Holy Death

After a bloody shoot out between hostile gangs in Sinaloa, Mexico, the authorities discover a mass grave. The 50 corpses are decorated with tattoos, rings, and amulets of a figure known as la Santa Muerte, the Holy Death, in Mexico.

Sinalao is one of the centres in the drug-war that has been raging in Mexico since President Calderon came into power in 2002. This effort, supported by the United States has cost 28 000 lives up to now, twice the number of American soldiers that died in Iraq. In a country whose newspapers are daily full of news about beheadings, hangings and massacres of teenagers, a mass grave full of suspected ‘narcotraficantes’, drug-dealers, does not attract much attention anymore. It is the bizarre detail of the corpse’s decorations that caught the attention of especially the American tabloids: The veneration of death itself, personified in la Santa Muerte.

Death is for a surprising and continuously growing number of Mexicans, a fervently adored local saint: La Santa Muerte, also known as La Nina Blanca, the White Girl. Thousands of Mexicans all over the country have altars in their homes, decorated with a figure of death which closely resembles the Grim Reaper, a household name in Europe. The Grim Reaper’s Mexican cousin usually holds the scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. In many cases the White Girl is accompanied by an owl, the traditional symbol of wisdom.

Mexico’s special, amicable relationship with death with the „Dia de los Muertos“, the „Day of the Dead“, as annual highlight, is one of the traditions that have become a bestseller and part of an industry of souvenirs, known under the name of „Mexican Curious“. The biggest start of the Mexican curious industry is without question the painter Frida Kahlo, heavily popularized outside of Mexico through the movie „Frida“ , starring Mexican born Hollywood actress Selma Hayek. Frida Kahlo’s memorable face with the impressive mono-brow decorates post-cards, coffee-mugs and jute-bags in souvenir shops all over the country. But death also sells well, in the shape of painted porcelain skulls, skeleton musicians behind glass and many similar small presents for the folks back home.

The Santa Muerte achieved notoriety in Mexico and the United States as the saint of the drug dealers. In 2003 the Mexican police destroyed a number of altars on the Mexican –American border which were devoted to the White Girl. The press, especially the English language tabloids, had a field day and came up with headlines like: „The cults of the drug dealers“and „Narco Terrorists pray to death. “, perpetuating the stereotype of dark, dangerous and exotic Mexico.

Vicious criminals adorning themselves with images of death and adoring it, what could fit better into the cliché of the bloodthirsty, erotic-mysterious New World, that nowadays manifests itself in movies like „From Dusk till Dawn“, „El Mariachi“ and „Once upon a time in Mexico“.

Some followers of the cult believe that the Santa Muerte can be traced back to pre-Hispanic traditions and see a connection between her and ancient death cults, like for example that of the Aztecs. The ruins of their ritual sites like the Templo Mayor, right in the centre of Mexico City, feature skulls in all sizes very prominently. The renowned anthropologists Carlos Lomnitz in his seminal study „Death and the idea of Mexico“strongly rejects this connection, however. He points to an obscure saint from Guatemala as the origin of la Santa Muerte.

Trying to sort out fact from fiction means paying a visit to Sinaloa – the state lies on the Pacific coast 650 miles away from the American border. One of the main sources of income for the state is fishing; another is the tourism, which limits itself mostly to coastal towns like Mazatlan, however. In the fertile valley around the state capital Culiacan tomatoes, egg-plans and melons are grown, mostly for export to the United States.

The other source of income fort the region is the drug trade, Sinaloa is home to the Cartel of the same name, arguably the most powerful and most dangerous crime syndicate in Mexico. East of Culiacan begins the inaccessible mountain region of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Cannabis is one of main plants cultivated here and the attempt to get farmers to leave this lucrative business is a hopeless attempt. Nevertheless, the army does try and destroys plantations on a regular basis. Those raids notwithstanding, Mexico remains the single biggest importer of Marihuana to the United States, according to DEA figures.

