Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War

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

Garza says now that he sees some representation of Santa Muerte "just about every time" he arrests a suspect. Some sport her tattoos, others wear her on gold necklaces, while more discreet devotees might tuck a Santa Muerte prayer card in their wallet or dashboard. He says the sight of her raises his antenna on traffic stops.

"You start seeing little red flags: a Santa Muerte emblem on the back of his car," he says. "And then he has a bunch of these prayer cards or maybe a Santa Muerte bobblehead or whatever. And then you go back and check this guy and he has a prior for narcotics and a bad criminal history. And then you talk to him and he's extremely nervous and it's a simple traffic stop. You start using that to get you where you need to go, be it a consent or calling the dog out there."

Garza finds more elaborate displays at stash houses, where the skeletal figurines are surrounded by Santa Muerte votive candles, often with a plate of sacrificial offerings nearby. "Food, water, money, cigarettes...I don't know how she got such a big nicotine problem, but she has one. She's always got a cigarette somewhere nearby," Garza chuckles. "But yeah, we see big temples. Some of them are six feet high, or it could be just a small tabletop or simply a picture on the wall."

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.

Garza says the traffickers he's arrested never talk about these altars to him. "They just kinda pretend they aren't there," he says. "But it's my opinion that these people all believe in some kind of some superior being — God or something else. They're not atheist by any means. I think they know that God would not approve of what they are doing, so they have to find somebody that they'll listen to."
_____________________

Santa Muerte devotee Maria's shop is in a strip mall, directly across Gessner from Strake Jesuit, my high school alma mater. While most typical Mexican spiritualist shops sport images of traditional saints, her shop is named Santísima Muerte ("Most Holy Death"), and its robed namesake is spray-painted on the window.

Inside, on a glass counter near votive candles, figurines of saints, and bins of medicinal and magical herbs, Maria has placed her public Santa Muerte shrine, where devotees have laid ofertas of apples, candles of many colors, money, cigarettes and rum at the White Lady's bony feet. Maria tells us that we can photograph this altar to our heart's content, and tells us that people ask it to grant them jobs or heal them.

"I have another in the back," she says in broken English. "I'll show you. But no pictures. It's my religion."

She takes Houston Press Art Director Monica Fuentes and me back to her office, and there's another shrine in the corner, this one a little bigger than the first, a little more impressive, but hardly awe-inspiring. Somewhere an unseen dog is barking in the shop; Maria's daughter is helping us translate, and a toddler lies on a swivel chair watching a telenovela.

Maria beckons us out of the office and toward a door marked "Absolutely No Admittance" in English. She opens the door and we step over and around a black-and-red throw rug marked with a pentagram and into an unholy of unholies, an ornate chapel of death, a folk-baroque masterpiece of the darker side of Mexican folk religiosity.

Under purple fluorescent tubes, on a cement floor, there's a small table and two metal chairs placed in front of a sort of stage. Front and center is a five-foot representation of grinning, veiled and robed Santa Muerte, surrounded by candles of red, green, white and black.

Her purple robe is festooned with offerings of two-dollar bills — never ones, never fives, tens or twenties. An owl is nearby. "The owl represents protection over the night, to see all the enemies that come at night to hurt you, human as well as spiritual," Maria would later tell intern Norma Vasquez.

Santa Muerte's scythe of vengeance and protection looks sharp. Maria calls it "a protection to free us from all enemies. A spade where you can cut out all bad and everything that can damage your character. That's why a lot of us use the sickle to protect ourselves."

Around Santa Muerte's feet are the same sorts of offerings we saw out front, only more of them — a pack of filterless Delicados cigarettes, a handle-bottle of Cuervo gold, whole baskets of fruit, bouquets of lilies and roses.

Santa Muerte is not alone on this altar. A gorgeous talavera statue of La Catrina, the laughing lady skeleton with the parasol and sun hat long known to celebrants of Day of the Dead, is up there, too, in a supporting role. (La Catrina and Santa Muerte are occasionally confused. La Catrina is a secular figure of fun who was created by a graphic artist, and is not petitioned for miracles.)

Winged Saint Michael the Archangel guards them both from dark forces with his sword. "San Miguel Archangel is the master of demons," Maria says. "He can always defeat them."

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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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