Global Dynamics

Inteligence Profiling

Saint Death


Globalization has had several unintended consequences to U.S. society.  One of these consequences is the increased levels of crime that are occurring in the South-Western U.S. border region with Mexico.  Mexican border regions have been seeing an increase violence that has been attributed to Mexican Drug cartels, “Violence was first concentrated in the northern border regions, especially Chihuahua, as well as Pacific states like Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero. Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso in Texas, was the most violent city. In 2010, some 3,100 people were killed in Juarez, which has a population of about one million. Violence has now dropped markedly in Juarez.” (News, 2013, July 16) While there is no official breakdown of how many victims can be attributed to drug violence in Mexico it has been reported that “the number of people killed in drug-related violence since late 2006 at more than 60,000. Although there is no official breakdown of the numbers, the victims include suspected drug gang members, members of the security forces and those considered innocent bystanders. Analysts tracked an overall decline in violence during 2012, continuing a trend from the previous year.” (News, 2013, July 16) This violence is starting to spread across the U.S./Mexican border, due to this violent crime associated with Mexican Drug Cartels are beginning to be reported along the U.S. border with Mexico, however, there is reports that this violence is also starting to spread farther into the United States with violence crime associated with Mexican Drug Cartels being reported as far away as Chicago.

The FBI has reported that:

The narcotics wars in Mexico have increased in scope and intensity beginning with President Felipe Caldéron’s December 2006 de facto declaration of war against the cartels and gangs. The deployment of Mexican military forces in counter organized crime and stability and support roles directly responded to the loss of the country’s control within many regions—identified as areas of impunity—of the country. Since this conflict began, over 45,000 people have died in the fighting, and the areas of impunity have grown to include wide swaths of territory constituting hundreds of locales now under control of the cartels. The criminal insurgencies waged by the cartels and gangs, centered on a strategy of securing nongovernmental interference with their illicit narcotics and other criminal economic activities, have received much attention and debate. Far less has focused on some of the darker spiritualistic parts of the drug wars. (Bunker, n.d.)

What sets this violence apart from other drug and/or gang violence is the spiritual aspect that has been associated with Mexican Drug Cartels.  “One component entails the rise of the cartel and gang narcocultura (drug culture) variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte (literally translated as “Holy Death”).  This variant of the cult promotes greater levels of criminality than the more mainstream and older forms of Santa Muerte worship. Sometimes it can be so extreme that it condones morally corrupt behaviors—what many people would consider as resulting from an evil value system that rewards personal gain above all else, promoting the intentional pain and suffering of others, and, even, viewing killing as a pleasurable activity.” (Bunker, n.d.)  Involvement of Mexican Drug Cartels with Santa Muerte is an interesting development.  Religious worship is being used to give illegal activity an air of authority or to appear that the narco-culture is being sanctioned by a religious body.  This is also interesting when one considers the nature of fundamentalism and/or insurgent movements that are occurring in Central Asia and the Middle East.  In these cases, religion is also being used to give the insurgent movement authority.  There is also the possibility of an increase in violence and/or ritualized murder that will be required as part of religious worship.  This will be done an attempt to remain in the favor of deities that are part of Santa Muerte.

FBI research indicates that membership in Santa Muerte goes hand in hand with participation is a subculture and/or the Mexican narco-culture:

This rise in deviant spirituality has not come as a surprise. Mexico still contains a significant population of persons living in poverty and feeling disenfranchised by a government system perceived as being based on patron-client relationships and the influence of wealthy ruling families. This underclass produces a disproportionate amount of unsanctioned (folk) saint worshipers—though only a small percentage of them end up as killers for gangs and cartels. Still, many of these men and women who brutalize, torture, and kill others need a way to rationalize their activities. If not offered solace via mainstream Catholicism, they will seek comfort elsewhere.3 While the adherents of a more benign drug saint, such as Jesús Malverde, can engage in nonreligious killing, others who worship Santa Muerte increasingly appear unable to separate their criminality from their spiritual beliefs. (Bunker, n.d.)

Increasingly Santa Muerte is being used to justify violent behavior.  As the religion becomes more mainstream in Mexico it is likely that the belief system and the violence will also cross the border as violence associated with Mexican Drug Cartels have already done and will therefore begin to impact U.S. citizens.  Also, as Santa Muerte migrates across the border it is likely to attract American followers that will also be using the belief system as a justification for violent behavior.  “For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States.” (Bunker, n.d.) Given this information it is important for U.S. Law Enforcement to have a clear understanding not only of Mexican Drug Cartels and other transnational gangs that will be impacting violent crime in the United States but these events will also require that law enforcement organizations have a clear understanding of the nature of Santa Muerte and ritualistic killings that may be associated with it.

