Rival Santa Muerte church claims captured 'bishop' does not represent the Mexican death cult

La Plaza/January 10, 2011

It was a hard fall for the formerly high-riding "bishop" of the most famous Santa Muerte "church" in Mexico City, David Romo.

Romo, pictured second from right in the top row of the official photo above, stands charged along with several others with participating in a kidnapping and money-laundering ring. His name is familiar to reporters in Mexico City. Romo founded and led a prominent "sanctuary" dedicated to the Santa Muerte death saint. The skeletal "little white girl" figure, as she is affectionately called, is venerated by drug traffickers in Mexico but also by regular people on the margins of society.

Romo's church has had several name changes over the years; currently it's known as the National Sanctuary for the Angel of the Holy Death. Usually wearing a frock, he spent years at the forefront of the growing cult, giving interviews to foreign reporters (including your blogger) as a self-proclaimed bishop.

He oversaw syncretic Roman Catholic-Santa Muerte services several times a week in the Colonia Morelos, a rough neighborhood east of downtown Mexico City. The bishop had plans to drastically upgrade and expand the church building, and shared impressive-looking floor plans with reporters.

But more than anything else, Romo remains known as a combative and controversial figure. Leaders or caretakers of other well-known Santa Muerte altars in the city insisted, usually off the record, that Romo was a fraud because no one could "lead" a cult generated by its believers.

In 2005, when the government attempted to strip his church's recognition as a religion, Romo led followers in protests before government buildings. At one point in 2009, he even called for a "holy war" among Santa Muerte followers to defend the cult from condemnations by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Mexico (link in Spanish).

"Nothing can stop us," Romo said to one interviewer.

The church leader often traded barbs with a leader of a rival Santa Muerte sanctuary in the north Mexico City suburb of Tultitlan. That spiritual leader, Jonathan Legaria, also known as "the Panther," turned up dead in July 2008. He was killed by a high-powered weapon in a drive-by shooting.

Legaria's Santa Muerte sanctuary was home to what he claimed was the largest known representation of the "holy death," a statue towering more than 70 feet (see photo here). His followers said at the time that jealousy and religious differences with others were to blame for his killing, but they stopped short of naming names. Local authorities washed their hands of the investigation, citing their own "incompetence" and handing the case over to federal authorities in a formality that all but ensured Legaria's killing would never be solved.

Last week, with Romo behind bars, the leader who has taken over Legaria's Santa Muerte church in Tultitlan spoke out. Enri­que­ta Var­gas -- Jonathan Legaria's mother -- told La Prensa in an interview (link in Spanish): "David Romo is not the Santa Muerte, and not the whole church, and if he made a mistake he should pay for it."

"It would be like saying all Catholics are pedophiles, and that's not the case," Vargas added.

Mexico City's attorney general presented a comprehensive string of evidence implicating Romo in a kidnapping ring led by a gang figure known as "El Aztlan." When asked if Romo and his crew were targeted for being tied to the Santa Muerte cult, Atty. Gen. Miguel Angel Mancera said he initially had no idea that "the señor had anything to do with any church" -- a slight that surely stung the fallen bishop.

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