On arrival in Culiacan you are presented with a picture that has become common all over Mexico. Just behind the airport’s exit an army patrol is stationed. A large caliber machine gun is mounted on one of the jeeps. A soldier wearing sunglasses is standing behind it, the finger on the trigger. President Calderon uses the army in his war against the cartels because it enjoys a better reputation than the often corrupted police force.

This strategy is subject to very controversial debates within Mexico, however. Human rights activists, like Mercedes Murillos Monges from Sinaloa accuse soldiers of murder, rape and robbery and demand that the army returns to its barracks. In an interview with the daily „La Jornada“ the 74year old describes Calderon’s war as „lost from the outset.“

She voices what good number of her countrymen think, who wish back the times when there was a kind of armistice between the government and the Narcos. In those days, the tacit consent was: “Here in Mexico everybody gets a part of the pie and harm is done only to the gringos, who can’t keep their fingers off the drugs. “ President Calderon, whose war is supported by the United States, has made clear, however that: ‚the army will stay in the streets“ as long as he is in power.

The first trace of la Santa Muerte can be found on the way from the airport to the centre of Culiacan – a small statue of the White Girl on the cab-driver’s dashboard. Does he believe in la Santa Muerte? “Yes, I do. My aunt in the States introduced me to her,” says the cabby. What convinced him? “She works a lot of miracles. She has helped me many times, “he answers. He doesn’t want to talk about the specifics of the miracles, however.

Statues of the White Girl are available in many colours and sizes, tiny one for the dashboard and full size for the chapel at home. The range is broad: In red, she assists with romantic problems, in gold she grants prosperity, in green she helps believers to deal with legal troubles.

The heat in Culiacan is suffocating. It’s not a beautiful town, the centre looks desolate and run-down. If you want to have a good time, you have to go to the other side of the river. Here restaurants and nightclubs dominate the scene, indistinguishable from places like that on the American side of the border.

Chapo Guzman, the legendary boss of the Sinaloa cartel, featuring high on most wanted lists and Forbes magazine’s ranking of the richest people in the world, is suspected to visit Culiacan on a regular basis. “It’s an open secret that Guzman comes here,” says Marianne, a student from Guasave, who has come to Culiacan to study Business Administration. And why isn’t he arrested if everybody knows about this? Marianne laughs about that very naïve question. “Because he owns the police and the politicians, that’s why.” Like many Mexicans, she is deeply suspicious of the government and the police and convinced that they are still in cahoots with organized crime, despite the official war on drugs.

The presence of the drug dealers in Culiacan is easy to notice. On the weekend the number of the SUV with darkened windows and vanity plates parked in front of bars and strip clubs rises sharply. “They are having a good time, they aren’t scared of being caught, why should they?” says Marianne, her tone bitter.

A family in Culiacan is known for having a Holy Death chapel in their house which is open to the public. The family’s house is located on a dirt-road in a poor suburb of Culiacan. The landlady and the rest of the family are home and readily invite to visit their chapel. The first thing which catches the eye is the cross on top of the chapel. Contrary to the image to the dark narcoterrorrist cult, the Santa Muerte believers don’t have any problem combining Christian symbols with those of their cult.

Hector Villareal, a political scientist und journalist who researched the topic for a Mexico City magazine explains it like this:”Mexico is traditionally a very spiritual country and it was never difficult for Mexicans to integrate new saints in their pantheon. It was the same back in the day after the arrival of the Spanish. The Christian saints and symbols were regarded as an addition to the existing ones, not as a replacement. Anthropologists call this phenomenon “syncretism”.”

Inside the chapel there is smorgasbord of white girls in all colours and sizes, centre-pieces being two life-size statues, one on the inside of the place of worship, one on the outside. It’s the detail, the grave furniture, that gives the place its’ strangely down-home feel: One of the skull faced statues is casually wearing sun-glasses, another is holding a balloon in the shape of a smiling sun in her hand.

