Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War

Need help killing someone? Or cementing a drug deal? This may be the saint for you.

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Sunny Flea Market on Airline Drive is as full of raw life as any place in the state of Texas, especially on this hot Sunday afternoon in August. Fifty thousand weekly visitors stroll its long rows of covered market stalls, where more than 1,000 vendors offer a cradle-to-grave bonanza of blue-collar Mexican-American life.

There's birth, childhood and school: Parents can find used car-seats, cribs and blankets for their infants, while their older brothers and sisters can be fitted for school uniforms or beg for secondhand video games, or ride live ponies, or frolic on carousels and a merry-go-round — all the while listening to the hypnotic high-hat hiss of cumbias to beery oompah banda sounds to romantic ranchero ballads.

Santa Muerte is all over Houston, if you know where to look. She's on the shelves at most Fiesta stores, ruling over her very own dedicated botánicas, and vying for your attention alongside the Pope, Jesus and a drunken deer at an Airline Drive flea market.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Santa Muerte is all over Houston, if you know where to look. She's on the shelves at most Fiesta stores, ruling over her very own dedicated botánicas, and vying for your attention alongside the Pope, Jesus and a drunken deer at an Airline Drive flea market.
Maria stands beside her public Santa Muerte altar inside her Sharpstown botánica. The Veracruz-born Santa Muerte priestess keeps another altar in her office and a truly awe-inspiring one in her back room. She won't allow that one to be photographed. "It's my religion," she says. Click here to see a video interview with Maria.
Daniel Kramer
Maria stands beside her public Santa Muerte altar inside her Sharpstown botánica. The Veracruz-born Santa Muerte priestess keeps another altar in her office and a truly awe-inspiring one in her back room. She won't allow that one to be photographed. "It's my religion," she says. Click here to see a video interview with Maria.

One stall is piled high with wire cages in which fuzzy Chihuahua pups tremble and with their limpid brown eyes implore children for a forever home, while parrots, macaws and parakeets squawk and iguanas flick their tongues in others nearby. A vendor allows a ring-tailed lemur to clamber up his arm and down his back, its piercing stare encapsulating a journey to a primordial Madagascar jungle.

And if you know where to look, everywhere there is death — more specifically, the Grim Reaper-like visage of Santa Muerte ("Saint Death" or "Holy Death"). The increasingly popular, scythe-wielding folk saint, miracle worker and unofficial patron of many of Mexico's narcos, prostitutes, prisoners, poor, gays, transvestites and others on the margins of Mexico's Drug War-ravaged, poverty-stricken society is all around. She is found on clothing: A twentysomething man sports her on a T-shirt, on which rests the head of his sleeping infant, nestled in a front-slung harness. Another man honors the veiled skeleton with a chunky gold pendant around his bull-neck.

And then there's the jackpot: an entire stall given over to Santa Muerte devotion. Here, devotees of (as she is variously known) "La Madrina" ("the Godmother"), "La Flaka" (a slang spelling for "the Skinny Woman") or "La Niña Blanca" ("the White Lady") can buy candles, statues, posters and amulets for her veneration.

The stallholders — Jonathan Mejia and Eduardo Mora, two men who look no older than 20 — say she grants many wishes, in many different areas of life. All you have to do is ask, light the right color of candle to her and then make a sacrifice. (You also need to make sure Santa Muerte is wearing a matching-color robe, though adherents say this is less important than the correct color of candle.)

"I don't know all the colors, but red is for love. You give her wine, money, food," says Mora. "Gold is for money, green is for health."

Asked about the supposedly death-dealing black candle, the one that can be used to wreak vengeance and downfall on your enemies, Mora shrugs. "I don't know about that. We do run out of them fast." (Police say that black candles are found far more often in the private shrines of drug dealers and assassins than they are at Santa Muerte's increasingly common public altars.)

And it's not just enemies from whom Santa Muerte can extract a heavy toll, even the ultimate price.

"There's a downside," Mejia says. "When you ask her for something, you have to promise her something. If you don't make that promise, um...many people say she takes away one of your loved ones."

