Latin American Drug Traffickers Turn to Cults for Comfort

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The ritual sacrifice of three people to Mexican drug cult figure Santa Muerte, and reports of Puerto Rican traffickers using a Caribbean faith to guide their shipments, call attention to the ways in which popular religions can interact with the drug trade.

Mexican authorities are investigating the deaths of three people in Sonora state who may have been sacrificed to a popular figure in Mexico’s folk culture, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). The victims, two young children and an elderly woman, reportedly had their throats and wrists cut at an altar dedicated to the saint. Eight people have been arrested in connection to the killings.

On April 3, authorities in Puerto Rico arrested the alleged leader of a drug trafficking ring who was also a practitioner of Santeria, a mixture of West African and Roman Catholic beliefs and practices which is most strongly associated with Cuba. The suspect reportedly consulted a spirit about which days were best to transport cocaine shipments into Puerto Rico and onwards to the US, reports the AP.

One Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent told Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Dia that it was far from unusual to encounter drug traffickers who practice Santeria or other syncretic Caribbean religions. What was unusual about this case is that the suspect was the leader of his own drug-trafficking ring which may have exported some 840 kilos of cocaine a year, the agent said.

These two incidents highlight how alternative religious practices, from Santa Muerte devotions to Santeria ceremonies, have penetrated the culture of drug trafficking in Latin America. Arguably, as the criminal underworld has become more violent in both Mexico and Puerto Rico, those involved in the drug trade have felt the need to seek extra protection — or, at least, reassurance.

The recent ritual killings in Sonora, a relatively calm part of Mexico, were described in the press as the first confirmed reports of sacrifices to the folk saint. According to R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” the past eight years have also seen many unsubstantiated reports of human sacrifices in Mexico.

These recent sacrifices, therefore, do not necesarily represent an escalation in devotion to Santa Muerte. And while the growth of the·cult may be related to the violent fracturing of the drug trade, Chesnut argues that the figure’s appeal as a religious icon goes beyond the threat of drug violence, describing her as a “powerful healer of illness and agent of prosperity.” Prison guards, municipal police, and federal agents are also known devotees, Chesnut told InSight Crime.

Similarly, Santeria holds a wide appeal outside of Puerto Rico’s criminal world. According to an investigation by El Nuevo Dia, there are more than 100,000 practitioners on the island, and just 5 percent of them are involved in the drug trade.

However, while drug dealers may be a minority of Santeria devotees, they are among the most zealous. One anti-narcotics agent told El Nuevo Dia that about 60 percent of those currently facing federal charges for drug trafficking also practice Santeria.

Part of the reason why criminals turn to alternative religions like Santa Muerte and Santeria is to seek protection and favors which are not offered by traditional religions. “The narco is fundamentally a client, not a devotee,” one Santeria priest, or Santero, told El Nuevo Dia. “They come looking for someone to protect them, because they would stop believing in electricity if they thought it would prevent them from getting killed.”

Both Puerto Rico and Mexico have seen dramatic increases in organized crime-related violence in the past several years. As the danger grows for those involved in criminal activities, there is an increased incentive to turn to other belief systems more compatible with a lifestyle that emphasizes money and materialism, and places little value on human life. Even as Santa Muerte and Santeria both have a wide appeal outside the criminal world, these cult religions are, in some ways, natural venues for those whose lives are violent and short.

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