Over the last 15 years, the cult of La Santa Muerte (St. Death) has attracted a remarkable number of followers in Mexico and the USA. Considered a sacred female personification of death by her devotees, she has been the object of global curiosity since it first became public in 2001 in Mexico City. Mexican and international journalists, novelists, and scholars have since then been fascinated by the photogenic Santa Muerte, with the tangible result that most major broadcasters have shown scenes of devotees praying, deeply moved, in front of a skeleton figurine in Baroque dress. Several films have been produced about the saint and, since 2008, her main shrines, located in the notorious quarter of Tepito in Mexico City, found their way into the Lonely Planet Travel Guide as major tourist sites. The price wining TV-series Breaking Bad has even a sequence where Mexican gangsters are worshipping her.
Scholars research indicates that this cult’s gained force among inmate in Mexico City’s jails and their families during the 1990s. It became, however, first a public when a series of street altars to La Santa Muerte began to pop up in greater numbers in Mexico City at the turn of the millennium. The owners of these street altars started to offer rosaries every month on the day the altar was erected, and people started to gather in greater numbers. Soon the practice of erecting street altars and offering rosaries or Mass extended to nearby cities (Puebla, Cuautla, and Morelia) and in the rest of Mexico, and La Santa Muerte has also found its way into spiritual temples in the USA, albeit in different contexts.
Since 2005 estimates claiming that the cult has millions of followers have been widespread. The highest number I have heard so far was in 2014 in an article in VICE. Here the cult was claimed to attract more new devotees than any other religious cult in the world. Professor Andrew Chesnut was quoted for saying the cult had between 10-12 million followers. However, these estimates are passed on from leaders inside the cult and one might ask how they know? At least leaders of the cult have an interest in making it appear as a mass phenomenon to magnify its significance. Since I could not find out what these estimates were based on in 2008, I made a census. Most claimed at that time that 3-5 million Mexicans worshipped La Santa Muerte and that there were 1,500 street altars in Mexico City alone. To get better idea I and my assistant counted systematically the street altars in Mexico City and the number of people gathering at the public ceremonies offered to La Santa Muerte. We found that the cult had approximately 300 public street altars in greater Mexico City and, at most, a couple of hundred-thousand devotees. The number of followers and street altars has very likely increased since then, yet even so I find our census still critically disproves the common used figures as highly exaggerated.
But who are the devotees? The common allegation that La Santa Muerte is the patron saint of criminals has caught the attention of journalists, scholars, novelists and American and Mexican security experts alike. Many claim that La Santa Muerte has become their holy defender and focus on how infamous criminals have used La Santa Muerte in sacrificial rites to plead for her protection. From there it has been a short step to connect the rise of La Santa Muerte with the economy of terror in present-day Mexico to add an uncanny cultural level to the horror stories of ghastly violence. Some scholars and journalists have contested this more anecdotal focus on renowned drug traffickers worshipping this saint. They argued instead that the image of La Santa Muerte as the criminals’ patron saint is nothing more than a narrow view of a popular devotion that embraces a wide spectrum of motivations and social backgrounds. This is un-doubtful true on an individual level. Speaking more generally the census we conducted could, however, neither confirm the demonised nor the more beautified version of the devotees’ background. In the following maps we plotted the location of the street altars we visited and coloured the 1983 colonias in Mexico City’s Federal District according to the percentage of each colonias’ population serving time in prison.
Map 1: Altars to La Santa Muerte and the colonia’s percentage of its population serving time in prison in the Federal District, March 2008
Map 2: Altars to La Santa Muerte and the colonia’s percentage of its population serving time in prison in the borough of Cuauhtemoc, March 2008
Source to map 1 and 2: Author’s projection of distribution of inmates and altars to La Santa Muerte, derived from his own census and the Federal District government’s statistics on prison population.
The maps indicate that there was in 2008 a remarkable higher probability of coming across a street altar to La Santa Muerte in a colonia with a high percentage of its population in prison (the darker the red, the higher the percentage of local population serving time in prison). The colonias which had at least one street altar had an average of 136 members of their population serving time in jail, whereas the colonias with no street altar had an average of 12. The many public prayers for inmates and the testimonies of devotees in my own and other scholars’ work underscore this connection between jails and street altars. Most street altars were erected in front of the devotees’ apartment to give thanks to La Santa Muerte for helping a family member out of jail.
