Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War

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

While many proud Mexicans assert that Santa Muerte is a thinly veiled reincarnation of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec queen of the dead, and true devotees believe she is as old as Original Sin and Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut thinks that Santa Muerte's appearance is primarily of medieval Spanish origin. (A former history professor at the University of Houston, today Chesnut is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.)

"The Spanish had a female Grim Reaper figure called 'La Parca,' or 'the parched one,'" he says over the phone from his home in Richmond, Virginia. Mexican patriots have a cultural disposition to downplay their Spanish heritage, he continues. "Mexican nationalism posits that Aztec and Mayan culture is good and Spanish is bad," he says.

Still, Spanish origins aside, Chesnut believes Santa Muerte is a purely Mexican creation, a fusion of medieval Spanish and traditions native to the New World. In Spain, La Parca was solely an object of dread and fear.

Officer "J.G." Garza of the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division says he almost always  finds a Santa Muerte altar inside the home of drug suspects. This photograph was taken in a cartel safe house in Houston.
Courtesy of R. Andrew Chestnut
Officer "J.G." Garza of the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division says he almost always finds a Santa Muerte altar inside the home of drug suspects. This photograph was taken in a cartel safe house in Houston.

"The Grim Reaper would never fly in Mexico," says Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated "Ask a Mexican" column and editor of Houston Press sister paper OC Weekly. "Death is celebrated there as a part of life."

Once in Mexico, La Parca morphed over centuries from the mere harvester of souls of European lore to Santa Muerte, a powerful miracle-worker, equal to or even more potent in the minds of her faithful than any canonized saint. Some even equate her powers to those of God himself.

"You see bumper stickers that say, 'God guides me, Santa Muerte protects me,'" marvels Arellano. (Others bear the same slogan and substitute Our Lady of Guadalupe for God.)

Santa Muerte's powers have grown not just in effectiveness but also in scope. She's not just about death today. She's also about all aspects of life. Chesnut calls her "a complex multitasker."

"She's a love magician, an employment broker, a healer; she can help you find things that are lost," he says. "Even today, her most important task is love magic," Chesnut points out. "Stopping cheating and that kind of thing. For that you light a red candle."

Indeed, much of Santa Muerte's earliest media and scholarly attention came through her role as a defender of marital sanctity. Suspicious wives would invoke her fearsome powers to stop their men from straying, and if their men failed to heed Santa Muerte's commands, well, let's just say that scythe would be put to use, dramatically.

"Middle-aged women address her the same way as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but they might take petitions to Santa Muerte that they wouldn't take to Our Lady," Chesnut says.

That's a huge part of her appeal. You can ask the Bony One for favors other saints would not even consider. For example, gay men and lesbians can petition her for luck in love, whereas more traditional saints might only tell them to change their sinning ways or remain forever celibate.

Chesnut says that Santa Muerte's believers swear by her speed and potency in granting miracles. One long-jobless adherent told him that he had long been desperately praying to Saint Jude, patron of lost causes. After three years he turned to Santa Muerte, and got a job in three days.

While she is very popular among the poor in Mexico, to say that her veneration is theirs exclusively is an oversimplification, Chesnut says. "Most people in Mexico don't have anything more than a seventh-grade education. Half of Mexico is poor anyway."

Chesnut believes that it's more accurate to say that she has special appeal to Mexicans (and, increasingly, Central Americans and Mexican-Americans) who feel that death might be imminent: street prostitutes and cabbies out late at night and alone on mean streets; people who live in cartel war zones; even, on occasion, police officers and politicians, whose lives are often threatened by drug lords. (Cops and politicos tend to keep their veneration a secret.)

"I always dreamed about her," says Maria, a Houston Santa Muerte priestess. (After my visit to her botánica was frustrated by the language barrier, Press intern Norma Vasquez interviewed Maria and furnished us with the following translation.) "I used to be a person who feared death, who feared night," Maria continued. "Once night would arrive, I would start panicking. Scared knowing that I was going to die, and every day I would say I was going to die. One day [Santa Muerte] appeared and said that God wasn't picking me up yet, [and] I still had a lot to do on this earth and I had to continue striving. Since then, that idea and fear of death left me as well as the fear of night coming and me saying that I was going to die."

"Who better to ask for a few extra weeks or months of life than death herself?" Chesnut asks.

Maria is from Veracruz and said that she had been venerating Santa Muerte for ten years.

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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 .

secondbacchus
secondbacchus

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

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/

 

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.

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!

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.

 
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