Death in holy orders

Syncretism in the era of the drug baron

The Economist/January 7, 2010

The statue looks at first like a narrow, windowless office building towering over the skyline of Tultitlán, a working-class suburb of Mexico City. In fact it is of Santa Muerte ("Holy Death"), the image of a skeleton, clad in hood and tunic and bearing a scythe and globe, that some 2m Mexicans are said to worship. Surrounding it are three small altars, one placed there after the man who paid for the statue, Jonathan Legaria, murdered in 2008 aged just 26.

Some anthropologists link the cult to Aztec underworld gods. David Romo, the priest at the One and Only National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte-thus called because there are two rivals-insists the image originated in Italy during bubonic plague. Either way over the past decade the cult has grown rapidly.

Mexico has a rich syncretic tradition. Its patron, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is venerated by many Mexican Indians as an Aztec goddess. Santa Muerte is even more accommodating: she accepts offerings of beer and tequila, and is thought by believers to protect criminals and the law-abiding alike and to be amenable to all petitions. "Death to my enemies" is inscribed on the candleholders in Mr Romo's church. She is very popular in jails. She is sometimes portrayed smoking a joint.

Mexico's Catholic bishops have denounced Santa Muerte as a satanic cult that promotes violence. The government withdrew official recognition from Mr Romo's church after he incorporated her into its rituals. Last March the army destroyed some 30 Santa Muerte altars in the northern state of Nuevo Laredo, saying they were linked to drug traffickers. In response, devotees staged rallies in Mexico City demanding religious freedom, and insisting that they come from all walks of life. Indeed, some police and soldiers fighting the narcos ask Santa Muerte to bless their weapons.

Santa Muerte has become a good business. A biweekly magazine devoted to the cult is sold at most news-stands. Mr Romo's church sells Santa Muerte books and paraphernalia, and collects tithes. "Tuesday is my birthday," he declared at the close of a recent mass, "and I need special new glasses that cost $500. Here's my basket."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.