By David Metcalfe
With an iconography drawn from the 14th century plague fields of Europe, where she walked behind the name La Parca, and with an ever growing number of devotees drawn from societies marginalized and dispossessed, la Nina Bonita, the Beautiful Girl, has become one of the fastest growing spiritual powers in the 21st century. To some she is known as la Poderosa Señora, the Powerful Lady, an untiring miracle worker and healer helping them to escape the ravages of poverty, sickness, violence and addiction that have become hallmarks of our time. To others, she is Nuestra Señora de las Sombras, Our Lady of the Shadows, an amoral and unflinching companion in their choice to pursue profits and power in the bloody worlds of drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and murder. For those tied to orthodox religious groups and judiciary organizations she is a satanic usurper, a dark and vicious deceiver leading her millions of devotees down the fast road to hell.
Who is this alluring, conflicted and mysterious woman? If you have been paying attention to the news you might know her by her most common name – la Santa Muerte, Saint Death.
One can find signs of her cult in the Americas from the earliest days of the colonial period, with Inquisition reports mentioning local groups dedicated to Saint Death. Her first 20th century appearance in 1940’s anthropological reports show that Santa Muerte was largely sought out in issues of love, serving as a patroness of maligned wives and lovers seeking recompense from abusive or unfaithful men. Even today, her role as a love-magician still runs strong, and the red candles associated with Santa Muerte’s love magic remain top sellers in the spiritual supply market.
Like many cults, Santa Muerte’s tradition has never had a central or overarching organization to perpetuate her following. It is this decentralized and amorphous persona that has allowed her to move through history, taking on the needs of the time for those who seek her favors. Her ability to serve in such varied roles – fostering devotion among mistreated wives alongside kidnappers, gunmen, narco-traffickers and other criminal groups – means that we must be very cautious when asking how and why people use her image.
La Madre Poderosa (The Powerful Mother)
Santa Muerte’s followers are guided by chapbooks and manuals that consist almost entirely of prayers designed to get results. A focus on ethics, wisdom, and spiritual development remain part of her oral tradition, but they are not defined by these texts; It is up to each community’s own charismatic devotees to give them shape and meaning.
From the marginalized to the upwardly mobile, those who seek out Santa Muerte do so because she is said to work with a power that is often seen as second only to the utmost divinity. In 14th century Europe she was seen as an imminent herald of the end of days, and sought by some to stave off the ravaging effects of a plague that killed nearly a third of the population. In the 21st century she is sought to help those facing the global tide of violence and displacement that comes in the wake of the massive social upheavals caused by globalization and technological development. For those outside the tradition, her association with amoral worldly power lends her a disconcerting similarity to Ezekiel’s description of Lucifer, the Sutric concept of Mara, and other spiritual figures that have less than lawful pedigrees. In its worst representations, the cult’s lack of an established orthodox tradition or codified practices and its members’ common focus on power relationships instead of theology are taken to be sinister signs of its true nature.
Despite the fact that her original oral tradition in the Americas is closely associated with the faith healing practices of curanderismo and Catholic folk traditions, as her devotees develop their own forms of worship, Santa Muerte’s role as a spiritual helper has changed to meet their personal needs. The space to interpret relationships with Santa Muerte on an individual basis has increased her appeal as a non-judgmental protectress at the expense of her image as an icon of strong moral guidance. What ethical considerations do emerge come from the mutual bond devotees feel towards one another as ‘hermosos y hermosas en la fe,’ or ‘brothers and sisters in the faith.’
Attempts to compare her worship with other religious traditions therefore prove problematic. Even comparisons with African, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean traditions — although these traditions are also known for a focus on practical and experiential spirituality — are difficult. Their practices are interwoven with community based ethical and spiritual foundations that are much less common in Santa Muerte worship.
Many who try to understand the Santa Muerte phenomenon in contemporary Mexico are unfamiliar with folk spirituality and are confused by the elements of popular practical occultism that form the basis of her devotional practices. The scholarly drive to categorize runs head long into the ambiguity of spiritual practices that develop from personal experiences, epiphanies, and a concern with efficacy over ethics or spiritual development.
Academic attempts to understand the tradition through Jungian archetypes, secular spirituality, and scholarship on New Religious Movements, have been unable to deal with Saint Death’s street level reality. Nevertheless, as we will see in a couple of stories that follow, there have been crucial moments in which her subterranean devotion has emerged into the popular culture and which can give us important insight into what Santa Muerte represents.