This connection has to be understood in relation to the global trend towards being tougher on crime. The shared idiom of violence in the Mexican population has underpinned support for tougher policing and zero tolerance measures. Mexico’s police forces were ‘reformed’ during the 1990s and 2000s to cope more efficiently with the general public’s perception of fast-growing crime rates and pervasive corruption inside the police and legal system. In Mexico City the rhetoric on cracking down on crime and criminal corruption only intensified with the political shift from the old PRI party to the more left-wing PRD in the late 1990s. In 2003, the former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was invited by the Federal District’s Police Force (SSPDF) to assess how security could be improved in Mexico City. This resulted in 146 recommendations from Giuliani and his staff aimed at strengthening security under the popular name of ‘zero tolerance’. The most palpable outcome of this crackdown on crime was that the prison population increased. Across the country, it rose from 87,700 in 1992 to 176,400 in 2002. This increase continued over the next decade in the Federal District of Mexico City, where the prison population increased from 28,667 in January 2005 to 40,232 in January 2011.
The effectiveness of these tougher measures against crime is subject to wide debate. Many of the recommendations Giuliani made were not fully implemented but others were. Street vendors in the historical city centre were forced out and those selling in Tepito were for some time obliged to move the iron structures of their stalls at night. Raids on informal markets and nightclubs also escalated, in particular in the more notorious areas around the historical centre as well as in the vicinity of the city’s most notorious markets known for selling all kinds of products ranging from straight to stolen, smuggled or pirated goods, including drugs and arms. The maps indicate here that the bulk of those people that have been ‘swept up’ in these efforts come from characteristic urban areas with high concentrations of both informal and illicit trade rather than form the poorest zone of the city. That devotion to La Santa Muerte has risen in the same areas does not necessarily imply that this saint is related to prison in itself. One indication of this is that many prison officers and police officers worship her too.
The relationship with prison lies rather in the fact that many of the conditions for worshipping her are fulfilled there: the violence, the risk, the power relations at work beyond one’s control. When ‘swept up’ or routinely arrested in these areas, people come face to face with a ‘penal state’ that have enforced a perverse prison economy. Several interrelated socio-political phenomena were thus at work when the cult gain force in the 1990s and the beginning of this millennium. The economic crises and the increase in illicit merchandise for sale on the informal markets, combined with escalating police efforts, had led to an increase in the prison population and a corresponding increase in violence within the overcrowded jails. Many individuals were locked up for six months or more and then released because the plaintiff dropped the case due to bribes, a lack of evidence or mistakes made in the court procedures. Meanwhile, those imprisoned feared the outcome and their safety. Many of them later visited street altars to give thanks to La Santa Muerte for having mediated on their behalf or on behalf of a close family member in a legal dispute and for protecting them while inside jail. They often promised La Santa Muerte something if she intervenes favourably in their legal process while they awaited the verdict.
Taking this into consideration, we begin to visualise a strong correlation between the flow of people coming into contact with the prison system (including the inmates’ closest family) and the upsurge in the cult. You may say mass incarceration and an ineffective legal system created the condition for this cult’s rapid growth at the turn of this century in Mexico City.
My qualitative research revealed furthermore that despite this clear connection to the criminal world, La Santa Muerte is generally not approached as a patron saint for criminals, but rather is seen as an ambiguous family member embracing both good and evil. She is treated as a ‘child’, ‘sister’, ‘mother’ and ‘godmother’ who both demands and protects her family. In the world of these devotees, the distinction between good and evil, formal and informal, is problematic, since they often find themselves forced to operate on both sides of the moral chasm. La Santa Muerte, being both a popular Catholic saint and a slayer, creates a space for understanding and coping with this ambiguity within the most sacred unite for them – the family. We shall not forget that the family is the lifeline for the largely male population of prison inmates but maintaining this lifeline is a logistic and economic challenge for those outside. Mothers, wives, sisters and children have to work hard to keep the family together. They pray for the family member serving time in jail, they bring him food, they take care of his trial, and sometimes they bribe the judge and/or intimidate the accusers. They turn into the inmates’ heroines or saviours but they may also be their greatest disappointment. Social relations are especially tense in these families as commitment, love and loyalty are constantly questioned from both sides of the prison’s bars.
In these situations, La Santa Muerte becomes the perfect enhancement of this female force and lifts the ambiguities of affectionate family relations into a sacred universe full of human-like compromise and neglect. She is adopted in the prisoners’ families with all the love, anger, loyalty, betrayal and disappointment that this emotional attachment entails. From within the bosom of the family, she helps with concrete problems, although this engagement also creates social responsibilities which, if neglected, can lead them to fear her. Her ambiguity as protector but also potential castigator, heroine but also potential demon, peaceful but also violent (if neglected), makes her a powerful friend or kinswoman for inmates and their families. This ambiguity and permissive nature also makes her more human than other popular Catholic saints, despite the fact she has nominally never lived a human life. She is therefore also treated more humanly than most of the other saints. The social relationships with La Santa Muerte, which are constantly unfolding within this figure of family unity and neglect, are what make La Santa Muerte more open to suggestions that would be impossible or inappropriate to ask of a ‘normal’ saint. In this regard, La Santa Muerte is as ambivalent as her devotees and the forces she helps to navigate. Since the 1990s, this ambiguity has become her principal strength.