NBC 12 Investigates: The cult of Santa Muerte

NBC 12 News, Virginia/April 27, 2012

Richmond, Virgia -- NBC 12 Investigates uncovers the growing cult for the saint of death. People are now praying to a saint who's not even real, with a following among many criminals. She's gaining popularity around the world — even here in Richmond.

She's the face of death. Cloaked. Bones exposed. But Santa Muerte is no longer in the shadows — millions are following her.

"She's got a reputation as a very prompt miracle worker," said VCU professor of Religious Studies, Andrew Chesnut. "That, I would say, is the number one reason for her mushrooming cult."

Santa Muerte has many nicknames, including: the bony lady, the grim reapress, the saint of death. Chesnut is one of the world's leading experts on Santa Muerte. He even wrote a book, 'Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.'

"Here you're asking a figure of death, a representation of death, for a few more grains of sand in the hour glass," said Chesnut.

She caught his curiosity 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."

That's because some call her the saint for sinners.

She's not an official canonized Catholic Saint. In fact, she's been condemned by the Mexican Catholic Church. She's what you call a folk saint.

"Since she's not an official Christian saint, you can ask her for things that maybe you wouldn't otherwise ask a canonized saint for," said Chesnut.

She's attractive to the criminal element. She's big in Mexican prisons and among drug traffickers, and prostitutes. She's also made her way across the border.

This photo was snapped by Immigration and Customs agents. It's a Santa Muerte shrine found during the raid of an illegal document ring with ties to Richmond.

"The fact that she's here in Richmond, where the Latino population doesn't exceed six percent, is really significant," said Chesnut.

She's also quite important to the working class. Santa Muerte has an estimated five million followers world wide.

(Translated from Spanish) "For me, she's a type of energy. She's a compliment. She's a compliment to enrich my life," said Roxy Perez.

She and her sister opened the "Botica El Angel" in Chesterfield seven years ago. They market candles, statues, oils — Santa Muerte makes up nearly half of all their sales.

People from all over Richmond come to the store. Many of them actually pray at the alter to Santa Muerte. They leave dollar bills, cigars, sweets even tequila for her.

(Translated from Spanish) "People also come to ask favors from her," said Perez.

Perez tells us Mexican lawyers, local police officers, even young African American men come to buy Santa Muerte goods. Red is for love. Green for money and legal troubles. Black is often the unspoken candle — it's for harm and your enemies.

Many of her devotees are poor — they feel their pain acutely and are looking for immediate solutions.

"A saint who can offer those solutions faster than the others at the end of the day is going to win out in this competitive religious landscape," said Chesnut.

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