to be presented. Some arrive with only prayers.
The goddess they approach is a skeleton, dressed as a bride and wearing hundreds of pieces of glittering gold jewellery that have already been offered up by her devoted followers.
A carnival atmosphere pervades the throng around her. Food is served, bands play and candles are lit. Flowers, fruits, sweets and money are readied as gifts. Colour abounds. Senses are in overload.
But there is no incense lit. In a clue to the dark nature of their idol, the faithful blow marijuana smoke for her to inhale instead.
For while this may look like and carry many of the trappings of a traditional religious gathering, it is something no church official would take part in. This is the cult of Santa Muerte’s most important ceremony of the year and images of death are everywhere.
DEATH BECOMES HER
SANTA Muerte translates into English as “Saint Death” or “Holy Death” — and it most certainly becomes her…
While the burgeoning cult surrounding her cannot be considered a fully-fledged religion it does boast many of the fixtures — self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualised elements. Devotees pray at homemade altars and often offer up candles, fruit and even tequila in the hope she will grant their wishes…
Once an underground movement — most prayers and rites were traditionally performed privately in people’s home — it is well and truly out in the open now…
Many of those who kneel at the bones of Santa Muerte still view themselves as staunch Catholics — the dominant religion in Mexico. They simply feel they get something from the Skinny Lady they cannot get elsewhere.
“Many of the pilgrims who gather around shrines to the saint of death still see themselves as devout Catholics. Some self-appointed ‘priests’, claiming to be leaders of a cult that has no hierarchies or structure, have even tried to insist that their temples are part of the official church,” Prof Chesnut says…
Jose Roberto Jaimes, one of those who came to Tepito to thank Santa Muerte, told the BBC: “I also believe in God, in the Virgin, and all the saints, but I am more devout to [Saint] Death. She is the one that helps me the most.”
GRUESOME GANG WORSHIP
IN a country racked by a deadly and protracted drugs war, the adoration of Santa Muerte has taken sinister and gruesome forms.
Father Ernesto Caro simply cannot forget the drug gang hitman who came to be exorcised at his Monterrey church. The cartel member confessed to cutting up the bodies of his victims into pieces and burning others alive. He also told how he enjoyed hearing their screams as he did so. The man, believing himself to be possessed by demons, explained he was devoted to the service of Santa Muerte.
And he is not the only disciple among the murderous and brutal gangs and cartels of Mexico.
“Santa Muerte is being used by all our drug dealers and those linked to these brutal murders. We’ve found that most of them, if not all, follow Santa Muerte,” Father Caro told the BBC.
For men and women dealing daily with death and the threat of death, the attraction of an amoral deity is not surprisingly potent.
“For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, brutal deaths prove almost certain,” Robert J. Bunker, author and visiting professor at the Strategic Studies Institute in the US, writes in an article published on the FBI website. “Such a form of imminent mortality facing adherents makes the worship of Santa Muerte spiritually dark. The death of someone’s enemies, protection from harm (or, at least, hope for a quick and glorious death), cultivation of a dangerous reputation, and ability to enjoy the benefits of fabulous riches, including the company of beautiful women become paramount.”
The implications of such “dark” worship are terrifyingly clear.
“With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric.
AN EXTREME DEVOTION
FOR Father Francisco Bautista, from Mexico City, there is no doubt the link between the drug cartels and Santa Muerte has mushroomed in the last decade — with increasingly horrifying consequences.
“From approximately eight years ago we have seen Santa Muerte having a big presence with drug cartel members, from the bosses all the way down. Why? Because these people say that Jesus or the Virgin Mary can’t provide what they ask for, which is to be protected from soldiers, police and their enemies,” he told the BBC.
“In exchange they offer human sacrifices. And this has increased the violence in Mexico.”
The evidence of this disturbing correlation is both illustrative and shocking. For example:
* A powerful criminal figure in Tepito is said to have killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to gain magical protection;
* Gang members have taken rival cartel members to Santa Muerte shrines and executed them as offerings;
* Police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims; and
* Authorities found 50 victims of a mass murder in the northern state of Sinaloa, all with tattoos and jewellery depicting Santa Muerte.
Just a small, if nonetheless sickening, taste of the violence linked to the Bony Lady — there are far worse examples so appalling as to defy belief.
DEMONS AMONG US
WHILE the battle between drug gangs, government forces and, more recently, vigilante groups rages on, the rise of Santa Muerte has imbued the clash with a frightening spiritual aspect.
It appears a conflict of religion is being waged side-by-side with a conflict of law.
On one side are the gangs who worship the Saint of Death and on the other, the authorities defending the nation’s more established and traditional religious views.
The result: shrines to the Grim Reapress have become legitimate targets for the military as it attempts to quell the influence of the drug cartels.
“Members of the Catholic Church and the army see the growth of this cult as a dangerous development,” Bunker writes.
Indeed, Prof Chesnut says his interest in the saint of death was first piqued 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,” he told NBC.
A high priest linked to the cult was even arrested on kidnapping charges in 2010.
THE BATTLE FOR SOULS
A bizarre by-product of this theological clash is an explosion in the number of exorcisms being conducted in Mexico.
Journalist Vladimir Hernandez recently reported on the nation’s exorcists facing an unprecedented demand for their services, ridding people of demons every day of the week.
“There is an infestation of demons in Mexico because we have opened our doors to death,” Father Bautista bluntly told the BBC reporter.
The fantastical appears to have become an everyday problem.”
to read more: news.com.au