La Santisima Muerte: Inside the Death Cult

KRGV News, Texas/May 7, 2009

Weslaco - The worship of Santa Muerte, the Mexican grim reaper, has exploded in the Valley.

She's considered a saint by some, satanic by others. The U.S. government's labeled the religious movement as a "death cult."

Newschannel 5 went undercover to learn the truth behind Sante Muerte, the saint of death.

We visited an herb shop in Brownsville and found her image everywhere. It was on candles, statues, and book.

A man behind the counter calls himself "maestro," which means teacher. He tells us the Santa Muerte has the power to grant lifesaving miracles and bring defeat to your enemies.

During our hour-long stay in the shop, the phone rings at least four times. Customers are calling to get the Santa Muerte to help them.

The "teacher" describes the process of killing a man. He tells us he needs a full-body photo of the man. He says he'll bury it in seven different cemeteries.

In Spanish, he explains, "This is a black job that I'm going to do. I will work with the saint of death."

Anthony Hudgins is a card reader who says he's ordained in witchcraft. He claims to know of many people who worship Mexico's grim reaper.

"They call her La Nina, Santa Muerte, La Santa," he says.

Hudgins tells us people who worship her are "mainly people in desperation.... criminals, drug dealers."

"They feel they have no other help," he says.

Newschannel 5 met a woman selling Santa Muerte candles offering protection.

She explains, "You have to keep lighting the candle because the saint of death is very jealous."

The woman mentioned different candles do different things. One of them had a label with the words "Law Stay Away."

A U.S. Army intelligence web site describes La Santisima Muerte as "the death cult of the drug lords." (Click here to read: The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico's Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed)

Police have repeatedly linked followers to drug and human smuggling. In March, La Joya officers found 10 illegal immigrants packed in an SUV. It was covered with decals of Santa Muerte.

Officers said the smugglers thought La Santa would protect their cargo.

Hudgins tells us followers offer the Santa Muerte gifts, such as marijuana and cocaine, in exchange for favors.

Followers also make promises in exchange for a favor. They believe if you break your promise, the saint of death will punish you.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta is an anthropologist at UT-Brownsville. He's been studying La Santisima Muerte for more than 20 years.

"Right now it's extremely popular," he says. "And the people who are devoted to it you might say are fanatics. They're fanatical."

Zavaleta tells us the religious movement began in Mexico City. The exact origins are a mystery.

One theory is the death cult began in Mexico 3,000 years ago and became widespread during Aztec times. The Aztecs believed the god and goddess of death ruled the underworld.

Offerings made to these gods included the skins of human sacrifices.

Worship of Santa Muerte crept into the Valley about a decade ago.

"In the last five years, it's spread like wildfire," Zavaleta adds.

Along with candles, books, and rosaries, Hudgins tells us followers have built shrines on highway roadsides.

In Brownsville, Newschannel 5 found a house with as Santa Muerte shrine in the front yard. A truck at the home had Santa Muerte decals on the back window.

No one came to the door when we knocked.

We spoke to a neighbor instead. The neighbor tells us, "I don't think anything's wrong. Everything's fine."

Zavaleta explains many followers call themselves Catholic.

But he adds, "Holy death is not a Catholic saint... is not recognized by the Catholic Church."

The church calls it a devil-worshipping cult.

"It skirts around very dangerous sort of practices," says Hudgins.

Zavaleta tells us, "They're very fearful of it. 'Stay away from it. Don't touch it. Don't talk about it.'"

Back at the herb shop in Brownsville, the "teacher" warns us about the danger of making Santa Muerte angry.

He gives us strict instructions: Never talk about her secrets.

"Because if you speak to anyone about this...death will come back to you," he says.

Whether or not you're a believer, La Santisima Muerte is more popular than ever. For thousands of people in the Valley, the death cult is their religion.

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