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Nacozari, Mexico is a quiet little copper mining town nestled into the northeast part of Sonora not far from the U.S. border crossing in Nogales. The last time anyone bothered to do a census back around the turn of the century, the humble city boasted just over 1,400 residents, a fair number who were both poor and living in shacks. 44-year-old Silvia Meraz and seven people associated with her were among these destitute, including her boyfriend Eduardo Sanchez, her father, her son, three daughters and a daughter-in-law. In fact, they were so poor that both the government and the church regularly took pity on them, offering free food, used clothes and even farm animals. The men were known to dig through the trash looking for scraps of food or valuable items they could resell while many of the women were presumed to be prostitutes. Mexican officials became suspicious that Meraz was using her residence for sex tourism after seeing strange men from out of town frequently visiting, but never gathered enough evidence to arrest anyone.

When Martin Rios, a 10-year-old boy, went missing in July 2010, his mother told authorities that friends of theirs had seen him begging in the streets near the border of Douglas, Arizona. After searching for months there was still no sign of him. He was never seen again. In early March of 2011 another 10-year-old boy, Jesus Martinez, went missing, prompting Sonora state’s missing persons unit to send a couple agents to Nacozari to find out what was going on. They discovered that the boys knew several of the same people. Martin Rios was the son of the ex-girlfriend of Sanchez. Jesus Martinez was the step-grandson of Meraz. Both boys were frequent visitors at Meraz’s residence on the outskirts of town. Desperate for answers the agents began to put pressure on Meraz and her family until one of them slipped up or admitted what they knew. Eventually their persistence paid off.

In 2012, agents unearthed the body of Jesus Martinez which had been buried in the dirt floor in the bedroom of one of the Meraz daughters. Afterward they arrested all seven family members, who went on to lead the agents to the remains of Rios and also the grave of 55-year-old Cleotilde Romero, one of Meraz’s closest friends who had vanished without a trace after they’d had an argument back in 2009. Both of these bodies were buried near the shack where the murderous cult members lived. According to their official report, the victims throats and wrists had been slashed so that the blood could be collected and spread on a sacrificial altar.

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The Sonora Attorney General’s Office named Silvia Meraz as the cult leader after she and the rest of the family identified themselves as devotees of the patron Saint of Death, Santa Muerte. Meraz confessed to the media that she was indeed a practitioner of blood magic and that she deeply believed their protector would bring them money and power. Instead she brought misery and suffering down upon all of their heads.

“What can she do for us?” Meraz cried to reporters in between unleashing a string of profanities. “Nothing.”

Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte – more commonly known as Santa Muerte or “Saint Death” – is a female folk saint venerated primarily in Mexico and the United States within Latino communities, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. The origins of her cult have roots that delve far back into the roots of Mexican folk culture and superstitions, blending indigenous Mesoamerican traditions with newer Catholic beliefs introduced by the Spanish. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the conquerers did their best to bring an end to pagan forms of the worship of death but were never completely able to eradicate it. It simply was too ingrained in the culture to be forgotten. Researchers have recently discovered references dating back to 18th-century Mexico, recorded during the Spanish Inquisition, when a group of indigenous people in central Mexico tied up a skeletal figure they addressed as “Santa Muerte” and threatened it with violence unless it performed miracles and granted their deepest wishes. Unlike Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – a festive holiday that commemorates death as a natural part of the cycle of life, Santa Muerte is a darker practice more recently popularized by drug lords, cartel hitmen, and other outlaws who worship and make offerings to the personification of death for healing, protection, wealth, glory, and in some cases, the hope of eternal life here on Earth.

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Santa Muerte is known by many different names including Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), Santa Sebastiana (St. Sebastienne) or Doña Bella Sebastiana (“Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”) and the most popular one – La Flaquita (“The Skinny Little Lady”). A skeletal female figure most often clad in a long robe and wedding dress, she usually carries a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. Some practitioners adorn her in garish displays of expensive jewelry or lavish robes in alluring arrays of colors depending on the aspect being worshipped. She may appear forbodingly clad from head to toe in black as well.

No matter how she manifests this increasingly popular folk saint specializes in protecting followers from their enemies and striking down those they wish to harm. By turns jealous and vengeful, the personification of death who does not judge but leads the faithful who properly conduct sacrifices and rituals safely to the afterlife, is rapidly growing a following among the infamous drug cartels of Mexico as well as working-class professionals.

Prior to the 20th century, most prayers and other rites to the Death Saint were secretly performed in the privacy of the practitioner’s home. Since the turn of the 21st century worship has become more acceptable and public, especially in Mexico City after a shrine was created for Santa Muerte in 2001. The number of believers in Santa Muerte has mushroomed in the past 10 years. Authorities now believe as many as eight million people openly worship the folk icon, making Saint Death the second only to Saint Jude, and putting her into direct competition with the country’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. The meteoric rise in the size of the death cult is believed to be connected to her supposed ability to quickly grant wishes and perform miracles as well as the surge in drug violence.