A Glass Cabinet in Tepito
Until very recently Saint Death’s tradition was passed on in private initiations that tied devotees together in a bond strengthened by the fact that their object of veneration stood beyond the borders of orthodox faith. It was in 2001 on the streets of Tepito, a neighborhood in Mexico City that has hosted a thriving black market bazaar since the time of the Aztecs and is now one of Mexico City’s most violent neighborhoods, that her devotees first moved from the shadows of private worship into the public arena.
Enriqueta Romero Romero, affectionately known as Dona Queta, had been a devotee of La Nina Blanca since her aunt had initiated her into the tradition when she was a child. When a life size Santa Muerte icon she was given by her son drew so many devotional candles from passing devotees that it caused a fire in the kitchen of her enchilada stand, Dona Queta erected a public street-side shrine to the death saint. The statue of a large skeleton figure (now encased in glass) has become a center point for the solidification of Santa Muerte’s tradition beyond chapbook grimoires, private initiations, and novenas and into the wider world of global spirituality.
Following the installation of Dona Queta’s public shrine, David Romo Guillén , Archbishop and Primate of a group calling itself the Mexican-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church (Católica Apostólica Tradicional México-USA or la Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista Mex-USA), brought Saint Death even further into the light when he sought to gain official government recognition for his church. The Mexican government denied the request, citing the fact that Santa Muerte was a central figure in the church’s devotions, and that she has been officially condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretical, and even satanic, figure. Their denial was met with large-scale protests during which Guillen instructed his followers to vote against the officials responsible for the decision. The ensuing uproar in the Mexican media gave Santa Muerte another big push into the mainstream. Despite his failure to gain official institutional recognition, Santa Muerte’s popularity has seen an exponential growth ever since. The fact that Guillen was convicted on kidnapping charges in 2011 and sentenced to an ironic 66 years in prison and fines totaling 666 times the minimum wage in Mexico City, has done little to curb the growth of Saint Death’s popularity.
The lack of any central organizing element among her followers has meant that the fall of one charismatic leader merely sets the stage for new leaders to emerge. In many cases no leadership is needed at all as devotees gain access to the cult through the Santa Muerte’s ubiquitous presence in the spiritual marketplace and mainstream media.
Finding her outside the doors of any church or temple, followers are attracted to charismatic leaders that offer the spiritual services they require, or they discover an understanding through their own personal research into Santa Muerte that highlights the needs they would like met. Ambiguous and unmoored from any orthodoxy, Saint Death provides equal time to all who seek her potent intervention.
Today, rough estimates indicate that at least one million, some say three to five million, devotees pay homage to the skeleton saint in the Americas alone.(4) Saint Death is one of the most powerful examples of how spirituality spreads through commercial interest. Her iconic Grim Reaperess image adorns t-shirts, tennis shoes, posters, craft beer labels, Tarot decks, pistol grips, and prayer cards, equally at home on items marketed for their cultic kitsch and items related to more practical spiritual pursuits. As she has become more and more popular, those living in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States have grown used to seeing her image on vehicle decals and at roadside shrines located along the major highways that cross the U.S./Mexico border.
Alleged in many media reports to be the premier “Narco-saint,” and associated with the most horrific elements of the drug war, in truth her devotees come from all walks of life and include lawyers, doctors, police officers, judges, popular celebrities, and politicians along with her more humbly employed followers and those devotees who are indeed drawn from criminal professions. For many in Mexico and the U.S. she has usurped orthodox icons such as the Virgin of Guadalupe as the go-to power when seeking supernatural intervention. This shift is in large part thanks to her amoral embrace and her alleged powerful miracle working abilities. In some surprising ways she is very similar to the forces evoked by evangelists of the prosperity gospel such as Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen and mirrors the popular global growth seen by Charismatic brands of Protestantism and Catholicism.
La Satisima Muerte (Most Holy Death)
I first encountered la Santa Muerte in 2005, four years after Dona Queta’s shrine sparked the opening of her tradition to public view. I was working at a marketing agency where one of my key roles was following the news for potentially relevant cultural trends. When articles started appearing on the rising popularity of a death cult in Mexico I was immediately intrigued – photographs of ardent devotees carrying icons of the grim reapress captured me just as quickly as they capture so many others who first encounter Saint Death through the image of her faithful humbling themselves before her grinning visage.
