Mexico's Santa Muerte -- a folk saint with a grinning skull -- attracts thousands of followers in Ecatepec, the same town recently visited by Pope Francis. While some believe Santa Muerte grants special favors, others see nothing more than a cult that attracts criminals looking for spiritual protection outside the Catholic Church.
In front of a statue standing some two meters tall, in which a skull hides behind a white veil, Yamarash chants the liturgy of the first Sunday of every month.
This article was originally published by Animal Politico. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.
I ask youuuuu/
that you make your force felttttt/
against those who try to destroy meeeee....”
yo te pidoooooo/
que hagas sentir tu fuerzaaaaaa/
contra quien intente destruirmeeeeee…”]
Animal Politico's short video of Santa Muerte in Ecatepec
At Yamarash's signal, a 26-year-old who the cult's devotees recognize as the Minister of the National Congregation of Santa Muerte, a group of some thirty people raise their arms in the direction of the skull and scythe, whose fingers are clasping still-smoking cigars and cigarettes.
In the audience, which contains men, women, and children, some clench their fists, while others, with eyes closed, raise their palms in a sign of offering and submission.
To the right of the Santa Muerte pastor is Brother Parka, another spiritual guide of the cult, who wears a hat and an eye-catching outfit made of plush velvet with gold embroidery in the shape of “La Flaca,” as Santa Muerte's followers call her.
at your feet I bowwwwwww...”
a tus pies me postrooooooo…”]
It is almost seven p.m., and the celebration is taking place underneath a bridge that crosses Pichardo Pagaza avenue, the same road that leads to the Center for Advanced Studies where Pope Francis officiated a mass on the morning of Sunday, February 14 before an estimated one million believers.
The ritual is about to end. Yamarash, who wears a black scarf adorned with skulls on top of his head like a turban, relaxes the angular features of his coppery face and takes a breath after almost one hour or prayer and praise.
Brother Parka is one of the leaders of the National Congregation of Santa Muerte in Ecatepec, Mexico State. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
For each tattoo, Fanie says Santa Muerte granted her “a wish.” Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
Then, he turns the microphone away from his mouth, coughs hard to recover the saliva in his throat, and asks his devotees to send themselves away with a strong applause.
The trumpets in the song “Santa Muerte,” by Mexican rap group El Cartel de Santa, thunder with the ovation of the faithful. Then Brother Parka gives the order to open the doors of the chapel, in which there is another statue dressed in black and gold, which holds an orb of the world in its right hand and a scythe in the left.
Noemi, an employee at a fast food restaurant and one of the most well-known devotees in this neighborhood of Rinconada de Aragón colony, approaches the chapel and observes, enthralled, the same face of Santa Muerte that she has tattooed on her right calf.
Clutching another statue of the saint dressed in yellow with a wreath of flowers, the woman closes her eyes and begins to murmur a prayer that is lost in the noise emanating from the rap group.
“Special dedication to my Santa Muerte” -- the song plays at a deafening volume, while a line of followers begin to cross themselves, making the sign of the Cross in front of the grim statue.
“For protecting me and protecting all of my people/for being just among the just/for letting me continue living/for giving me strength to punish the enemy...”
Omar says he entrusted Santa Muerte to help his brother recover from a coma. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
The Virgin of Guadalupe with the face of the Santa Muerte Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
'The Virgin of the Forgotten'
For this interview, Brother Park has swapped out his violet tunic for a bright red one.
The claustrophobic place where his son Yamarash reads Tarot cards -- one of the three Santa Muerte sites run by the spiritual leaders -- is a sanctuary replete with figurines, effigies, and paintings that show the saint in several different forms: dressed in red, in black, in rainbow colors, and even portrayed as the face of sacred statues within the Catholic Church such as the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Christ Child, which Brother Parka affectionately calls “El Niño Muerte, ” or The Death Child, to which he attributes strong healing powers.
“Ecatepec is the birthplace of Santa Muerte,” the esoteric 58-year old spiritual guide says. “We had to build the National Congregation of the Santa Muerte because the cult has grown so much, it is immense.”
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When asked about the approximate number of followers, Brother Parka shrugs his shoulders. There are no official figures. But he insists that Ecatepec is the place with the most devotees in Mexico for two reasons. The first is obvious: Ecatepec is the most populated (and perhaps the most overpopulated) municipality in Latin America, with more than 1.5 million inhabitants. And second, “because here the people have faith and are in need of believing in something,” Brother Parka says.
Especially since the municipality accumulated a total of 354 homicides in 2015 alone, according to Mexico's National System of Public Security.
In addition, Brother Parka points out that Ecatepec is the nerve center of a “Santa Muerte corridor,” which runs from the Line 2 of the Metro in this Mexico State municipality through several colonies in Mexico City where the cult is also deeply rooted, like Morelos, Peralvillo, Santa Julia, and the neighborhood of Tepito, which is also a bastion of the Muerte.
Brother Park at the entrance of one of the three Santa Muerte stores that he runs in Ecatepec. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
Brother Parka with the image the "Death Boy." Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
Following this explanation, the question is obvious.
“Why has the fervor for Santa Muerte grown so strong?”
Brother Parka, who has both hands on top of a small table where the flame from a candle flickers next to a skull, swallows some saliva and smiles sideways, as if he were telling a story whose outcome only he knows.
“Many people affectionately call Santa Muerte 'the Virgin of the Forgotten.' Why?” he asks mysteriously. “Because there are those who are tired of soliciting other religious groups. They are very tired of saying prayers that are forgotten and not attended to, and that's why they are increasingly coming to the White Girl.”
