An unofficial saint popular among drug dealers and criminals in Mexico is gaining ground north of the border.
Devotees say La Santa Muerte helps heal relationships and gets them better jobs. But the popularity of the skeletal figure wielding a scythe, long denounced by Mexico's Catholic Church as demonic, has more to do with glorifying the culture of death and vengeance than any sincere expression of faith.
"Her growth in the United States has been extraordinary," said Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Because you can ask her for anything, she has mass appeal and is now gaining a diverse group of followers throughout the country.”
Exact numbers of her followers are impossible to determine, but they are clearly growing, Chesnut said. Border agents say images of Santa Muerte, tucked by drug dealers into shipments to ward off law enforcement, have helped secure convictions for traffickers.
The origins of La Santa Muerte are fuzzy. Some say she is the embodiment of an Aztec goddess of death who ruled the underworld, while others say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of native North, Central, and South American inhabitants.
For decades, though, La Santa Muerte stayed an underground figure in remote regions of Mexico, serving mostly as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating husbands, Chesnut said.
It wasn't until a follower unveiled a public La Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City in 2001 that aficionados in greater numbers began to display their devotion for helping them with relationships and imprisoned loved ones.
Economic ambiguity and a violent drug war against cartels that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives also are credited for La Santa Muerte's evolution.