Seven years passed as I continued to look deeper into her tradition and popular growth. In 2012 Dr. Andrew Chesnut, Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, published Devoted to Death (Oxford University Press), his groundbreaking study of her rising popularity. I interviewed him for The Revealer and we became fast friends. Chesnut’s book remains the only in depth scholarly treatment of Santa Muerte published in English, and he and I have become research partners.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few of Santa Muerte’s followers, developing friendly acquaintances with leaders in the tradition such as Enriqueta “la Madrina” Vargas, Stephen Bragg, and Martin George. With Chesnut, I have become one of a handful of English speaking experts on the cult. Even so I find it hard to give a straight answer as to who or what Santa Muerte really is.
My area of expertise has been on the role of marketing, mass media and material culture in the cult’s growth, and on tracing its origins beyond the assumed ‘re-emergence of Aztec beliefs’ which marks its role in the Reconquista (Reconquest) cultural movement in Mexico. Most of my writing on Santa Muerte has focused on the mainstream media’s ignorant treatment of poverty and marginalization in her story. A death cult that seems to emerge from the violent conditions in Latin America is a tempting pulp cliché for the popular media, and she is a perfect lens to demonstrate the bias towards issues of class, race and the stark reality of global poverty. As such, I have admittedly fallen into the habit of becoming an apologist for her more innocent face, but the multiplicity of her presence is a constant check on attempts to corner or codify her.
Previously, my research into Saint Death was focused on the positive aspects of her devotional tradition. Unfortunately, I have now personally begun to see the reality of what military and justice department analysts have warned about for years. There is a rising tide of darkness and violence that has no real precedent and the misunderstood iconographies of figures such as Saint Death are often at the forefront of a spirituality based on power and amoral efficacy
My attitude changed most drastically after I encountered Santa Muerte within the unlikely setting of a rural county jail in north Georgia. A routine address change with the DMV turned into 48 hours of incarceration when I discovered that a fax I had sent hadn’t gone through. This discovery came at a Sunday morning police roadblock and lead to my arrest on charges of driving on a suspended license. Even though it was a misdemeanor charge I was put in with the jail’s general population where I shared a cell with two gang affiliated meth dealers who enlightened me on the reality of what most religious scholars consider a contemporary myth. Thanks to the strange twists of local bureaucracy, I was at once given access to a world that scholars almost never see and given a place amongst those who the system swallows up without thought. Among society’s dead I learned many things about the Beautiful Girl that most of her devotees will never know.
The Dead Dream of Death
“Yeah, I OD’d man…just took too much and was DOA when they got me to the hospital. This figure appeared in the darkness when I was dead, I guess I was dead – it was just empty, hard to describe. The figure was calling me to it – it was covered in a huge robe, no eyes, like a skeleton or something…it was fucked up. Pulled me to its side and said that I’d been a good soldier, that I was worthy…I’d been working with some Mexicans…it was that thing they worship, you know, San Murtas or something.”
An odd conversation starter to be sure, but when you’re in a jail cell you can assume that the conversation isn’t going to be Sunday morning church talk. John, a name I’ll use for him, told me that in the months leading up to his arrest something had come over him – he was increasingly violent, having strange visions, and at the time of his OD had even become violent towards his wife and family, something he said he’d always avoided. Common signs of methamphetamine abuse, but the specificity of the visions was something else. When he described his near-death experience, a chill ran through me.
“You mean Santa Muerte?” I asked.
“Yeah man! That’s what they call it! How’d you know that? After I got out of the hospital I got a letter with a rosary, it said that I was moving up and there was a lot of work to do, that Santa Murta or whatever had a lot of work for good soldiers. Weird man, it was really weird.”
The other fellow in the cell with us, who I’ll call Sam, was covered head to foot with gang tattoos. Methodically punching the concrete walls as John told of his experience he began talking about how he always felt called by Satan, but hadn’t fully given in to it yet.
“I’ve left a bit of skin for him – wanted to get him right here on my chest, but every time I went to do it something happened and I never got the tattoo.”
They spoke of their families, of missing their mothers and grandmothers. Stories of how their lives in the shadows of the culture war had caused them to miss funerals for friends and family, lose relationships with their children and at times led them to commit acts of violence whose memory woke them up in the middle of the night chilled with sweat and images of horror. They spoke of the allure of violence and power, and the pain and confusion that follow. Both of them spoke of an active sense that ‘Satan’ was lord and master of the world in which they existed. Sam admitted he was nearly illiterate when John started to talk about reading the Bible more now that he was in prison.
“Never read the thing, I can’t read really, so…you know.”
John offered to help him read through it, he said he’d gone through a change of heart since the near-death vision and since being sentenced to 70 years for trafficking.
