Turning on the television to see the new season of the award-winning Breaking Bad, I was presented with a curious spectacle. It looked like Mexico, and a dusty old man is crawling across the desert ground. Is he trying to escape from something or someone? A drug gang maybe? He’s clearly not that happy and yet cars, villagers, and chickens walk past him. The camera pans out and he’s not alone. Scores of Mexicans now are crawling across the dusty village, on their bellies, inching painfully forward with their elbows, like some form of spastic human-bat hybrid. A flash car draws up and two young men with shaved heads in expensive suits get out. They look around them, and then bizarrely, also get down on their stomachs and start crawling in the same direction as the villagers. I noticed that on their black patent leather boots they had silver skulls on the toe of each boot…
They are all crawling towards an adobe hut, festooned with flowers. It’s a shrine of some sort. Inside, there are dozens of candles and small statues of skulls. There is a large statue, a ghostly apparition of death that seems to have been assembled from Paganism crossed with Catholicism, a zombie Mary Magdalene. The smartly dressed men rise and place something next to the statue, it’s a name of someone that they are calling upon this saint to help them find, and kill. The saint is Santa Muerte. Saint Death. Holy Death. I was intrigued and started researching…
This article looks at the relationship between Momento Mori, Santa Muerte and the Mexican Drug Cartels.
Memento Mori is latin, and means “Remember that you must die”. It is also used to describe an object, such as a skull, used for worship, as a reminder as to human mortality and the inevitability of death. It is thought that the phrase originated in ancient Rome when a general, Consul, Prelate or other high-ranking official was celebrating his triumph through the streets of Rome, a trusted slave would walk behing him saying “Memento mori“… reminding him that he may be high and mighty and grand today, but tomorrow he could be dead.
Santa Muerte means “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”. It is usually depicted in drawings, paintings and statues as a sacred feminine skeletal figure often in a shroud, a cowl or robes.
Dia de Los Muertos “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican celebration that takes place on 1-2 November, coinciding with the Catholic Church’s All Saints/Soul’s Day. It’s the day after Walpurgisnacht, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, 31 October. Skulls and skeletons made from sweets are exchanged. Its origins can be traced back to an Aztec Festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (pictured below).
Memento Mori were evident in early medieval europe, usually depicting divine judgement upon death in Christianity. “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” is used in services for Ash Wednesday and is a classic memento mori expression. Another, from the Bible is “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 7:40)
For physical manifestations of memento mori, these are abundant in funeral art and architecture, such as cadaver tombs; tombs that depicts the decayed body of the deceased. This became popular in Victorian England and earlier with Puritan tombs in the United States fashion in the tombs that boasted winged skulls, skeletons, or angels extinguishing candles. There are lots of examples of such tombs at one of the two Highgate Cemeteries (the one that is normally closed, but open a few days a year for tours and visitors- well worth a visit- especially the Catacoombs where Bram Stoker gort the inspiration for his novel “Dracula”.
Clocks are also reminders of Memento Mori… time ticking away till your demise. German 18th century mechanical clocks had a death figure striking the hours. Others had the latin for “Time Flies” (or flees)- Tempus Fugit. The arts too had many references, in poems, songs, plays, books and music- and not just funeral music. If you want to get up close and personal in a poem, try Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that contains these oft-quoted stanzas:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
and in Coleridge’s Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, it is death that stalks us:
Like one that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.
Relationship to Mexico
Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival the Day of the Dead which involves skull-shaped candies and bread loaves adorned with bread “bones.”
Many of Mexico’s poorest Catholics count themselves among the devotees of a skeletal woman saint called La Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death. Members of Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have been known to construct private shrines to “the white lady” in their mansions. Now the government of Mexico has begun destroying public Santa Muerte shrines—more than thirty of them in the last year—as an act of psychological warfare in their battle against the cartels.
The Santa Muerte cult is certainly anti-establishment and at first blush appears to glorify criminal behavior. Although not all members of the cult are criminals, all live an existence that is dominated by crime. The cult seems to be linked closely to prisons, prisoners, and family members of prisoners. There are many shrines to Santa Meurte, but these are becoming less public (because they attract the attention of the Police) and so secret shrines are being found in private houses, shops and even in hidden away rooms at the back of Catholic churches. Most prisoners are allowed a small effigy of Santa Muerte in their cells.
On 12 March last year the Sonora State Police arrested eight people for murder of a woman and two ten year old boys. There was evidence that they had been killed as a sacrifice to Santa Muerte to find favour with her.
In the late 2000s, the founder of Mexico City’s first Santa Muerte church, David Romo, estimated that there were around 5 million devotees to the cult in Mexico, constituting approximately 5% of the country’s population. It has now spread northwards to parts of the United States.
While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements. So what do the Catholic Church make of all this? While the cult was tolerated for a while, provided Mexican catholics continued to pray to other Saints, such as Saint Jude, the links with crime have made the Vatican step in. The Vatican has deemed the cult blasphemous and a “degeneration of religion”. The Catholic Church points to satanism, black magic, devil-worshipping and idolatry as being rife among Santa Muerte followers, but stops short of excommunicating followers, or branding them heretics. But this largely falls on deaf ears for those who see no problem in following the teachings of Christ, and also the cult of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte rituals vary, and worshipers disagree about some of the symbolism and the proper procedures to gain the spiritual and physical results petitioned. However, adherents generally consider Santa Muerte a jealous and vengeful deity who demands that her followers conduct the rituals and sacrifices properly to avoid her divine wrath. Candle magic, herbs, oils, amulets, spiritual energy, and various mystical items play an important role. She also does not tolerate worship of other Catholic Saints according to some adherents, making it obvious why the Vatican see this a dangerous cult.