To strengthen his claims, Brother Parka narrates a series of “miracles” which the followers have witnessed: from the HIV-positive individual who was cured by the White Death, to the high school student who wanted to attend university and achieved it. Or even the couple who came on a pilgrimage to the altar next to the Metro Ecatepec in order to ask the icon of the Pregnant Death that it bless them with fertility. Nine months later the couple had a child.
But immediately afterwards, Brother Parka arrives at a more tangible argument to explain why in his opinion Santa Muerte is increasingly gaining followers, especially among Catholics.
“People feel the need to come to Santa Muerte because it is no longer possible to cover the sun with a finger,” the spiritual guide says, before pausing for emphasis. “I'm not the one saying it, but people are realizing the serious problems that other religions have shown, which have damaged the most sacred thing we have, which is our childhood."
A mass is said in honor of Santa Muerte on the first Sunday of every month. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
Noemí is one of the most well-known Santa Muerte devotees in the colony of Aragón de Ecatepec. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
On this point, Brother Yamarash begins talking to clarify some points.
First, Yamarash makes it clear that the Muerte cult is not looking to “rob” the believers of other religions. In fact, he notes, the Congregation permits polytheism.
“That is, we can believe in Santa Muerte and at the same time in our religion, whether it be Catholic, Christian, Muslim, o Krishna,” he says. “Because for us the Creator comes first and the Muerte after, which like the rest of the saints, is an alternate force of God.”
Nonetheless, the Ministry of the Congregation outlines that some dogmas of the Catholic faith, “as well as unspeakable acts like pedophilia by priests and other acts of corruption” are provoking youths to search for alternatives.
“In my opinion, Pope Francis' visit is very important for older people because it re-nourishes their faith. However, the youths are looking for other alternatives that satisfy their needs. They no longer feel like they can identify with the traditional religions,” Yamarash says. He adds that many youths arrive at the cult of Santa Muerte “because it is more individualistic” and it is free of prejudices and norms.
“Santa Muerte is a cult,” Yamarash says. “And the difference between a cult and a religion is that a religion has a theological aspect and some precepts that have to be met, obeyed and followed. In contrast, the cult of Santa Muerte has more license in the sense that you can make your own decisions. Here no one judges you if you are a prostitute or a transvestite, although we believe in justice and in action-reaction. That is, we believe that if someone kidnaps, kills or robs, in the end they will be punished.”
That is why, Yamarash says, the Congregation has launched the hashtag #YoSialaSantaMuerte (“YestoSantaMuerte”) on social media, “to inform in an appropriate manner and to dispel certain myths that links the cult with drug trafficking.” It is precisely this link, between Santa Muerte and drug trafficking, that the Catholic Church warns about the most.
Yamarash is the minister of the National Congregation of Santa Muerte in Ecatepec. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
Yamarash, during the Sunday liturgy in honor of Santa Muerte. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
“We are worried that there are thugs who come to Santa Muerte because they understand they will be protected while committing crimes,” says Father Hugo Valdemar, director of social media for the Archdiocese of Mexico. “That is, they put their trust [in Santa Muerte] to rob, kidnap, and kill.”
Valdemar “totally” rejects the Santa Muerte cult “because it is a devotion that is born out of ignorance and superstitions that confuse the sacred with the satanic.”
The priest also warns about “the danger” of leaders who look to enrich themselves at the expense of faith. And to put a face to his warning, Valdemar recalls the case of David Romo, the self-anointed “Archbishop of Santa Muerte” who was arrested in 2011 in the Federal District for links to organized crime.
When asked whether the criticisms were directed at Santa Muerte because the cult was taking followers away from the Church, Valdemar gives a timid smile and shakes his head.
“We don't attack them because they are taking away our followers, Valdemar explains. "In fact, many followers of Santa Muerte say they are Catholics and go to mass in the church. But the Church warns and attacks because one must attack the devil and his works. We are not so much attacking the people who believe in this faith, but rather these people worry us because they have fallen into these webs and we want them to understand that true faith cannot foment this superstition of Santa Muerte.”
The priest is then told that the followers of Santa Muerte claim that they have more liberty, that no one is judged there.
“When one wants to have a religion that is totally comfortable, in which I don't challenge anything, and which feeds me to do bad things, well that is a false religion,” Valdemar says in a severe tone without losing his kind and conciliatory expression. “They are free to believe in Santa Muerte. But what they are not free to do is rob, kidnap and be drug traffickers. This is not compatible with authentic faith.”
For his part, Yamarash assures that they are used to the verbal attacks from the Catholic Church, He also admits that the link with drug trafficking exists, especially since the administration of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), when media outlets began to publish articles and reports of “sicarios,” or narco hitmen, who went to "La Flaca" in search of protection.
Image of the Golden Santa Muerte. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
A Santa Muerte devotee left behind a smoking cigarette as an offering. Photo: Manu Ureste (@ManuVPC)
"Santa Muerte is also involved with drug trafficking, we cannot deny that. With these illicit acts, with people who dedicate themselves to illegal things," Yamarash concedes. "But our Congregation is working to get rid of this corrupted image."
"The miracles do not present themselves to people who look to do bad things," Brother Parka interjects. "That is why we are very clear in orienting the people in the cult, so that they ask for and do good and do not confuse us with a pack of thieves and drug traffickers."
"Although they criticize it, or they want to present it as something demonic and belonging to hitmen, for us Santa Muerte is like a mother," Yamarash adds. "Like a cloak that protects us and provides us with sufficient security to go out into the street on a daily basis in a place as dangerous as Ecatepec.”
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.