Dawn of the dead
In Mexico's war on drugs, death is ever present, and the resurrection of the colonial-era Santa Muerte cult represents a new morbid normality. Cartel killers make offerings for courage, their relatives pray for protection from the law, and for those living in the crossfire, 'Holy Death' is the only sect that makes sense in the world's most violent cities
You would not notice anything unusual about Julian at first if you met him, as I did, in an American city on a sunny day, with cars whizzing past full of people on their way to the mall. Perhaps you would see that he walks a little awkwardly, but that is all. He is a handsome guy in his mid-thirties with high cheekbones and a big white smile, and for years he ran a trendy nightclub in a Mexican city. He loved running his own business, he told me. “You’re the boss of your own time,” he said, “you don’t have to tell anybody else what you’re doing.” In his spare time, he would go biking out in the desert. Gangsters arrived at his business a few years ago, as they did at all the businesses in his town. They demanded “protection” money. If he paid, he would be protected from them, and if he didn’t, he would face their wrath. For years, he paid whatever they asked, and they demanded ever larger sums, until one day he explained that they were bankrupting him and couldn’t give them money he didn’t have. He was terrified, but he had no more money to give and had no choice.
At first they threatened him. Then, after several weeks of threats, they shot him in the arm.
Julian was almost relieved. Now they’ve extracted their price, he thought, I will be able to get on with my life. But they came back, still demanding “their” money. He explained again he didn’t have it. So they dragged him into the street, in the middle of the day, took out a saw, and cut off his feet, in front of everyone. I asked him if he considered going to the police and he laughed. In northern Mexico, the police and the gangs work together. “They didn’t hide it,” he said. “They would go with their uniform to extort the money with the gangsters. They never kept it secret.” If he had gone to the police to complain, he said, ”I would probably not be here giving you this interview.
“My life changed completely. You’re missing a part of your body. You are no longer complete,” he continued. “They did that to prove a point: that they weren’t playing any more and that there was nowhere I could hide. There was nowhere I could go. That they meant business.” He had no choice but to flee his country.
He is still so afraid they will mutilate or kill his family that he begged me not to use his real name or reveal his city or the particular narco-gang that did this.
“It wasn’t always like this,” Julian said. “Years ago, when [Mexico's] war on drugs started [when then-president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006], that’s when various organised crime groups sort of just exploded.”
The 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico is one of the most important drug-smuggling routes in the world, and the area is controlled by organised crime on the Mexican side. Gangs kill each other to control the smuggling routes and have recruited supporters in the police and army. I travelled there to see what life is like for the innocent people who have to live through this. How could people cope with such terror and insecurity? One way, I found, is to worship “Death” herself.
There are no angels at the church of Santa Muerte in Ciudad Juárez. There is an altar but there is no Christ. Instead there are 12 skeletons for people to kneel before. Each is dressed in its own colour: one a white wedding dress, another a green bonnet. There is a figure wielding a huge scythe while its near neighbour balances the scales of justice in its bony hand.
At the feet of these skeletons are the offerings left in exchange for favour: piles of money and cigarettes, sweets and alcohol. Nearby stands a globe to symbolise the figures’ earthly domination. Watching proceedings is the statue of an owl, the local symbol for witchcraft.
The skeletons are known as the “Santa Muerte”, Holy Death, and she is like the Grim Reaper of Western imagination, the figure who comes for you in your final moments of life. The worship of her is the fastest-growing religion in Mexico.
The shrine is overseen by the church’s high priestess. She was dressed on the day of my visit in black and wearing high heels. When she spoke, her voice was melodic, her hands forming shapes in front of her as if summoning a spell.
“Santa Muerte is the one in charge of collecting the souls when the flame of life is extinguished!” she cried. “She has never lived. She will never be alive. She is an obedient angel of God. When she takes the life of somebody, it’s because of an order of God. Magic allows protection – to protect the paths of people.”
“Is that why believers leave offerings to her statues?” I asked.
“Yes,” the high priestess answered. “For the protection of life.” Because people might die at any moment, they have begun to worship Death, since they believe this might at least give them some protection.
