Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War

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

Though she believes in God and closes her botánica on Sundays, she has left the Church, frustrated by its scandals and what she sees as its seeming unconcern for the poor and downtrodden. It's become just another powerful institution to her, another power for grassroots Mexicans to fight, like their former colonial overlords, and then later the big landowners, and now the corporations and maquiladora operators.

"You hear this again and again from people who venerate her: 'I love her because she does not discriminate,'" Chesnut explains. Why fear her? The White Lady will eventually press us all to her cold bosom, from billionaire Carlos Slim to the lowliest Matamoros chicle peddler, from the most virtuous goody-two-shoes to the most dissolute hellraiser, the priests and the nuns, the whores and the hired guns in the drug trade, all of us equally.

"Her scythe takes all heads," says Chesnut.
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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.

Santa Muerte will consider the darkest petitions, such as the death of your enemies, success in a kidnapping or pickpocketing venture, or a windfall in the drug trade.

"St. Peter is not going to protect your next shipment of cocaine," Arellano says, but Santa Muerte might, if the price is right.

Thus her near-universal adoration in the drug trade, through which she has garnered most of her infamy. She serves many purposes in that arena: protector of life in a business that has claimed 35,000 souls since 2008, with the number rising every year. She can also be deployed as a destroyer of life, and a guarantor of success in shipping, so even within the confines of the narco world, she remains a complex multitasker.

In 2008, police found 11 charred heads near a Santa Muerte shrine in the Yucatán tended by the Zetas drug cartel. Earlier this year, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Chris Diaz testified that during a wiretapping operation, he heard a Zeta heavy boast of sacrificing two teenaged rivals to Santa Muerte by slicing open their bellies and offering the blood of one as a toast to La Flaka. Also this year, on the side of a highway not far from Monterrey, police found the handless, footless and headless torsos of 49 men and women, many of which bore Santa Muerte tattoos.

In fact, Chesnut says that one of her first mentions in the mainstream media predates the modern era of Mexico's Drug War, to what is still one of the most infamous bloodlettings the borderlands have ever known. That was when police found a Santa Muerte altar at the Tamaulipas ranch of Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, the psychotic, sadistic Cuban-American drug lord who, before his death in a shootout with Mexican police in 1989, ritually sacrificed at least 16 men, women and children, including University of Texas premed student Mark Kilroy, who was kidnapped in Matamoros while on spring break. Constanzo's dark faith fused a twisted version of Cuban Santeria with Mexican traditions, and he believed that the slaughter and mutilation of innocents would protect his business from police.

His on-off girlfriend and constant consort, the six-foot-one former Brownsville nursing student Sara Maria Aldrete, was known as "La Madrina," or "the Godmother," and so shared one of Santa Muerte's many nicknames. After her arrest, she told police that their religion was growing and could not be stamped out by authorities. She pointed out that a Santa Muerte shrine, one shorn of Constanzo's Santeria trappings and totally unrelated to theirs, had already sprung up in Monterrey.

Aldrete was right. Santa Muerte veneration continued bubbling under the surface of Mexican life, primarily in northern and eastern Mexico, until Santa Muerte made her dramatic public debut in the notorious Mexico City slum of Tepito in 2001, where the first public altar was built. Ever since, at the stroke of midnight on All Saints' Day (November 1), to the strains of marimba bands and mariachi orchestras, thousands of faithful turn out to venerate her and offer gold, apples, tequila, cigarettes and money. And water, lots of water: She is still "the Parched One" to some degree. "She's a skeleton," says Chesnut. "She's always thirsty."

Nodding to the drug trade, marijuana smoke is used in lieu of incense at this rite. At another public shrine in the capital, Jesús Malverde, a legendary Robin Hood-like figure and folk saint who long served as La Flaka's predecessor as protector of drug smugglers, is also honored.

"Malverde was at least straightforward and honest," says Arellano. If someone venerated him, you pretty much knew they were a narco. Now it's not so clear-cut. "Good people pray to Santa Muerte," Arellano says. (See "Know Your Narco Saints.")

Officer "J.G." Garza has served in the Houston Police Department for 35 years, the last 20 in the Narcotics Division. He says he has seen a lot of Santa Muerte over the last ten years.

"It's really changed back from the '80s when we had a lot of Colombian nationals with the dope coming directly from Colombia and South America," he says. "You did see other kinds of altars with them, but when the Mexican cartels started taking over, you did see a transition into Saint Death."

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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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