Among the poor, where her worship has exploded in recent years, she offers hope for the chance of a better life. Worship has been seen to peak during times of economic crisis with many followers being young, female, and disillusioned with the established Catholic saints ability to deliver them from the miseries of the abject poverty they exist in. But the cult of Santa Muerte is present throughout all the strata of Mexican society, not just urban working-class families, who constitute the majority of devotees. Military and police agents, elected officials, artists, and other affluent members of Mexican society have been identified as secret practitioners in recent years.

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In 2001, a devotee named Enriqueta Romero took her life-sized image of Santa Muerte from her home in Mexico City and built a shrine that was visible from the street, shocking her neighbors and drawing people from all over Mexico to come pray and to leave offerings for the Lady of Death. Every year on November 1, thousands of people descend on her rough neighborhood in Tepito to celebrate the adopted holiday, clutching skeletal dolls that depict their protector, who is dressed as a bride and adorned with gold for the celebration. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades Santa Muerte’s most important ceremony of the year, with food, music and dancing well into the night as well as sex and drugs.

Still a surprisingly number of worshipers of “the Bony Lady” consider themselves to be devout Catholics, despite praying to a non-canonized folk saint openly repudiated and demonized by the Church. In a country where the dominant religion is Catholicism the rituals and processions of the worship of Saint Death take on a decidedly familiar tone, either in deference or in mockery. Self-appointed priests replace the traditional hierarchy the same way marijuana smoke replaces ceremonial incense. There are temples and shrines as well as other ritualized elements that effectively merge traditional forms of veneration with their local beliefs and customs.

The Church has been unequivocal in its response, stating that devotion to Santa Muerte “is the celebration of devastation and of hell” and that practice should be stomped out with the help of families and communities. Still worship continues to grow among their followers, owing in part to Saint Death’s supposed ability to quickly grant wishes and her lack of judgement, the latter being the more likely draw for gang members and outlaws. In a country plagued by drug violence, worship of the malleable and forgiving Saint has at times taken on a more deadly and sinister form – reflecting the violent struggle many of them face on a daily basis for survival.

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While the vast majority of followers are engaged in benign practices involving nothing more than making offerings and prayers to ‘the Skinny One’ this nefarious element has taken up their own form of Santa Muerte worship, reimagining the often maligned saint as a darker icon with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

In an interview with the BBC, Father Ernesto Caro blames Santa Muerte for the rise in exorcisms, claiming that the practice is “the first step into Satanism” and that drug traffickers and killers routinely offer Flaquita sacrifices. Some cartels insist their members practice their twisted version of Santa Muerte worship, using devotion as a tool to control their foot soldiers and turning gruesome killings into religiously sanctioned offerings to the figure of death herself. One such individual, a cartel hitman charged with disposing of victims bodies, came to be exorcised at Caro’s church in Monterrey. Believing he was possessed by demons he gleefully divulged how he’d cut up bodies and burned others alive, relishing the sounds of their tortured screams as they died. When asked why he took such delight in the suffering of others the man explained he was a devote follower of Santa Muerte. Father Caro insists this is not an isolated incident but rather is becoming the new norm.

“Santa Muerte is being used by all our drug dealers and those linked to these brutal murders,” Caro explained to the BBC. “We’ve found that most of them, if not all, follow Santa Muerte.”

In a country where drug-related violence has swallowed up over 150,000 people in the last decade, including innocent bystanders, the appeal of the dark worship of an amoral deity who offers protection, wealth, status, and power is as intoxicating as the narcotics driving the brutality. Faced with the near certainty of a grisly death at the hands of their enemies, some cartel members have begun offering severed body parts including human heads, rather than the traditional beer or tobacco, hoping to invoke some form of divine intervention by rubbing cocaine and human blood on their Santa Muerte statues. In one instance a vicious cartel killer boasted that Santa Muerte had brought him back from death five times, right before two enforcers hacked him to pieces with machetes.

In Tepito, it was discovered that a drug lord was holding annual human sacrifices of virgins and newborns in return for the Saint bestowing magical powers on him. Recently, a mass grave was unearthed in the drug crime embattled northern state of Sinaloa. All 50 bodies were marked with symbols and adornments depicting Santa Muerte. Although venerated alongside Jesús Malverde, the “Saint of Drug Traffickers” whose following is strong in his hometown of Sinaloa, the force of Santa Muerte is much more dominant. Altars with images of Santa Muerte have begun to crop up routinely raided drug houses in both Mexico and the United States, as immigrants bring their practices with them.

Churches for Santa Muerte have cropped up in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and New Orleans, as well as other heavily populated areas that draw in migrant workers. At present there are 15 religious groups in Los Angeles alone dedicated to her worship and not just by Latinos. Increasingly larger numbers have begun to show up at pseudo-religious ceremonies as the worship of the celebrated folk Saint continues to spread inside the United States. Each and every day millions of people pray to her, asking for her assistance in both worldly and spiritual matters, including cartel and gang members who in some cases ask for nothing more than a quick, painless death and for their names to live on in glory long after they are gone.

For more information on Santa Muerte, check out Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut, the leading authority on the growing cult. Until next time … Stay Scared!

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