UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Military

Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings
By Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D.

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2013

02/05/13

Bloodbaptized—in a shroud of human skin;
Raise your wings—as we celebrate the dead;
Sacrifice—in the honour of your wealth;

Reward us now—in triumph we behead. 1

The narcotics wars in Mexico have increased in scope and intensity beginning with President Felipe Caldéron’s December 2006 de facto declaration of war against the cartels and gangs. The deployment of Mexican military forces in counterorganized crime and stability and support roles directly responded to the loss of the country’s control within many regions—identified as areas of impunity—of the country. Since this conflict began, over 45,000 people have died in the fighting, and the areas of impunity have grown to include wide swaths of territory constituting hundreds of locales now under control of the cartels. The criminal insurgencies waged by the cartels and gangs, centered on a strategy of securing nongovernmental interference with their illicit narcotics and other criminal economic activities, have received much attention and debate. Far less has focused on some of the darker spiritualistic parts of the drug wars.

One component entails the rise of the cartel and gang narcocultura (drug culture) variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte (literally translated as “Holy Death”).2 This variant of the cult promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. Sometimes it can be so extreme that it condones morally corrupt behaviors—what many people would consider as resulting from an evil value system that rewards personal gain above all else, promoting the intentional pain and suffering of others, and, even, viewing killing as a pleasurable activity.

While addressing the rise of such dark spirituality requires a balanced perspective (e.g., avoiding a repeat of the Satanism scare of the 1980s), enough ritualistic behaviors, including killings, have occurred in Mexico to leave open the possibility that a spiritual insurgency component of the narcotics wars now exists. Not all of the narcotics leaders, their foot soldiers, and assassins have remained religious or, alternatively, embraced secularism. But, evidence suggests that the numbers of defections to the cults that worship a perverted Christian god (e.g., La Familia Michoacana and Los Caballeros Templarios) and the various unsanctioned saints (e.g., Jesús Malverde, Juan Soldado, and Santa Muerte) have grown for years.

This rise in deviant spirituality has not come as a surprise. Mexico still contains a significant population of persons living in poverty and feeling disenfranchised by a government system perceived as being based on patron-client relationships and the influence of wealthy ruling families. This underclass produces a disproportionate amount of unsanctioned (folk) saint worshipers—though only a small percentage of them end up as killers for gangs and cartels. Still, many of these men and women who brutalize, torture, and kill others need a way to rationalize their activities. If not offered solace via mainstream Catholicism, they will seek comfort elsewhere.3 While the adherents of a more benign drug saint, such as Jesús Malverde, can engage in nonreligious killing, others who worship Santa Muerte increasingly appear unable to separate their criminality from their spiritual beliefs.

For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States. 

Dark Spirituality

Santa Muerte ideology has developed in Mexico for approximately a half century and has spread into the United States and Central America. The cult’s popularity has increased with its ties to illicit narcotics trafficking in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a “saint of last resort,” Santa Muerte always has had a following among those who live in extreme circumstances. As one expert explains, “The Santa Muerte cult could best be described as [following] a set of ritual practices offered on behalf of a supernatural personification of death…she is comparable in theology to supernatural beings or archangels.”4

The cult appears to have more European than Aztecan origins, with some individuals describing Santa Muerte as a new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe.5 Her imagery includes that of a robed skeleton carrying a scythe and globe or scales. Part of her popularity results from her characterization as nonjudgmental (amoral) and a source of supernatural intervention for her followers who engage in the correct rituals and provide the proper offerings and sacrifices. Over half of the prayers directed at her include petitions to harm other people via curses and death magic.6 Still, many Santa Muerte followers appear benign—typically poor, uneducated, and superstitious individuals who practice a form of unsanctioned saint worship mixed with varying elements of folk Catholicism.

However, a sizeable minority of worshipers follow the fully criminalized variant of Santa Muerte worship steeped in narcocultura. The harsher version has gained popularity in Mexico as the criminal insurgencies taking place in the country have spread and intensified. For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, brutal deaths prove almost certain. Such a form of imminent mortality facing adherents makes the worship of Santa Muerte spiritually dark. The death of someone’s enemies, protection from harm (or, at least, hope for a quick and glorious death), cultivation of a dangerous reputation, and ability to enjoy the benefits of fabulous riches—including the company of beautiful women—become paramount. With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Rather than plates of food, beer, and tobacco, in some instances, the heads of victims (and presumably their souls) have served as offerings to invoke powerful petitions for divine intervention.