In the last ten years, this harshest of all mistresses has come gliding inexorably from the shadows of Mexican folk religion, far from what scholars believe was her birthplace on or near Mexico's central Gulf Coast. As recently as 12 years ago, most Mexicans had never heard of her, but now her cult is spreading beyond the borders of that country, both south to Central America and north to the United States, where one expert tells us that some of her adherents today are white and black Anglos.

In spite of official rejection by the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, Santa Muerte's followers only increase in number and devotion, carrying her all the way onto the fringes of the American pop-culture mainstream. She made a cameo on Breaking Bad — Tuco's terrifying cousins light candles to her, petitioning her for success on the way to Albuquerque on their mission of murderous revenge.

The faithful adore her publicly at shrines all over Mexico. People pray to her on her Facebook page, and there are drives afoot in several cities, Houston included, to raise funds to build permanent public chapels in her honor. Houstonians can buy her votive candles not just at barrio yerberías and botánicas, but also at their friendly neighborhood Fiesta supermarket or Dollar Tree store.

Mexican bishops have said her veneration is akin to Satanism, and Mexican prosecutors claim that Santa Muerte has been linked to ­cartel-related human sacrifices.

Others say her scythe is not just a weapon but also a shield: They see her as a bringer of comfort in dark times, a beacon of peace in dark times.

One thing is for sure: Santa Muerte is here to stay. Some concerned Catholics even believe that she is at war with Our Lady of Guadalupe herself for status as unofficial queen of Mexican souls.
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13 comments
WEL1965
WEL1965

@secondbacchus Santa Muerta comments are hilarious .darknight guy is wrong... Mr lomas got it right,just not traditional .

darkknight775871
darkknight775871

Mr. Lomax,

First of all – great article although I’d say you went a bit on the rated G side…

 

Santeria has Cuban/African influence more so than Spanish and Mexican. It evolved from Caribbean/Cuba/Africa/Puerto Rico in the 1500’s during Spain’s Slave trade .

Santeria has been in the movies and TV for years - See 1988's "The Serpent and the Rainbow".

 

Of your list of Patron Saints of the Mexican's Drug Underworld  (http://www.policemag.com/videos/channel/gangs/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld-trailer.aspx ) and the Simpletons worship, you cannot leave off:

 

Saint Toribio Romo González - Patron Saint of Immigrants and Border Crossers(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toribio_Romo_Gonz%C3%A1lez).

 

Tweety Bird – which is for good luck

 

San Simon aka Maximon – patrol Saint of the Under World http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim%C3%B3n 

 

Saint Ramon Nonat (aka Raymond Nonnatus) -  patron saint of childbirth, midwives, children, pregnant women, and priests who want to protect the secrecy of confession (wears a padlock though his lips).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Nonnatus

 

A major  thing you neglected to mention is the Darker Side of Santeria – yes it gets darker…this is known as Palo mayombe  which originated from the African Congo and is said to be the world's most powerful and feared form of black magic. 

http://www.palomayombe.net/About_Us.html

 

Additional Resources:

Studying the saints that narcos pray to Law officers get lesson on which icons mean what.

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Studying-the-saintsthat-narcos-pray-to-885365.php

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld (Part 1 of 2)

http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drugs-underworld-part-one.aspx

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld (Part 2 of 2)

http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2010/06/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld-part-ii.aspx

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld

http://blogs.uww.edu/introtolatinamerica/2009/11/01/patron-saints-of-the-mexican-drug-underworld/

 

Matt_Ozug
Matt_Ozug

@AndrewChesnut1 Thanks for the link! We've got a new piece coming, from the aug 11 Santa Muerte celebracion in NYC. be sure to share w/ you

geronimolomax
geronimolomax

@AlexLuster @houstonpress Thanks for the RT, Primo!

gordonjones6
gordonjones6

very cool!  can't wait to go & find treasures for the alters i make!

KinKade
KinKade

Wow.  This story was awesome.  I always wanted to know more about the day of the dead in relation to Santa Muerta.  Great story.

secondbacchus
secondbacchus

@WEL1965 I didn't read the comments but will take a look post-haste.

jnovalomax
jnovalomax

 @darkknight775871 Thanks for your feedback and the additional info. Didn't have room to go much into Santeria, and I did give San Ramon Nonato an entry. I didn't want to mention Tweety Bird because I felt he fell short of folk saint status. He's more like a rabbit's foot.

 
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