Santa Muerte—a folk saint for both sides in the drug wars

Both narcos and those who fight against them actually turn to the skeleton saint known as Santa Muerte for spiritual favors and protection, writes Kate Kingsbury and Andrew Chesnut in the International Journal of Latin American Religions (June 2020). In over ten years of observation in Mexico and abroad, the researchers found that the growing cult of Santa Muerte extends beyond the narco subculture (see RW, Nov. 2017). Mexican authorities have destroyed thousands of shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte across the country as part of their difficult fight against the powerful drug cartels. Kingsbury and Chestnut’s research is based mostly on interviews in person, but also on online interviews, since there are more than one thousand Santa Muerte groups with tens of thousands of members. Different from other folk saints derived from folk heroes, Santa Muerte personifies death. The cult emerged into public space from the late 20th century. It is denounced by the Catholic Church, but many people deem her to work miracles. Her veneration is mostly unorganized and informal, although there are also organized forms, such as Santa Muerte Internacional (SMI), a global network of affiliated public shrines.

Due to a constant uncertainty about life and death in drug related violence in Mexico, the cult of Santa Muerte can be used to explain, predict and control events by all those involved, in an attempt to control violent circumstances supernaturally, although the popularity of the cult is not limited to them. This shows how the cult of Santa Muerte has different meanings for different people, either as a narco saint or as a saint who protects them from narcos. It is also popular in jails, with SMI’s most important activity being its prison ministry. Prisoners hope to be kept safe and to get their sentence reduced, but Santa Muerte is popular among prison guards as well, though in a more concealed way. According to Kingsbury and Chesnut, the views of Santa Muerte as a narco saint is reductionistic. Despite those stereotypes, members of the armed forces fighting drug cartels and policemen also ask for her protection, and for good a death. By doing so, they seek access to heaven instead of a long stay in purgatory, as well as the protection of their families. Thus the Santa Muerte “is not so much the guardian angel of drug traffickers as she is the matroness of the drug war.”

(International Journal of Latin American Religions –