Open Quotes

Santa Muerte ideology has developed in Mexico for approximately a half century and has spread into the United States and Central America

Close Quotes

While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements. Mexican authorities arrested one high priest, Romo Guillén, on kidnapping charges in December 2010. Individuals in his gang posed as members of the Los Zetas Cartel.7 In 2009 he called for holy war against the Catholic Church. During that same year, the Mexican army destroyed numerous Santa Muerte shrines. Members of the Catholic Church and the army see the growth of this cult as a dangerous development.8

Santa Muerte rituals vary, and worshipers disagree about some of the symbolism and the proper procedures to gain the spiritual and physical results petitioned. However, adherents generally consider Santa Muerte a jealous and vengeful deity who demands that her followers conduct the rituals and sacrifices properly to avoid her divine wrath. Candle magic, herbs, oils, amulets, spiritual energy, and various mystical items play an important role (table 1). Often, the colors and mixtures of items employed determine ceremonial intent and arrangement of the altar. Components of the rituals also hold importance. Candles help to focus worshiper concentration and act as a conduit so that Santa Muerte receives the prayers. Smoke blown, alcoholic drink spit out, and narcotics smeared on statues are thought to help activate them. The bases of candles and statues also may have items or artifacts embedded in them and may be anointed with oils and herbs to enhance their power. More extreme forms of worship involve bowls of blood—animal and human—at the altars and smeared on the religious icons and on the devotee as part of a blood pact.9

 



02/08/13

Killings in Mexico

Similar circumstances have helped link killings in Mexico to Santa Muerte worshipers. While such incidents—including those with ritualized components—represent a small minority of murders perpetrated by Mexican cartels and gangs, enough allegedly have taken place to generate alarm.

Open Quotes

It remains unclear if these violent killings represent the acts of secular psychopaths or those following some sort of ritualized spiritual purpose.

Close Quotes
  • In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection.10
  • During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
  • In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers.
  • In December 2009 and January 2010 in Ciudad Júarez, perpetrators murdered individuals in apparent Santa Muerte ritual killings. Regarding one incident, authorities found at the crime scene the remnants of an apparent altar and the words “Santa Muerte” and cuídanos flakita (take care of us, skinny) spray painted. In the second crime, gang members burned a victim behind a house containing an altar and a small Santa Muerte statue. Interviewed neighbors said that the killers—part of the Hillside 13 Gang—asked for “something big”; as a result, the perpetrators performed multiple human sacrifices.
  • In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
  • In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.
  • In Cancun in June 2010, investigators found the bodies of six tortured victims, three with their hearts cut out and with the letter “Z” carved into their abdomens, in a cave outside of the resort city. Presumably the killers belonged to the Los Zetas Cartel, and the victims belonged to a competing group.
  • In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims. The perpetrators left two skulls and numerous cigarette packs as offerings. The circumstances behind the origins of the skeleton and skulls—if they were prior cult victims—remain unknown.11

Additional incidents allegedly have occurred involving victims with their skin and hearts removed. Other cases have included individuals castrated and beheaded while alive, lit on fire and burned to death, and butchered and quartered. Sometimes, authorities found only the victim’s skin. It remains unclear if these violent killings represent the acts of secular psychopaths or those following some sort of ritualized spiritual purpose. Over five centuries ago, worshipers offered the skins of human sacrifices to the Aztec gods. It has not been confirmed whether some Santa Muerte worshipers have revived this practice.

These ritualized killings bring back memories of the 1989 murder of an American college student in Matamoros. Investigators found the victim’s brain in a ritual black cauldron, or nganga, belonging to a local marijuana-smuggling ring that practiced an extreme form of Palo Mayombe. This gang offered over a dozen people, including the victim, as human sacrifices to ensure the magical protection of its members. An old crime scene photo displays a Santa Muerte statuette among the ritualistic tools belonging to the group.12  An incident once considered anomalous now serves as an early event warning of the growing influence of narcocultura in Mexico.