“It’s too much man, after I OD’d…I just don’t know what to think. It’s just too much.”
The Myth of Narco-Satanico
What was once the domain of urban myth – the idea of a semi-organized ‘Satanic’ criminality – has become a very real possibility as the darker aspects of Santa Muerte’s potential are realized by groups seeking a spiritual basis for their criminal activities.
One of her first cameos in the mainstream media came with a single crime scene photo taken on May 6th, 1989, 20 miles outside the Mexican city of Matamoros, at a compound named Rancho Santa Elena. Investigating the disappearance of a University of Texas pre-med student named Mark Kilroy, U.S. and Mexican authorities were lead to the ranch, a base of operations for Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. Known in certain circles as the “Godfather of Matamoros” — or more telling, “the Wizard,” — Contanzo was a sorcerer-for-hire working with a number of drug cartels to secure supernatural aid in their activities. By the late 80’s this aid included regular human sacrifices (12 bodies were found at the site, and members of the group indicated there had been many more killings that were not discovered) which would, Constanzo promised, provide magical protection, invisibility and even immunity to bullets for cartels willing to pay the incredibly high fees he charged for such a powerful and macabre working.
Although news reports focus on the unorthodox contents of Constanzo’s Nganga (a ritual cauldron associated with the sorcerous tradition of Palo Mayombe whose contents, in this case, included animal remains, human blood, and brains) it was a statue of a Grim Reaper figure located on one of the compound’s altars that gave a hint of what was to emerge as one of the fastest growing spiritual traditions in the world. In just a little over a decade this small symbolic presence, easily overlooked amidst the grisly crime scene photos, would explode on the world stage as the patron saint of the marginal and dispossessed. Slipping from the shadows of oral tradition and folk practice she has silently become the most contested, controversial and complex spiritual traditions to gain a widespread following in the contemporary world.
Narco-Satanico was a term that became popularized during the media hype surrounding the Matamoros killings. Due to the difficulty in accessing the so-called criminal underworld scholars have treated the term with skepticism and indifference. While researchers such as FBI analyst Robert Bunker and those who work in jail based ministries have consistently sounded an alarm that there is a disturbing reality to these claims of “Satanic” criminality, most academics, including myself, have sought to relativize the threat as a somewhat paranoid misinterpretation of popular spirituality. It wasn’t until I came face to face with it in jail that my eyes were opened to the reality that there were many within the drug culture that felt they were doing “Satan’s will” and actively cultivating this as part of their lifestyle.
La Dama de la Narco-Cultura
Unlike academia, the media in the U.S. and Mexico has focused a lot of attention on the small percentage of followers dedicated to the narco-cultura (drug culture). Robert Bunker estimates that the criminal variant of her devotional community is definitely in the minority, but as violence in the Americas and around the world continues to escalate, it is growing quickly:
While this saint has been around for over five decades, a narco-criminal variant has since emerged that has elevated Santa Muerte into a dark and vengeful deity in her own right. This variant of Santa Muerte has nothing even remotely to do with Catholicism and is rapidly gaining adherents. The total number of Santa Muerte worshipers is somewhere in the low millions with the actual breakdown along the continuum of belief— traditional, gray area, and the darker narco-criminal variant— unknown. An educated guess would be that the traditional and gray area believers still dominate but as narcocultura spreads, especially amongst the young in Mexico, more worshipers will continue to gravitate to the harsher aspects of the faith.
Despite the fact that he cuts short Santa Muerte’s history by hundreds of years, Bunker’s point is important. Although they receive extensive media coverage, these ‘harsher aspects’ of her worship remain outside the direct experience of the majority of those reading about her or even among her devotees. No matter how deeply new devotees go in their personal relationship with her, most never gain access to the underground and secret world where Santa Muerte’s presence is cloaked by blood and violence. Many U.S. devotees even reject the idea that this is a possibility.
As an FBI analyst providing intelligence to law enforcement and military officials Bunker’s analysis is precise, however one can see clearly how much is being left unsaid as soon as you consider these facts outside of their original, governmental, context. Through a wider lens, one can still see the allure of Santa Muerte’s allure to feminists, the LGBT community, neo-pagans, adventurous agnostics and the culturally curious who are also drawn to her in large numbers. Yet it cannot be denied that the criminal variant that Bunker identifies is also growing, and as the nature of criminality is to exist on the margins of visible culture it is necessary to take a serious look at what law enforcement analysts are encountering as her cultural presence develops.
