The popularity of “la Santa Muerte” has grown steadily in Nuevo Laredo, with elaborate shrines to the death saint popping up on major roadways and mass-market goods appearing next to those of real saints, dismaying many Catholics.Adoration of this image, believed to be the patron saint of drug traffickers, is not authorized and, in fact, is a sin, religious leaders say.
“It shows ignorance of the faith, because Santa Muerte doesn’t exist as a person,” said Father Alberto Monjarás of the Iglesia del Santo Niño. “It’s only the transition from this world to eternity.”
La Santa Muerte is depicted as a grinning skeleton swathed in a hooded cloak, often made of red velvet, embroidered lace or black sheeting. She bears a scythe or a globe, as well as a candle, rosary and a book. In what many fervent Catholics believe is practically blasphemy, Santa Muerte is often dressed as the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Monjarás attibuted the rise of Santa Muerte’s popularity to three things: ignorance, commercialization and the devotion given to the saint by the criminal sector that uses symbols of power to dominate others.
Ana Laura Pienda, of the Yerbería San José, said men and women, adults and teens take refuge in this worship, buying candles, amulets, herbs, incense and just about any other article that features la Santa Muerte. They all are staking their faith on the death saint to bring about their desires.
A man, who asked to be identified only as Ramón, bought several items one day last week, including a scapular with the image of la Santa Muerte. The scapular, composed of two square pieces of cloth linked with a cord that is worn about the neck inside clothing as a sign of devotion to a particular saint, is a common Catholic tradition.
He said he believes in Santa Muerte, and puts his faith in her.
“I believe in her because she has granted me many favors,” he said, rubbing the scapular between his fingers. Among those favors has been the healing of a loved one and protection, he said.
He added that Santa Muerte has accorded him other favors that he didn’t want to discuss, but said the result is that he is now fulfilling the promises he made to her.
In addition to using the items he purchased, he said he has pledged to visit a shrine that has been built in Saint Death’s honor at the 22-kilometer mark on the Nuevo Laredo-Monterrey highway. He said he promised to take her red flowers, apples and candles.
At the shrine, other faithful have left jewels and even money on the altar. Tempting as they might be to the criminal element that frequents the shrine, no one dares touch the offerings.
Another large shrine, this one painted bright orange, is on Luís Donaldo Colosio Boulevard and Calle Mina. Inside the structure there are three plaster images of Santa Muerte that are each nearly three feet tall, another two are about half that size. The statues are protected from the elements by a glass-and-aluminum screen.
On this day, there was a white candle, a folded dollar bill, and a handful of U.S. and Mexican change. Nearby there was a full bottle of beer that was open and 20 pesos. People came to pray and observe, but nobody touched the offerings.
Pedro González, who washes cars in the historic district between Hidalgo and Juárez streets, said he has heard a lot about la Santa Muerte, but that he’s not really moved by it.
“Death is something everybody carries inside,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe in the sainthood of death.
A street merchant who sells plaster statues of the death saint said he has had customers from Laredo and other places in the United States as well as from Nuevo Laredo. The images range in price from 200 pesos – about $18 – to 1,000 pesos, about $90.
Declining to give his name, the merchant said sales of the death saint have now surpassed those of St. Jude and other well-known saints.
Back at the church, Rev. Monjarás said people have been swayed by the propaganda that is spreading in different parts of the country and have allowed ignorance to trump their good sense. The growing popularity of the symbol means the church must intensify its efforts to evangelize and teach people the truth about their Catholic faith.
Families need to energize their faith in the church, he said.
“Many people are Catholic because they were baptized but beyond that, they don’t know much about the faith,” the priest noted. “The inclination to (worship) death has been encouraged by organized crime, raising it to a level of fantasy because they think that the death saint will free them from death.”
These men are always immersed in danger, and, in their ignorance, they succumb to the ill-founded belief that they will be saved from death if they worship la Santa Muerte, he said.
Pineda said that people of all social classes come to her store looking for amulets of the Santa Muerte. These people have shrines in their homes and improvised temples and are major consumers of the death items, she said.
As part of this fetish there are those who ask the death saint for the death of their enemies, and while Pineda says she doesn’t believe in it herself, she respects her clients and their beliefs.
Santa Muerte was known as long as 15 years ago, observers say, but it’s been in the last five years that she has become a popular mass-market item. Even in Nuevo Laredo, where the economy has been devastated by a war between drug traffickers – or perhaps because of it – sales of Santa Muerte-related items have boomed.
At Pineda’s store, a woman came in and bought five red candles with the image of Santa Muerte.
She said she would light the candles to Santa Muerte because she wants the saint’s help in bringing back the man she loves, who left her for her best friend.
In Pineda’s store, you can find something to solve just about anything. And, these days, a lot of her customers believe death is the answer.