Finally, the massacre of Santa Muerte-worshiping cartel members may represent the broadening of spiritual violence in Mexico: “A report of mass murder in the northern State of Sinaloa revealed that over 50 victims were discovered with tattoos and jewelry depicting Santa Muerte.”13 This event took place before 2007 and characterizes a failed raid on Sinaloan-controlled territory being brutally avenged.

Murders in the United States

Open Quotes

…the massacre of Santa Muerte-worshiping cartel members may represent the broadening of spiritual violence in Mexico….

Close Quotes

In the past, inspired and ritualistic killings occurred primarily south of the U.S. border in Mexico. What may have served as the turning event was the October 2010 Chandler, Arizona, beheading incident—though at least one earlier murder exists:14

During 2005 and 2006 in south Texas, Gabriel Cardona Ramirez, a kill-team leader for the Los Zetas Cartel, engaged in multiple homicides. Relating to one incident: “In a telephone conversation with convicted Zeta Sicario Rosalio ‘Bart’ Reta intercepted by DEA agents, Cardona bragged about how he slashed…two teenagers with a broken bottle, gathered their blood in a cup, and made a toast to the Santisima Muerte, or death saint. He later disposed of their bodies in a barrel filled with liquid fuel, a method known as a guiso, or stew.15

However, the more recent Chandler event gained considerable media attention and became thoroughly documented due to the police incident report released to the media. During the early hours of October 10, 2010, a cartel kill team stabbed and beheaded Martin Alejandro Cota “Jando” Monroy, 38 years old, in his apartment. Earlier, Monroy had stolen marijuana and methamphetamines from the PEI-Estatales/El Chapo drug trafficking organization and fled from Mexico to avoid his own murder. Initially, he had been captured by the Los Relampagos enforcement/kidnapping group sent by the cartel, but he talked his way out of being killed by offering a house he falsely claimed to own as collateral for the stolen narcotics. Via the El Gio Syndicate, the cartel sent three operatives to the Phoenix, Arizona, area to locate and watch Monroy until orders to kill him came through. The operatives befriended Monroy and moved in with him before the murder. Prior to the killing, Monroy, a neighbor, and the three killers spent the night drinking at a local bar and talking about Santa Muerte. Earlier, Monroy bragged that he had protection from death, previously died five times and came back, and could kill someone by just looking at them.16

A written report, videotape, and photographs documented Monroy’s murder, which featured his body and severed head laying in his living room. The police incident report noted the Santa Muerte imagery at the crime scene.17

The written report listed burning candles and a small statue and picture of Santa Muerte. It did not mention the colors of the candles, statue, or the nuances of the photo (though this information should exist in video footage and photographs), and no items were collected for processing as evidence.18 This suggests that authorities treated the crime scene solely as a secular homicide and did not focus on the spiritual potential surrounding the killing. If nothing else, the kitchen directly opened up to the living room, suggesting that the lit candles illuminating the Santa Muerte shrine cast their glow on the killers and the victim during the beheading.

Since the Chandler incident, two other killings (one confirmed as Santa Muerte-linked and one possible) allegedly have occurred within the United States. In April 2011 local law enforcement officers investigating a dozen killings in Chicago, Illinois, identified multiple suspects as Santa Muerte followers. Two had Grim Reaper tattoos. Santa Muerte shrines were found in the homes of the arrestees, who slit their victims’ throats in some of the killings.19

In September 2011 a man in Sullivan City, Texas, was found stabbed and burned to death in the remains of his trailer. Next to the rubble stood a small shed containing a Santa Muerte shrine with still-lit candles. Presumably, the shrine is associated with the homicide victim, but the motivation behind the crime remains under investigation.20

Having only four documented (three confirmed) Santa Muerte homicide related incidents is encouraging, particularly because the Mexican cartels have operatives in over 1,000 U.S. cities.21 Methodological issues pertaining to the possible underreporting of such killings—because authorities misidentified them or the media did not report them—and the crossborder potentials of the Santa Muerte-linked killings still pose concern.



02/13/13 

Law Enforcement Investigations  

Law enforcement professionals who encounter Santa Muerte artifacts and related narcotics cult paraphernalia at crime scenes should not dismiss them hastily. Such items provide insight into the spiritual orientation of suspects, arrestees, persons of interest, and potential victims of Santa Muerte-linked killings. For instance, an altar containing blood, bones, burned plastic police figurines, and black statuettes and candles will determine different worshiper intent than one containing a rainbow statuette, blue and bone candles, and offerings of various types of fruit.