Non-drug cartel ritual killings are common: In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful (non-narco) criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection. In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers. In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims for ransom.
In the macho world of Mexico, one might be forgiven for thinking that the only woman allowed in the Santa Muerte cult would be the dark lady herself. But no. Yolanda Salazar is a priestess of the Santa Muerte cult in Ciudad Juarez. Salazar lives in and runs a Santa Muerte sanctuary, which is located in the heart of the city, just a drive of a few minutes from the border with the United States. She says:
“Here in Juárez, people pray for protection, but also health, and for love. What’s important is it comes from the heart. If your intentions are true, it will help you.”
She had just a handful of followers in 2010, when she first opened her Santa Muerte sanctuary, where there are over 100 small and large statues of Santa Muerte. Now, her weekly prayer vigils to Santa Muerte draw in a crowd larger than the local Catholic church for Mass. She will soon need bigger premises, such is the growth of the cult. “That stuff’s for sicarios — for killers!” said one of her worshippers,explaining what her family thinks of the cult vigils she attends every weekend.
Links to Drug Cartels
The Mexican authorities find the cult linked to drug trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, kidnapping and homicide. Altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both North Mexico and the United States. Simple appeals to the saint are for a rival to be caught or killed, to escape the law, and to bring luck and good business. More morbidly some appeal to her for a “clean” death. She is seen as the Saint of Last Resort. When you have been abandoned by all the “normal” catholic saints (or choose to ignore them) Santa Muerte will be there for you, in life and in death.
Many organised gangs, including those at the top of the organisation right down to foot soldiers respect and pray to Santa Muerte. Two gangs have been found to have direct links- the Gulf Cartel (headed by boss Gilberto Garcia Mena pictured here) and the Mara Salvatrucha.
Worship of Santa Muerte was documented in the 1940s mainly in Mexico City but it first came to mainstream popular attention in Mexico in August 1998, when police arrested gangster Daniel Arizmenmdi Lopez (pictured below) and discovered a shrine to the saint in his home. This was widely reported in the press and led to even more notoriety for Saint Death. During the operation, the arresting officers found Arizmendi hiding in his bathroom, where he had constructed an altar to Santa Muerte. Arizmendi asked the arresting officers for permission to take the statue with him; they granted the request. He took the statue with him when he was remanded to the La Palma Maximum Security Prison!
The narcotics wars in Mexico have increased in scope and intensity since President Felipe Caldéron’s December 2006 de facto declaration of war against the cartels and gangs. Since this conflict began, over 45,000 people have died in the fighting, and although there have been some successes, there are large areas of Mexico that are virtually under the sole control of the cartels. As always, the cartels hold their sway of the local population by a mixture of fear and generosity (ie protection from other cartels and the Police, plus small gifts and events for the people). Because the cartel bosses have so much money and influence, it is thought by many poorer people that they surely have Santa Muerte in their pay (or at least on their side) and this just adds to the bosses perceived untouchable nature.
There is a read-across from the gladiators of ancient Rome, who fought, sometimes to the death, for their Ludus and their Dominus (owner). Glory in their short life or a glorious death in the arena were what they hungered for. For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, short lives and brutal deaths are highly likely. This imminent mortality makes the worship of Santa Muerte not a joyous affair, but spiritually dark. Control or be controlled. Kill or be killed. With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Whereas it used to be offerings of food, beer, and tobacco, the offerings have become much more morbid, including the heads of victims or even sacrificed members of their own gang, in order to show how serious the worship is, and presumably, how serious and powerful the expected blessing will be.
Cartel killings and links to Santa Muerte are widespread:
During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.
In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
In a recent undercover investigation, a news reporter cobducted an interview with a Cartel hit man, and was told about the relationship between La Nina, “La Flaca” the skinny one; Santa Muerte, and his profession. He doubles as a grocery store owner. He said that when he is not acting for the cartel, he does one-off killings on behalf of the Saint to encourage more people to worship her (and presumably increase his business). He said he needed a full-body photo of the victim. After the murder he will cut up the body and bury it in seven different cemeteries. He says he is working for the Saint of Death.
He says he has to maintain lit candles in his shrine to her, night and day, saying that Saint Death is very jealous and can turn on you if she thinks you are deserting her. If she becomes angry, you may have to kill and offer sacrifices to her to placate her. As for his links to the cartel, he says many of the drug lords don’t really believe in Santa Muerte, but what’s to lose if you pay her and her cult lip service? At worst you waste some kilos of cocaine or a few thousand dollars at a shrine, but at best, you’ll evade the law and get one over on your rival drug cartels. And then there’s the fear. If people in other cartels who do believe, think that you have her on your side, then they’re going to be running scared.
Conclusions and Forward Look
One of the US greatest fears is that the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take root and then spread in the United States. With a high hispanic population, many of who are poor, the attractions of Santa Muerte seem tangible and possibly represent a way out of poverty and into power and wealth. In fact that’s already happening.
Despite condemnation from the church, law enforcement agencies and the Governments of both the US and Mexico, no one believes Santa Muerte is going anywhere anytime soon. It is spreading. There are reports of secret shrines in San Francisco, Oregon and even across to Baltimore and Boston.
Finally, back to Breaking Bad. Gregory Beasley Jr., 35, believes he landed acting roles in the series and the 2008 movie “Linewatch” after a traditional Mexican-American healer introduced him to La Santa Muerte. It’s where fact and fiction and fantasy combine. In these times you ignore Santa Muerte at your peril…