At the entrance to the shrine – a dimly lit, sparse building on the outskirts of the city centre – a woman was praying, one of the flow of devotees who come for blessing. The skin on her face was etched with the lines of poverty and age, the skin around her eyes dark with exhaustion.
“More and more people are coming because of the violent times in the city,” she told me. “Santa Muerte has our wishes.” She paused momentarily, her expression crumbling into unmistakable grief. Some 60,000 people have died here in the past five years alone. “For the people, she is a necessity nowadays.”
At the turn of the millennium there was no mass Santa Muerte cult in Mexico, or at least little public sign of it. Since the late 18th century, when Spanish priests had campaigned to stamp out her worship, veneration of her was clandestine, limited to altars in private homes or the occasional medallion or scapular hidden underneath devotees’ shirts.
No longer. After a quesadilla vendor moved a life-sized Santa Muerte effigy to the outside of her home in Tepito – the most brutal and bloody of Mexico City’s barrios- on All Saints’ Day 2001, she now rivals the Virgin of Guadalupe as the most important icon in the country. That first public statue became a shrine. Several thousand people now regularly attend the monthly service at its altar. A few miles away is the totem’s first church, offering masses, weddings, baptisms, exorcisms and other ceremonies normally reserved for the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy; her adherents are now believed to number seven million.
It was the destruction of the once all-powerful Colombian Cali and Medellín cartels that led to the drug trade focusing on Mexico. The US State Department now estimates that Mexican drug cartels control some 90 per cent of drug traffic into the US, with a business estimated to be worth at least $13 billion a year up for grabs.
The Tijuana route was taken by the Arellano Felix brothers; the Matamoros-Tamaulipas -corridor secured by Juan García Abrego; while in Ciudad Juárez the Cartel de Juárez and the Sinaloa Cartel have fought a battle for superiority that started in 2007.
I saw the results when I visited the city’s morgue. A tall glass-and-steel structure, it is one of the most impressive buildings in Juárez. Outside the building when I arrived were two police cars. Both had been riddled with bullet holes, several straight through the windscreen. It had happened that morning, the staff told me. There is nothing -exceptional about this. They seemed rather bored by the development.
A technician showed me the body of one of the recently dead, the room full of the smell of decomposing flesh. This one had been found by the side of a road, shot to pieces. I recognised him from a photograph on the front page of that day’s edition of the local tabloid newspaper PM, which is sold by the road sides, and nearly always features a mutilated corpse on the cover, alongside a smaller picture of an attractive woman wearing not many clothes. This body was the latest victim of the Juárez drug war.
Later, I visit the home of two young orphan girls now residing with their -grandmother after their mother was shot dead in the public square. They are just two of the 8,500 orphans now believed to be in the city. Both were impeccably clean and well dressed, skipping around the room as their elderly relative and I talked.
“I have to care for them,” the old woman told me, “but sometimes I don’t have anything to give them to eat. I have to go out to see whatever I can get, or I go out on the streets and look for some place to swipe, or I wash dishes at some house. There’s no gas, there’s no money. I’m alone.”
“What is life likely to be like in the future for her and the girls?” I asked.
“Very bad,” she answered, before raising her hand to indicate the house in which we were sitting and the two girls happily playing. “At some point they are going to kick us out of here.”
I travelled each day to and from El Paso, the American city that is on the other side of the Rio Grande. It is a typical American city: clean, filled with metal skyscrapers whose windows sparkle in the sun, a place where police stop jaywalkers; it’s safe and secure. Only a wire-covered bridge separates it from a world where you can have your feet chopped off with the approval of the police.
After seeing all this, I have begun to understand the cult of Santa Muerte a little. Her strongest adherents are often those who feel that death is most imminent: prostitutes working the streets; taxi drivers out late at night; those caught amid the drug violence; even the remaining police officers who still accept it is their job to bring the cartels to heel.