Some Mexican cartels, such as Los Zetas, consider Santa Muerte their patron saint; for this reason, the more specific the information gathered the better. While understanding the ritualistic nature of a homicide ultimately may not help to convict a suspect for the specific crime investigated—though additional charges may be warranted due to its premeditated nature—doing so will help provide baseline criminal data that authorities can use at the regional law enforcement intelligence center level.

Officer performance and safety issues, primarily those of an emotional or mental nature, need consideration during investigations of crime scenes involving Santa Muerte altars and ritualistic activities—even benign ones. Peace officers in cartel training have stated that they will have nothing to do with such Santa Muerte artifacts as altars, candles, statues, amulets, pictures, and sacrificial items because they consider them evil and, as a result, will not enter dwellings that contain them. In fact, Santa Muerte informational training can prove so stressful for some law enforcement and public safety officers that they can become physically ill and pass out. This has happened during training more than once.22 Programs and writings concerning wellness and spirituality in policing can provide “spiritual armor” against dark ritualistic crime scenes and altars containing human remains.23

While U.S. law enforcement personnel in some parts of the nation, such as southern Texas, are familiar with Santa Muerte worshipers working for the cartels, officers in other areas know little about such cartel members. Introductory booklets and reports, subject matter experts, and training programs can provide useful background on this growing cult. Training also is offered by local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) centers whose Mexican cartel and gang-focused training increasingly has narcotics saint content. Such training is being provided by the Los Angeles HIDTA and other entities in the southern border state areas.

Open Quotes

Law enforcement professionals who encounter Santa Muerte artifacts and related narcotics cult paraphernalia at crime scenes should not dismiss them hastily.

Close Quotes

For specialized federal assistance, the FBI can provide training in management of death investigations and spirituality. Law enforcement agencies can submit requests in writing in coordination with their local FBI field office (Note—Training commitments are based on resource, FBI personnel, and other training availabilities.).

Investigative support programs pertaining to Santa Muerte related killings still emerge as the need for them is being identified nationally.  This means that additional training and resources provided by local, state, and federal organizations may become available to U.S. law enforcement officers in the future. While no certainty exists that Santa Muerte-inspired, much less ritualistic, killings will spread within the United States, recent trends suggest that they will occur at least sporadically. For U.S. law enforcement officers, it proves far better to be prepared and vigilant than caught off guard.

Conclusion

The latest variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte promotes extreme, corrupt, and criminal—even evil—behaviors. Law enforcement agencies need to provide a balanced, yet vigilant, response.

The rise of a fully criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could emerge across the border and manifest domestically in the United States. 


The author would like to thank Robert Almonte, U.S. Marshal, Western District of Texas, whose “Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld” training provided additional research and law enforcement practitioner insights used in this article.


Dr. Bunker has worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and currently serves with the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and as an adjunct faculty member with Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. At the time of the writing of this article the author was serving as an instructor with the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.


Endnotes

1 “La Santisima Muerte,” performed by Necrophobic, from the album Death to All, Regain Records, 2009. The influence of Santa Muerte is expanding into some English-speaking musical genres. An additional concern is the promotion of alleged rituals, such as “blood baptism,” derived from wearing bloody human skins taken from sacrificial victims.

2 Initial disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the FBI, DOJ, the Futures Working Group, Police Futures International, or any other institution or organization. Additional disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

3 Catholic priests in Mexico also are under siege. Since 2006, 12 have died, 1,000 have been extorted, and 162 have been threatened with death. See Joseph Kolb, “Mexican Priests Face Death, Extortion from Drug Cartels,” Catholic Register, October 6, 2011, http://www.catholicregister.org/news/international/item/13102-mexican-priests-face-death-extortion-from-drug-cartels (accessed August 27, 2012).

4 Kevin Freese, The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm (accessed August 27, 2012).

5 E. Bryant Holman, The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint (Edward Holman: 2007).

6 Alfredo Ortega-Trillo, “The Cult of Santa Muerte in Tijuana,” San Diego News Notes, June 2006.

7 “Mexican Holy Death Sect Leader Arrested,” Fox News Latino, January 5, 2011, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2011/01/05/mexican-holy-death-sect-leader-arrested/ (accessed August 28, 2012).

