Cover Story: The Rise and Rise of Santa Muerte, with VIDEO

It was sometime back in the early 2000s, or maybe even the late 1990s, that I started seeing them at the late beloved Dunlavy Fiesta: in the Hispanic aisle, alongside the colorful votive candles to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Saint Jude, and the Most Powerful Hand of God, there were these stark monochrome candles to a Grim Reaper-like figure identified as Santa Muerte, or Santisima Muerte. (Saint Death, or Most Holy Death.)

At the time I thought little of them -- maybe they were just some aspect of Day of the Dead celebrations that I hadn't yet heard of.

And then the cartel drug war intensified, and reports came from south of the border of the cult of Santa Muerte and its close association with the drug trade. Mexican authorities claimed that she was that she had supplanted Mexico's legendary bandit king as the new patron saint of the pot, meth and cocaine smuggling business.

She is that, but she is also something more as I detail in this week's cover story.

A fusion of medieval representations of the Grim Reaper and native Mexican beliefs, Santa Muerte is revered not only by cartel smugglers and assassins (some of whom have reportedly left human sacrifices at her altars), but all those who live their daily lives in fear of death. Her scythe can be a shield as well as a weapon.

Today her faithful include many who live in the margins of Mexican society, like prostitutes and street thieves, and also many of the poor in general, who seek her assistance in finding work. And with so many areas of Mexico having become cartel war zones, police and cartel-targeted politicians have started to revere her, often in secret.

Santa Muerte's devotees also include many who feel marginalized by traditional Catholic teaching. Many gay men, transgendered people and lesbians believe that they can ask her for favors in love that the official saints would not grant. And with the 30-year trend away from post-Vatican II liberation theology, many on the bottom rungs of Mexican society believe that the church has turned its back on them in favor of the rich and powerful. In a film produced by Houston Press intern Norma Vasquez, Maria, a local Santa Muerte priestess, speaks of her faith in "La Flaka," "the skinny girl.")

So she is a drug saint, but also an employment broker and a matchmaker. She's a harvester of souls -- all of them, in the end -- but also a protector of life. And as a narco-saint, she's not alone. Jesus Malverde is still hanging in there, as are other folk saints. A few traditional ones are also petitioned by drug dealers and smugglers as well. (See "Know Your Narco Saints," our slideshow.)

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