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Santa Muerte

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. Santa Muerte's large following of devotees range from women with unfaithful husbands or lovers to drug traffickers and gun runners.

Santa Muerte (literally translated as Holy Death) is a corruption (some would say perversion, others a development) of the cult of the Blessed Virgin in Mexican Catholicism. Santa Muerte cult has developed in Mexico for approximately a half century and has spread into the United States and Central America. The cults 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. She's definitely not the one dimensional Hollywood bogey man, but a far more complex being who fills the political and spiritual gaps of official neglect.

While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements. 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. Her imagery includes that of a robed skeleton carrying a scythe and globe or scales. Saint Death plays important roles: she is a supernatural healer, love doctor, money-maker, lawyer, and angel of death. She has become without doubt one of the most popular and powerful saints on both the Mexican and American religious landscapes.

To believers, the entity exists within the context of Catholic theology and is comparable to other purely supernatural beings, namely archangels. Spanish-language sources consistently use the cognate culto. The terms use does not entail the pejorative meaning of a strictly controlled, fringe religious group, led by a charismatic leader. The cult involves prayers, rituals, and offerings, which are given directly to Santa Muerte in expectation of and tailored to the fulfillment of specific requests. These bear some resemblance to other traditions.

Although condemned by mainstream churches, this folk saint's supernatural powers appeal to millions of Latin Americans and immigrants in the U.S. Devotees believe the Bony Lady (as she is affectionately called) to be the fastest and most effective miracle worker, and as such, her statuettes and paraphernalia now outsell those of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Jude. 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.

The cartel and gang narcocultura (drug culture) variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. 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., Jess Malverde, Juan Soldado, and Santa Muerte) have grown for years.

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 someones 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 richesincluding the company of beautiful womenbecome paramount.

. A death cult that seems to emerge from the violent conditions in Latin America is a tempting pulp clich for the popular media. In Tony Scotts 2004 action film Man on Fire, the haunted protagonist John Creasy (played by Denzel Washington) seeks revenge against a gang of kidnappers that, he believes, has murdered a little girl he was hired to protect. In one scene, as Creasy revisits the actual location of the kidnapping, Reforma journalist Mariana (played by Rachel Ticotin) picks up an amulet off the ground and says to him, Its Santa Muerte. Death worship. The religion of La Hermandad [the name of the kidnapping gang in the movie]. Theres a curse on you.



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