Her most zealous followers, however, are in the drug gangs themselves. News reports regularly cite that drug dealers have built ornate altars to her, complete with gold and gem–covered altars. A shrine to Santa Muerte was found beside eleven burnt heads left by mobsters in Yucatán. A heavy in the Zetas drug gang was caught boasting he had sacrificed two teenage rivals to the cult, slitting open their bellies and spilling their blood as an offering.
Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, a Cuban-American drug lord, was found after his death in a shoot-out to have ritually sacrificed at least eleven men, women and children to Santa Muerte at the altar at his ranch in Tamaulipas. Among them was a University of Texas student, Mark Kilroy, kidnapped while in Mexico for spring break.
The cartels’ embracing of Santa Muerte as their own has not been limited to Mexico. US law-enforcement agencies now view signs of veneration to the cult, whether a tattoo, necklace or prayer card, as enough to undertake further investigation into a suspect’s drug links. An altar to her was found in New Jersey when officers stormed a brothel being used as a drug den. In Wisconsin, images of her were discovered guarding a dealer’s cocaine stash. In Tennessee, shrines helped hide pounds of marijuana.
“Mexican drug traffickers have embraced the narco-culture in a similar manner to which American street gangs like the Bloods and Crips historically embraced gangster-rap music and culture,” Tony Kail, author of Magico-Religious Groups And Ritualistic Activities, has explained. For some of them, believing Holy Death is on their side gives them the courage to kill. “Santa Muerte is embraced as a ‘literal angel of death’ that can comfort those on the fringes of society who might otherwise lack the spiritual courage to commit acts of crime or violence.”
At the church to the icon in Ciudad Juárez, the high priestess insisted that such devotion by criminals should not distort our understanding of it. Santa Muerte, she told me, was far more than just the protector of the drug war.
She herself claims to have first seen the Santa Muerte in a vision when she had been kidnapped by a gang and thought she was going to be murdered. She maintains she owes her life to this vision. “Many people blame the Santa Muerte for the many deaths in the city but that isn’t true. In fact she has been very generous. She has helped us a lot. There have been cases where people are locked up in jail and their relatives come here and worship and pray, and these people are freed from prison.”
Pointing at the statue dressed in white, she explained that it was the one in charge of “divine justice”. The one in gold was “in charge of petitions of people related to money”. Red was for those wishing a man to fall in love with them. Purple changed “bad energies into positive ones”. Blue was for concentration, yellow the overcoming of addictions, brown for wisdom. Seeing one dressed in black, I asked what that was for.
“Absolute power,” the priestess told me. “She is the manifestation of the supreme power.”
The priestess asked if I wished to receive a blessing. To do so I needed to leave an offering and say my name three times as I held a statue of the icon while the priestess closed her eyes in ecstasy beside me.
“She is going to help you stabilise a relationship,” she revealed. “She will remove all the obstacles in your life and she will help you forget that sadness from your childhood that you’re still bearing. You deserve it. You deserve it.”
Then she opened her eyes. “See, she’s very strong. Very powerful. You have been protected- by Santa Muerte.” I can see how this would be a comforting message to the people here.
The 12 statues above the altar loomed above me, each in their own distinct colour to symbolise their unique mystical power. At a time when violence is commonplace and the state unable to protect its people, protection is what they offer, a gift that is increasingly rare in the world their adherents inhabit.
Some do manage to escape this world to start afresh. Julian, the former club owner who was mutilated by the gangs, lives today in the safety of the US. He has been given artificial feet by a generous American doctor and he has even learnt to ride a bike again. But in Juárez, everyone is living with the knowledge that what happened to him could happen to them at any time.
The largest heap of offerings in the Church of the Santa Muerte was at the feet of the skeleton dressed in black: an expensive–looking watch, lots of coins, and flowers whose petals were already browning at the tips. I looked at them and felt I was seeing all the fear and terror of Ciudad Juárez, mounted into one pitiful, desperate pile.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers. Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the safety of the individuals involved. If you would like to help people like Julian, you can support Mexicanos En Exilio, the organisation that brought him to safety in the US. mexicanosenexilio.com
Follow Evgeny Lebedev on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev