Mexico targets Death Saint popular with criminals

The Associated Press/April 18, 2009

Mexico City - Mexican authorities are cracking down on an icon worshipped both by drug dealers and by the terrified people who live in drug-torn neighborhoods: the Santa Muerte, or Death Saint.

A skeletal figure of a cloaked woman with a scythe in her bony hand, the Santa Muerte has become more popular in Mexico even as its drug wars have become more violent. Mexican law enforcement won't say outright it is targeting Santa Muerte, but last month soldiers stood guard while government backhoes crushed more than 30 public shrines to the saint in Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. In the two weeks before, several altars in Tijuana and an altar built on the highway between Reynosa and Rio Bravo were razed.

"The government's line is that it promotes narco-trafficking and is a symbol to which children in particular should not be exposed," said Mexico expert George Grayson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "This is a marginal step against traffickers. But no doubt the government wants to take a holistic approach."

The move has drawn anger from Santa Muerte followers who say their religion is under attack. Hundreds of Santa Muerte followers protested in Mexico City during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday marched to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's widely revered Roman Catholic patroness.

"There are a lot of legends about us, but none of them are true," said David Romo, founder of a Santa Muerte church, at a Mass on the first day of the month, when the Death Saint is celebrated. Romo, who calls himself an archbishop but was not appointed by the Catholic Church, urged the Santa Muerte's estimated 5 million followers to take to the streets to fight "religious intolerance."

Local authorities claim the shrines are in the way of building projects or are on public property. Rafael Luque, a spokesman for the city of Nuevo Laredo, said local, state and federal authorities destroyed the shrines after receiving dozens of complaints from people, and because they were built without permission on federal property.

"Citizens had been asking for years that they be removed because they dirtied Nuevo Laredo's image," Luque said.

Reynosa's Public Works Director Guillermo Acebo told local newspapers the shrine was destroyed because it "looked bad and obstructed public works in the area."

Mexico is in the midst of a violent drug war that has killed roughly 9,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and sent troops to areas controlled by drug cartels, particularly northern Mexico.

In the border state of Tamaulipas, home to the powerful Gulf cartel, the Mexican Army found a room filled with images of the cloaked skeleton inside a sprawling pink house in the hamlet of Los Angeles. A mural on one wall showed the owner kneeling and kissing Santa Muerte's bony hand. A La-Z-Boy lounger, the only chair in the room, was pulled up to an altar with black candles.

Again during a raid in Reynosa on a house where 55 Central American migrants were tortured, soldiers found a sticker of the Santa Muerte inside a kitchen cabinet, along with a shot of tequila and two spent candles.

Two men arrested last fall in connection with 11 decapitated and burned bodies in the Yucatan Peninsula had an altar to the Santa Muerte in their home. And at the Tamaulipas house of an alleged hit man, a Santa Muerte and two empty wine glasses sat on the kitchen's breakfast nook.

"Here you always find a Death Saint," said Army Maj. Andres Murias, "and sometimes also Scarface or Pancho Villa."

But the popularity of the Santa Muerte extends far beyond drug dealers. Anthropologists say the roots of the Santa Muerte are unclear, but note parallels to pre-Colombian religions that embraced images of death.

At a recent mass at the headquarters of the so-called Traditional Catholic Mex-USA Church, about 200 people sat on plastic chairs and wood benches. Two life-sized Santa Muerte statues stood near the altar, while the walls were papered with posters of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

The church in the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, where the cult started, draws all kinds: families with small children, single mothers and men and women with tattoos of the Santa Muerte. The "USA" in the church's name reflects that many followers have emigrated to the United States.

Following Roman Catholic tradition, worshippers often place offerings of food, candy or flowers at the saint's altar. Most ask the Santa Muerte to keep them alive in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"The main miracle is that with money or no money, we have life," said Yadira Rivera, a 26-year-old mother of two girls, who rides a bus an hour each way the first of each month to worship Santa Muerte at the Tepito church.

A few blocks from the church is one of the largest and best-known Santa Muerte statues, dressed in a black-and-purple velvet gown and sitting inside a glass case built into the facade of Enriqueta Romero's home. As followers mingled near the statue, some openly smoked marijuana or sniffed glue. Others wept or crawled on their knees to touch the glass as they asked for favors.

Romero said when she first built the altar in 2001, about 20 to 50 followers would gather to pray. Now, up to 5,000 come to her home every first of the month when the Santa Muerte is celebrated with mariachis and a rosary, and the street has to be blocked off to traffic.

Author Homero Aridjis, who researched the cult to the Santa Muerte and wrote a novel about it, said authorities are ignoring the fact that most worshippers are not criminals.

"They are destroying the refuge of humble people who are victims of violence, who suffer injustice and don't have anywhere to turn and see the Santa Muerte as their last resource," Aridjis said. "There is a criminal element but also an element of abandonment that authorities need to take into account."

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