Santa Muerte and the ‘religious’ saints drug cartels worship

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Santa Muerte and the ‘religious’ saints drug cartels worship

Santa Muerte has a fondness for tequila, cigarettes, candy — and human blood.

The saint is a favorite of Mexican and Central American drug traffickers who are known to leave the severed heads of their enemies at improvised shrines, featuring wax effigies and votive candles emblazoned with the skeletal image of the one also known as Holy Death.

Dressed in a flowing white robe and often wielding both a scythe and a globe, Santa Muerte — a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mexico’s patron saint — is just one of a rapidly growing religious movement of “narco saints,” worshiped by drug traffickers who pray to them for protection, riches and the silence necessary to mask their underworld dealings.

“The narcos and the gangs all believe in the power of prayer,” said Robert Almonte, a Texas-based security consultant and former deputy chief of the El Paso Police Department who specialized in narcotics. “They believe that the saints will protect them no matter what they do — and that’s dangerous because it emboldens the traffickers who truly believe they can get away with murder and still go to heaven.”

The movement is growing, with estimates of up to 12 million devotees in Mexico and, now, parts of the US. American law enforcement officials struggling under the recent wave of illegal migrant crossings are increasingly documenting altars to the macabre saint — and another, Jesus Maldverde — in stash houses in US border communities where Mexican drug cartel members often hold migrants for ransom, Almonte said.

The cartel saints are rising in popularity with estimates of up to 12 million devotees in Mexico and, now, parts of the US.
So-called narco saints, such as Santa Muerta, are rising in popularity — with estimates of up to 12 million devotees in Mexico and, now, parts of the US.
Gustavo Graf/REUTERS

Not that these saints are canonized. The Catholic Church has condemned Santa Muerte worship as “blasphemous and Satanic.” When Pope Francis visited Mexico for the first time in 2016, he condemned the cult, which is one of the fastest growing new “religious” movements in the world, according to the Catholic Herald.

“I am particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money,” the Pope said, referring to Santa Muerte. “I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church.”

Altars to Santa Muerte are created in private homes, with larger statues erected in public squares in impoverished parts of Mexico. There is also a Santa Muerte sanctuary, with several life-sized effigies of the saint, in an industrial area of Las Vegas.

Gangs know not to touch any money left at saint shrines for fear of enduring the saint's wrath.
Gangs know not to touch any money left at saint shrines for fear of enduring the saint’s wrath.
LightRocket via Getty Images

In some cases, Santa Muerte altars feature bundles of cash offerings, which are considered sacrosanct. Rival narcos — including members of the notorious MS-13 gang from El Salvador — know not to touch the money for fear of enduring the saint’s wrath, law enforcement officials say.

Many of the gruesome murders, including beheadings and human sacrifices, committed by Mexican drug gangs are done so in the name of Santa Muerte, said Almonte, who is writing a book about the cult.

In a 2016 interview, a sicario for the Juarez Cartel named Edgar described his worship, telling documentary filmmakers during a prison interview that, before each hit job, he would pray to the saint to ensure that everything would go according to plan.

Robert Almonte, a Texas-based security consultant and former deputy chief of the El Paso Police Department, says cartels and gang members believe in the power of prayer.
Robert Almonte, a Texas-based security consultant and former deputy chief of the El Paso Police Department, says cartels and gang members believe in the power of prayer.
Courtesy of Robert Almonte

“I actually sacrifice people for my Santa Muerte,” said Edgar, then 26. “The thing is that I kill for ordering, but I talk to her and say, ‘Hey, I go to a job. Just make me hit, I am gonna give you that life, it is for you.’” Edgar claimed he had killed 60 people on the orders of the Juarez Cartel.

The Santa Muerte cult traces its roots to colonial-era Mexico when devotees worshiped the folk deity in secret after the Catholic Church had banned the practice. The cult gained prominence in the 1940s and then again in 2001 when a street vendor named Queta Romero mounted an outdoor shrine to Santa Muerte in Tepito, one of Mexico’s City’s most violent neighborhoods. Thousands came to worship at the shrine — including women who prayed to the saint to make their husbands’ mistresses disappear.

Almonte, who is a former federal marshal, has been documenting the Santa Muerte cult since 1985 and spent the last several years crisscrossing the country, lecturing US law enforcement about Santa Muerte as well as a pantheon of other narco saints — including Jesus Malverde, a mustachioed Robin Hood-like bandit revered among the Sinaloa Cartel and considered the patron saint of drug traffickers in Mexico.

Followers of Santa Muerte can trace it's roots back to colonial Mexico when it became a mashup of indigenous and Catholic symbolism.
Followers of Santa Muerte have been known to tattoo the saint’s name and likeness on their body and place her stickers on their cars.
Eduardo Verdugo/AP

During jury selection at the 2018 trial of former Sinaloa Cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Brooklyn federal court, potential jurors were asked if they were familiar with Jesus Malverde, a legendary figure of pre-Revolution Mexico.

Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte are often honored together in ceremonies throughout Mexico, although human sacrifices are not offered to Malverde, cartel experts told The Post.

In January, 2010, a trafficker placed a decapitated head next to the tomb of legendary cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva, who had been killed in his apartment surrounded by Santa Muerte paraphernalia. The suggestion was that the drug dealer had placed the severed head next to the grave as an offering to Santa Muerte, experts said.