In response to the question why she built this place of worship, Rosario, the landlady answers:” I asked her for a miracle. I promised to give her a chapel, if she helps me. She did and I kept my word. I paid my dues.” What kind of miracle it was? “A member of my family was kidnapped and came home safely”, Rosario answers, she doesn’t want to say more about it. In contrast to the still popular Christian saints, the Santa Muerte does not demand a virtuous life from her followers and does not punish sinners. If you believe her followers, however, she can get very upset if you fail do what you promised her in exchange for her miracle.

Apart from the White Girl, there is another saint that the Catholic Church rejects: Jesus Malverde. Malverde is mostly portrayed as an elegant Latino “Senor”, with moustache, white dress shirt and black neck scarf. There are also portrayals of Malverde with a marijuana leaf, taking the “verde”, the “green” in his name, as a reference to Sinaloa’s successful export crop.

There seems to be a connection between marijuana, in Mexico a cheap drug produced in huge quantities and the two renegade saints. The Santa Muerte often receives joints as sacrificial offering and Villareal has stories to tell about ceremonies in Mexico City’s Tepito neighbourhood during which the Santa Muerte faithful were smoking the biggest reefers he had ever seen.

According to the legend, Malverde is the Mexican equivalent of Robin Hood, a rebellious peasant from the 19th century. Like his English counterpart he hid in the woods, wearing green camouflage took from the rich and gave to the poor. His popularity in Sinaloa and elsewhere is growing, even though he is no competition for the White Girl.

Mr Malverde’s official chapel is in Culiacan, located outside out of the centre, near the river. There are no SUVs with tinted windows anywhere near the chapel on this hot afternoon. A few women are sitting behind sales stands, seeking relief from the glaring sun with small battery powered fans. They are selling Malverde busts, T-Shirts, Holy water, CDs, charms and of course the Santa Muerte in all colours and sizes.

Inside the chapel the atmosphere is similarly calm and relaxed. A chubby mariachi wearing boots and a cowboy hat is playing the accordeon, an old lady is massaging the other’s feet.

The ceiling in the back of chapel is covered with dollar bills, the ladies confirm that the notes are real. In one corner of the room somebody has put up a toy skull, merchandise from the Hollywood blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The chapel’s warden is a small, tanned man with a grey beard. He explains that the Malverde cult does not constitute a church, but a free community of faith. Like in the case of the Santa Muerte, most of the faithful regard themselves as Christians, there is a large cross on top of Malverde’s chapel, too.

The walls are covered with „Thank you“ notes from families that had their prayers answered. The heart of the chapel is an altar with a Malverde bust, lined by two wooden benches inviting to prayer, even though no masses are held. The Santa Muerte also has an altar in the house of Malverde. Two men in worn out jeans, wearing T-Shirts and baseball caps are standing in front of it. One of them is sunk in prayer, the other explains that they are planning to cross the border into the United States and are asking for protection.

So is the Santa Muerte the idol of the criminals? Villareal answers: “Yes and no. Of course there are criminals that believe in her. A saint that doesn’t demand a virtuous life is attractive to people living outside of the law. But the faithful are certainly not limited to criminals. The majority are people living on the fringes of society, people living a precarious life, like single mothers and street-hawkers.”

The visit in Sinaloa and a conversation with Twiggy confirm that impression. Twiggy works a hairdresser in Tepito. This part of Mexico City, is known as the “Barrio Bravo” the fierce neighborhood. Most of the neighbourhood is taken up by the open-air market. The market’s history goes back to pre-Hispanic times, it also has been a lower-class neighborhood since those times. In modern times two additions were made to the traditional markets for foodstuffs, shoes and second-hand goods: Counterfeit brands and the selling of pirated audio and video. Venders selling this have small television sets with large speakers blaring music at full volume. The electricity for this is tapped illegally, with several stands hooked up to the same cable.

