Mexico’s War on Saint Death

On April 8 and 9, the beginning of Holy Week, two hundred devotees of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) marched outside the Mexico City Cathedral to protest the destruction of some thirty shrines dedicated to their patron saint.

Devotion to Santa Muerte, also known as La Flaca (the skinny one) and La Nina Blanca (the white girl), began as a popular movement within Mexican Catholicism and is now developing into an autonomous religious institution. Depicted as a skeletal woman wearing a white cloak, or sometimes a wedding dress, Santa Muerte is called upon for healing, prosperity, protection, and revenge. Her devotees are primarily the poor, but they also include agents of Mexico’s drug cartels known as narcos. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, some 9,000 people have been killed in an escalating war between Mexican troops and the cartels. In March, the government expanded its war on drugs by demolishing shrines of Santa Muerte.

Shrines can be found in Mexico City and Tijuana, as well as almost every town on the Mexican border. Devotees leave offerings of flowers, fruit, tequila, rum, and tobacco. Immigrants crossing the border illegally have been found with icons of the saint. While no one is certain where the movement originated, some have speculated that Vatican II deprived Mexican Catholics of devotional practices, causing new traditions to be invented. Others believe Santa Muerte is the product of hybridity: a Catholicized incarnation of Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec queen of the underworld. A book entitled El libro de la Santa Muerte contains novenas to the saint as well as hechizos (spells) invoking her aid. Police in Oaxaca purchase packets containing “dust” of Santa Muerta to hang in their cars.

Many devotees consider themselves Catholic and regard Santa Muerte as simply another saint, comparable to the Virgin of Guadalupe. But Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the Archbishop of Mexico, has called devotion to Santa Muerte a heresy that “ensnares” Catholics. Last year, the Archdiocese of Mexico City released a statement declaring that devotion to “Saint Death” is incompatible with Catholicism. It further added that Saint Jude is not the patron saint of criminals or drug traffickers.

In 2001, Mexican troops began finding private shrines to Santa Muerta in the mansions of prominent drug lords. President Calderon has adopted a “holistic approach,” attacking not only the cartels, but “narco-culture.” Proposed reforms will ban the broadcast of drug ballads, known as narcocorridos, as well as videos and images that glorify drug traffickers. The government also appears to have targeted the worship of Santa Muerta, interpreting the movement as a “narco-cult.”

The destruction of shrines in Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, as well as the condemnation from the Catholic Church, has begun to galvanize devotion to Santa Muerte into a formal religious institution. David Romo Guillen has emerged as the de facto leader of the movement. He has taken the title of archbishop, calling his church, “The Mexican-US Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church.” In 2005, Guillen requested the Interior Secretariat to grant his church status as a legally recognized religion. When his request was denied, Guillen organized protests. Devotees took to the streets bearing signs such as “I believe in you Santa Muerte and I am not a narco.” The protests attracted media coverage that further legitimized Guillen as the movement’s leader. Guillen was also the force behind the most recent protests in Mexico City. The Archdiocese was particularly upset that the protests occurred during Holy Week, and a spokesperson called Guillen a terrorist, comparing his movement to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Despite the ire of both the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte continues to thrive. To her followers, her status as an outcast saint may only add to her appeal.

Not long after the Holy Week demonstrations, a new factor came into play: swine flu. Fear of the disease has caused church attendance to drop by as much as 60 percent in Mexico City. At the same time, devotion to Santa Muerte is said to be higher than ever. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to help Mexico against the cartels, and various NGOs have offered aid against the swine flu. While Mexico’s troubles cannot go on forever, it is not clear what the future holds for Santa Muerte. Will devotion to Saint Death recede with the crisis, or will the war on drugs and disease become a catalyst for the formation of a new religious movement?