In 2012, self-proclaimed high priests, David Romo Guillen, was sentenced to 66 years in prison for kidnapping and extortion.
In 2012, David Romo Guillén, one of the self-proclaimed “high priests” of Santa Muerte, was sentenced to 66 years in prison for kidnapping and extortion.
Mario Guzman/EPA/Shutterstock

“When we see a deep criminal Santa Muerte connection it’s about the gaining of some
sort of favor [vast riches or the death of an enemy] or supernatural powers [spiritual armor] via the reaping of a soul,” Robert Bunker, a security consultant and University of Southern California instructor, told The Post. “Sometimes this is ritualized and other times it is not.”

Authorities have also documented a handful of Santa Muerte-influenced murders on the US side of the border, including a 2010 beheading in Chandler, Ariz. Cook County prosecutors in Chicago documented 13 Santa Muerte-affiliated murders between 2009 and 2011 by cartel kill teams. One killing crew had Santa Muerte stickers on their vehicles, tattoos on their bodies, altars in their homes and Santa Muerte-stamped bands to hold their cash, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In 2012, the cult made headlines in Mexico when one of its self-proclaimed high priests, David Romo Guillén, was sentenced to 66 years in prison for kidnapping and extortion. Earlier, he had called for holy war against the Catholic Church. Most of the Santa Muerte adherents live in Mexico, and the vast majority are not as hardcore as drug trafficker devotees, worshiping the folk deity without resorting to any acts of violence.

Jesus Malverde is revered among the Sinaloa Cartel and considered the patron saint of drug traffickers in Mexico.
Jesus Malverde is revered among the Sinaloa Cartel and considered the patron saint of drug traffickers in Mexico.
dpa/AP

According to Bunker, who has also worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, “A component of the cartel and gang members have gone down the path of ‘dark’ Santa Muerte worship as opposed to more benign Santa Muerte veneration” — which represents the vast majority of adherents in general society and also criminal groups who may be into SM “lite.”

Almonte recalled being approached by a police officer who was not able to crack a difficult homicide case until finding a note — written by a suspect seeking protection — at the crime scene.

“She would only have written that if she needed protection from us,” said the officer in an email to Almonte that was viewed by The Post. “She then broke down and told us about how the suspect used her rental car to commit the murder and that the prayer was written to help them from getting caught.”

As cartels continue to make inroads into the US, Santa Muerte-influenced violence is expected to increase, experts say.

“What I tell the officers when I am training them is that the cartel guys are doing this in Mexico and they will continue to do the same things here,” Almonte said. “It’s going to get worse here.”

A GUIDE TO THE NARCO SAINTS

Santa Muerte Unlike most of the other folk saints revered by cartels and gangs, Santa Muerte — also known as Holy Death — is not based upon a real person. Dressed in a flowing white robe and often wielding both a scythe and a globe, she's a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mexico's patron saint, and murders are committed in her name.
Santa Muerte: Unlike most of the other folk saints revered by cartels and gangs, Santa Muerte — also known as Holy Death — is not based upon a real person. Dressed in a flowing white robe and often wielding both a scythe and a globe, she’s a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, and murders are committed in her name.

Jesus Malverde You might know the Robin Hood-like bandit from a Season 2 episode of "Breaking Bad," when DEA agent Hank laughs at the notion of drug dealers praying to the saint. But indeed they do, as Malverde — who was allegedly killed by police in 1909 — has become the patron of outlaws, especially in his home state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
Jesus Malverde: You might know the Robin Hood-like bandit from a Season 2 episode of “Breaking Bad,” when DEA agent Hank laughs at the notion of drug dealers praying to the saint. But indeed they do, as Malverde — who was allegedly killed by police in 1909 — has become the patron of outlaws, especially in his home state of Sinaloa, Mexico.

San Simon or Maximon With his dapper suit and perfectly groomed mustache, the Guatemalan folk hero and Mayan deity bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Malverde. According to legend, he fought against the Spanish and was hired by fishermen to protect the virtue of their wives — although he ended up seducing all of them. He is the patron saint of the underworld in Guatemala, but has many followers in the US, said Almonte.
San Simon or Maximon: With his dapper suit and perfectly groomed mustache, the Guatemalan folk hero and Mayan deity bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Malverde. According to legend, he fought against the Spanish and was hired by fishermen to protect the virtue of their wives — although he ended up seducing all of them. He is the patron saint of the underworld in Guatemala, but has many followers in the US, said Almonte.

Nino de Atocha: The Holy Infant of Atocha, who has roots in 13th-century Spain, is the patron saint of prisoners and travelers– and popular among drug traffickers. Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar had altars in many of his safe houses dedicated to the nino (who allegedly appeared to Christian prisoners as a boy who brought them food and water) and made a pilgrimage to Spain to visit the shrine. Mexican drug lord Ovidio Guzman, a son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was wearing an amulet of the saint around his neck when he was briefly detained by Mexican authorities in 2019.

San Roman Nonato
San Ramon: In 12th-century Spain, San Ramon was ripped from his mother’s womb after she died in childbirth. He later entered the order of Mercedarian Fathers, who dedicated their lives to freeing Christian captives that had been imprisoned by Muslim conquerors in North Africa. When he could not buy their freedom, he offered himself in exchange for several Christians — taking advantage of the situation to preach the Christian gospel. But his Muslim captors placed a padlock on his mouth so that he could not speak. Drug traffickers often place a coin on the face of his effigy when they pray to him to keep people quiet.

St. Jude One of the original 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. He is particularly popular among drug traffickers, who pray to him "When they are driving a load of dope down a highway," said Almonte.
St. Jude: One of the original 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. He is particularly popular among drug traffickers, who pray to him “When they are driving a load of dope down a highway,” said Almonte.

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