8 “Holy War Against the Catholic Church,” California Catholic Daily, April 9, 2009.

9 Tony Kail, Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint of Death (La Vergne, TN: Fringe Research Press, 2010): 128.

10 Story provided to a researcher by a local Santa Muerte follower.

11 First compiled in 2009, this listing has increased with the inclusion of newly occurring, as well as identified, incidents. See Pamela L. Bunker, Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker, “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos,” in Narcotics Over the Border, ed. Robert J. Bunker (London, UK: Rouledge, 2011), 166; and Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Societal Warfare South of the Border?” Small Wars Journal (May 22, 2011), http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/societal-warfare-south-of-the-border. New incident sources include: “Another Slaughtered in Honor of the Holy Death,” Noticieros Televisa (January 10, 2010), http://neglectedwar.com/blog/archives/875 (accessed August 28, 2012); “Indetifican Cabeza ‘Ofrendada’ en Tumba de ‘El Barbas,’” (January 18, 2010), http://www2.esmas.com/noticierostelevisa/mexico/estados/130952/identifican-cabeza-abandonada-tumba-el-barbas  (accessed August 28, 2012); Mail Foreign Service, “Drug Cartel Victims Discovered with Their Hearts Cut Out Close to Mexican Resort of Cancun,” Daily Mail (June 7, 2010), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1284590/Bodies-hearts-cut-close-Mexican-resort-Cancun.html (accessed August 28, 2012); and Daniel Borunda, “Skeleton, Santa Muerte Altar Found at Alleged Kidnapping Site in Juárez,” El Paso Times, July 15, 2011, http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_18481956 (accessed August 28, 2012).

12 Tony M. Kail, “Crime Scenes and Folk Saints,” Counter Cult Apologetics Journal 1, no. 1 (2006): 4.

13 Ibid.

14 Bunker, “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos,” 166.

15 Jason Buch, “Zeta Gets Life,” Laredo Morning Times, March 6, 2009 (also posted as “Zeta Blood Lust: Three More Cartel Members Plead Guilty in Major Fed Case” and mirrored on a number of Web sites). See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2201097/posts (accessed August 28, 2012).

16 Laurie Merrill, “Chandler Beheading Tied to Mexican Drug Cartel,” The Arizona Republic, March 2, 2011, http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2011/03/02/20110302chandler-beheading-mexico-drug-trafficking0303.html (accessed August 31, 2012).

17 Publicly released report from the Chandler, Arizona, Police Department.

18 Ibid.

19 Frank Main and Kim Janssen, “Sources: Two Charged in Double Murder Suspected in 10 Other Killings,” Sun Times, April 2, 2011, http://www.suntimes.com/news/crime/4054640-418/story.html (accessed August 31, 2012).

20 Stephanie Bertini, “Santa Muerte Shrine Found Outside Sullivan City,” KRGV.com, September 21, 2011.

21 Accusations have focused on recent Arizona shooter Jared Loughner as being a Santa Muerte follower. These appear unfounded even though he had a skull shrine with offerings in his back yard and engaged in other bizarre activities. While he may have had an affinity for Satan or the Grim Reaper, such associations do not mean that Loughner, a mentally unstable individual, is a Santa Muerte follower; and U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2011 (Washington, D.C.: August 2011): 8

22 Sessions conducted by U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte.

23 Samuel L. Feemster, “Wellness and Spirituality: Beyond Survival Practices for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2009: 2-8; “Spirituality: An Invisible Weapon for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 2009: 1-12; and “Spirituality: The DNA of Law Enforcement Practice,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2007: 8-17.


Additional Resources

Books

Kevin Freese, The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm.

Tony Kail, Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint of Death (Seattle, WA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2010).

Tony Kail, Magico-Religious Groups and Ritualistic Activities: A Guide for First Responders (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2008).

Internet Resources

Robert J. Bunker and Pamela L. Bunker, Santa Muerte and Mexican Narcocultos (Quantico, VA: FBI Academy, Quantico, 2011), http://fbilibrary.fbiacademy.edu/bibliographies/santamuertenarcos.pdf.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list