Bunker describes this side of Santa Muerte as the ‘darker variant’ and is not wrong when he says that here blood sacrifice is at times seen as a more effective offering than the more common place offerings like candy and cigarettes.
What is known is that the darker variant of Santa Muerte is by no means benign and simple commodities are unacceptable as offerings. Dark altars laden with weapons, money, narcotics, and sometimes stained with blood have been identified. The stakes have been raised now that petitions to cause agonizing death to one‘s enemies and bless cartel operatives before battle are being made, in essence providing them spiritual armor against other criminal forces and Mexican authorities. Human body parts and bowls of blood left at Santa Muerte altars, both public and private, are becoming more common as are actual human sacrifices and the ritualized dismemberment of the dead.
This side of her devotion is something that many academics interested in her role as a contemporary archetype are unable to grasp, and sensationalist media is all too eager to embrace. It cannot be ignored, but we have to take into account that her popular image has always stood outside of her connection to these darker elements and even now her role as a protectress of the weak is more prevalent than her iconographies used within the narco-culture.
For some she is a savior who brings them out of lives of addiction, violence and desperation. For others she is a justification for the most inhuman acts of violence and blasphemy imaginable. Lyrics penned by the rap group La Coka Nostra for their 2012 song “The Eyes of Santa Muerte” provide a chilling sense of the contemporary environment in which Saint Death has found a home:
This is all there is now there ain’t shit left, it’s like I’m looking in the eyes of the saint of death. La Santa Muerte, these people fear me, I see murder, disease, it’s all near me…La Santa Muerte, I know you hear me, our world is fucked up you see it clearly.
Hearing the song after my experience in the county jail, the group’s lyrical celebration of Santa Muerte as the “Virgin of the incarcerated martyrs of Satan” now strikes a much stranger chord for me – a Godmother of those cast off from the safety of the status quo and an icon revered by those who seek power at any cost she is an eternal enigma, uncomfortably neutral, unquestionably powerful. Santa Muerte’s explosive growth on a global scale should be taken as a serious call for all of us to take a step back and look at the culture that is emerging around us. Amoral and unflinching, the empty eyes of the skeleton saint stare out on the pain, turmoil and confusion that ravage billions of lives around the globe. No government, religion or social organization offers a true solution to the question that Saint Death silently asks.
Moving through history, taking on the needs of those seeking her favors she shows partiality to the marginalized and dispossessed who look for salvation in her bony hands. She simply smiles at the corrupt systems and officials that justify the more malignant aspects of the Beautiful Girl’s allure and presents a Saturnine face of justice wielding a scythe and hour glass as she offers equal kindness to the judge and the condemned. For all of her complexity, perhaps a devotee from the U.S. Armed Forces put it best when he told me, ‘more than anything, in a world like this, la Nina Bonita is simple, death just makes sense.’
 Bunker, Robert J. and JohnP. Sullivan, Extreme Barbarism, a Death Cult, and Holy Warriors in Mexico: Societal Warfare South of the Border?; Small Wars Journal
 Chesnut, R. Andrew, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint; Oxford University Press, 2012
 Using the word ‘cult’ should not be taken to indicate the more pejorative assumptions surrounding this term. In the decentralized practices of folk spirituality the word cult merely describes a basic set of practices centered on a specific iconography shared amongst followers.
 World Religions and Spirituality Project, Virginia Commonwealth University
 Chesnut, R. Andrew, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint; University of Oxford Press, 2012 – Adolfo Constanzo’s actions as a sorcerer-for-hire fit within practices which are common in cultures where a strong folk spirituality exists alongside organized crime.
 Traditionally Palo Ngangas are similar to reliquaries and act as a gateway for practitioners to communicate with the spirit world. Any human remains they contain are on par with Catholic and Buddhist veneration of past practitioners, and are not taken from sacrificial victims. Human sacrifice is not considered an orthodox practice in Palo Mayombe.
 Bunker, Robert J. and John P. Sullivan, Extreme Barbarism, a Death Cult, and Holy Warriors in Mexico: Societal Warfare South of the Border?; Small Wars Journal
David Metcalfe is a researcher, writer and multimedia specialist focusing on the interrelation of art, culture, and consciousness. In 2011 he established the Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative to focus on testing and deploying a unique combination of applied scholarship, market intelligence, digital media and social network development in order to build strategic multidisciplinary lines of communication. He is a contributing editor for a number of popular web magazines dealing with alternative culture and is currently working on a long-term transmedia project with Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, to document the growth and global market presence of devotional traditions associated with Santa Muerte, and the sanctification of death, in the Americas.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.