My travels: Lucy Neville on the Santa Muerte cult, Mexico

A goddess worshipped with cigarettes and alcohol in a Mexico City backstreet shrine? That'll be La Santa Muerte

Guardian, UK/September 9, 2011

I was 24 years old and living in Mexico City when I first encountered the Saint of Death. The image of the grim reaper was everywhere in Mexico; it dangled from the rear-view mirror of nearly every taxi and bus, and was sold in the markets at the witchcraft stalls among the herbs, candles and images of Mary and Jesus.

Here, the personification of death was known by a different name – La Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. Although many of her devotees would happily classify their beliefs as Catholic, the church does not agree that the Grim Reaper is a saint. Some bishops condemn her followers as devil worshippers; others argue that it's just an unfortunate theological misunderstanding. Regardless, the Santa Muerte "cult" is the fastest-growing religious sect in Mexico, with more than two million followers in Mexico City alone.

It fascinated me how death itself could be considered a saint. I had read that in pre-Columbian cultures images of skeletons often symbolised health and fertility. And I liked the fact that this rogue saint, who was not a concoction of the Catholic church, was busily winning over hearts and minds. I wanted to learn more.

Her most popular temple is in the notorious suburb of Tepito, the centre of the informal economy and a police-free haven for criminals and drug traffickers. The temple itself is concealed in a private house. Attending mass would have been too risky as it took place at midnight. However, there were various shrines to La Santa Muerte in the same area, and a friend of mine knew the location of the most important one.

So, on a smoggy Saturday morning we made our way to Tepito's bustling metro station. I had been told that there was a group of gunmen permanently positioned on the top of the buildings surrounding the zone, ready to shoot dead any policeman or military personnel who dared to enter. But my companion told me that civilians were not subject to such risks and, in fact, it was a popular place to shop, given the fabulously low prices achieved through piracy and theft.

Outside the station, there were so many stalls and vendors that it took us some time before we managed to escape and cross the main road.

A lone street vendor had set up shop on a footpath. Just two commodities were sold here: alcohol and cigarettes. We knew we were getting close to the shrine as these were the customary offerings given to La Santa Muerte. The old woman at the stall smiled at us as she handed over a packet of cigarettes and a small bottle of tequila. "For The White Girl?" she asked. The Saint of Death is becoming known more and more frequently as la niña blanca – white because she is a skeleton.

Past the stall, a small crowd of people lined up in front of an archway that was covered entirely with pink and white flowers. We had found the shrine.

The crowd was respectfully silent. Grandparents hushed their restless grandchildren. We could have been at a church service, except for the presence of a few individuals who were quite obviously criminals.

To one side of the shrine was a candle shop. We decided to buy a candle to put on the shrine as most of the people in the queue were holding candles. I had read earlier that each colour of candle carried with it a meaning: red for love, white for luck and black for protection. We bought a white candle each and went back to the end of the line.

The man before us in the queue wore a black singlet, exposing his enlarged biceps which were covered in tattoos; his wrists and neck were draped in gold chains. We observed him carefully when he arrived at the shrine. First he lit a black candle and placed it down in front of him beneath the altar. Then he got down on his knees and crossed himself. With his eyes closed, he began to utter a prayer under his breath. Finally, he stood up and lit a cigarette. He took one puff and left the rest on the ashtray as an offering.

Then it was my turn. A human skeleton dressed in a white wedding gown stood proud above a sea of glowing candles, most of them black. She held a scythe in one hand and a globe of the world in the other, and her empty eye sockets stared back at me. I'll never forget the stillness that surrounded her, a stillness induced by the shared awe of the crowd.

Out of poverty and fear they had created a saint that didn't discriminate, and that seemed to embody so many elements of their pre-Hispanic past. Her popularity has been associated with the growth of narcotics trafficking. Now, five years into the drug war and more than 40,000 deaths later, the sect continues to grow. Anthropologists refer to this type of devotion as "a cult of crisis". Now more than ever, the skeleton in white is emblematic of the desperation pervading the country.

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