Twiggy wears a pony-tail and speaks with a soft voice. In his apartment the Santa Muerte stands side by side with Jesus Christ, Buddha and Ganesha. Twiggy’s manner changes when asked about Tepito, one of the Santa Muerte’s strongholds in Mexico City; he displays some of the fierceness his neighbourhood is famous for. “The people in Tepito work hard, they don’t earn much and the official church doesn’t care about them. The Santa Muerte cares.”
The “official church”, that means the Catholic church, certainly has no time for the Santa Muerte. The Mexican bishops declare in a statement: “The Santa Muerte cult is a sect. Who falls into the hands of this sect is desperate. This despair is not economic, but spirtitual in nature. The catholics who belong to this cult commit a grave sin, the sin of idolatry.”

The Catholic church is not well disposed to David Romo or his organisation, either. Romo is the self-proclaimed bishop of the Santa Muerte cult and belongs to the “Iglesia Mexican Catholica Tradicional”, the “Traditional Catholic Church of Mexico”. “The traditional catholic church of Mexico is not a church neither is it catholic” the bishops say in their statement.

The „Iglesia Catholica Tradicional“ is a religious splinter group, which doesn’t accept the Second Vatican Council and insists on reading the mass in Latin. The “ICT” has opened its doors to the followers of the Santa Muerte to broaden their target audience, is Hector Villareal’s sober assessment. “The ICT cannot be taken seriously. The organization doesn’t even adhere to its’ own principles, like reading mass in Latin. It just jumped on the Santa Muerte bandwagon.”

Now the ICT is sitting on the bandwagon and is using the White Girl’s glamorous bad reputation for their public relations. In the spring of 2010, a couple got married by Romo in the name of the Santa Muerte. In 2009 a small group of faithful demonstrated in the capital led by Romo. They were shouting : “Somos creentes, no delinquentes!” “We are believers, not criminals.” Romo and the Santa Muerte’s faithful have obvious realized the advantage of presenting themselves as a persecuted minority , the post-modern killer argument.

During the demonstration Romo declared his candidacy as a member of parliament. In January 2011, however, David Romo, was arrested by the Mexican police and stands accused of running a kidnapping ring and laundering its ransoms through his personal bank account.

Santa Muerte und Jesus Malverde have become part of pop culture, despite or rather, because of their persecution and notoriety. A Mexican designer has named his fashion label after the white girl. This label has designed a shoe for American manufacturer Nike, complete with hand-made leather and horse hair applications. The Mexican brewery Minerva put a Malverde beer on the market in the northern states of Sinaloa and Jalisco. The after hours bar “Santanera” in hip Playa del Carmen, popular with Mexican celebrities and well-off foreigners, has a Jesus Malverde altar on prominent display.

The popular rap group Cartel del Santa has dedicated a song to the Santa Muerte, another rapper has chosen Malverde as his pseudonym. There is a movie titled “La Santa Muerte” and Jesus Malverde is the hero of numerous songs detailing the dangerous life of the narcotrafficantes, the narcocorridos.

Like tattoos, graffiti or rap music, the two misfit saints seem to be on their way into the mainstream of popular culture. The process is very similar: The notoriety, the flair of the forbidden attracts the early adapters, the hipsters. What starts as edgy, new and different is publicized, copied and more or less quickly becomes a fashion for the many. A good case in point are clothes imprinted with motives from LA tattoo artist Ed Hardy. Hardy’s colourful, highly recognizable imagery has already gone full cycle – from being the brand of choice for California hipsters, it became ubiquitous, appearing on everything from
soft-drink cans to motorcycle helmets .The once edgy Ed Hardy aesthetic has become a victim of its’ own success and is once again looked down on, now for being too common and popular.

It seems likely that the Santa Muerte und Jesus Malverde will complete a similar cycle and end up as part of the standard offering of souvenir-shops between Tijuana and Cancun.

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