Santa Muerte:

The actual origins of Santa Muerte are unknown, however “One of the most popular theories regarding the origins of Santa Muerte focuses on a mixture of early Meso-American and Catholic based images. (Meso-American refers to central and southern Mexico including the Gulf Coast and Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and portions of El Salvador and Honduras.) No one knows for sure where this mysterious folk saint we know as Santa Muerte came from.” (Kail, 2011-09-11. p. 40) Due to the fact that the actual origins of Santa Muerte are unknown followers can create or support just about any story about the creation of the religion.  “However, some religious historians have alluded to possible connections with an Aztec god and goddess of ‘death’ known as ‘Mictlantecuhtli’ and ‘Mictlantechihatl’. In Mexico’s Aztec culture, the world of death had a rich mythology that centered around a belief in a damp and cold underworld known as ‘Mictlan’. Mictlan was located in the world of the dead also known as the lower cosmos. It was believed that when someone would die that their soul would travel down into the world of the dead. Those who die would receive help from a god known as Xoloti in order to make the journey safely.” (Kail, 2011-09-11, p. 40)

Given these facts it is possible that followers of Santa Muerte believe that the religion or at least parts of the religions are a traditional form of ancient Mexican religion.  However, “Some interviews with Santa Muerte’s followers in Mexico reveal that the saint’s origins are contested among followers. One follower shared that the mysterious saint came from an incident in the Sixties that occurred in Catamaco Vercruz, where a local saw the image of Santa Muerte strangely drawn into the tables of his hut. He contacted a local priest to verify the miraculous appearance of this image and to possibly canonize the image as a saint. The image was denounced as being a form of ‘Satanism’ which caused the initial local panics about the mysterious icon. The image is also rumored to have been originally worshipped in the region” (Kail, 2011-09-11, p. 42)  It has also been said that “The image is also rumored to have been originally worshipped in the region of Hidalgo in 1965 as a saint who represents the ‘downtrodden’ and those who put their lives at risk.” (Kail, 2011-09-11, p. 42) 

Actual origins of Santa Muerte are unimportant.  What is important is the fact that the religion has become so intertwined with not only the Mexican culture and general but with the Mexican narco-culture in specific.  “In order for us to understand the cultural context that Santa Muerte has formed and grown, it is important that we understand the folk faith of the people of Mexico. Santa Muerte is considered a ‘folk saint’ among members of the Latino culture. Folk Saints are powerful individuals that are revered for their spiritual gifts but are not typically saints that have been canonized by the Catholic Church. Folk saints are recognized for specialized talents such as medical concerns or love related stresses. Among the religious.” (Kail, 2011-09-11, p. 46) Folk Saints fill a void within a culture, it is through folk saints that followers can seek protection from an enemy, healing, assistance in righting a wrong or any of a variety of other functions.  These folk saints are simply part of a culture or society and have no real connection to accepted and/or established traditional religions.

Santa Muerte Traditions:

It is important to point out that Santa Muerte is not a form or sect of any established religions but appears to have a few things in common with what is known as Syncretic religions, these traditions and/or religions are “obviously influenced by contradictory sources. African Diaspora religions, for example, are common examples of syncretic religions. Not only do they draw upon multiple indigenous beliefs, they also draw upon Catholicism, which in its traditional form strongly contradicts these indigenous beliefs. Indeed, many Catholics see themselves as having very little in common with practitioners of Voodoo, Santeria, etc.” (Beyer, n.d.) In the case of Santa Muerte it is easy to see the combination of traditionally Christian concepts with other more traditional forms of Mexican religions this can be seen in the development of folk saints.   “Regardless of how it may have originated, the cult has become a major phenomenon only recently.  According to Blanquita Tamez, a practitioner of the cult from Monterrey, Nuevo León, her grandmother was a Santa Muerte devotee.[61]  This suggests that the cult has been around since at least the mid-20th century.  It spread more rapidly in Mexico during the mid-1960s.[62]  It appeared in Hidalgo in 1965.  It also established roots in Mexico State, Guerrero, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Campeche, Morelos, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, and the Federal District, especially the barrio of Tepito. Although they are prima facie contradictory, the different accounts Santa Muerte’s history are still telling because what practitioners choose to believe about their cult’s history is in many ways as interesting as what its true origins may be.  They also have certain themes in common.  The cult is associated with indigenous peoples, blending Catholic and pagan beliefs.  The cult is associated with people on the fringe of Mexican society – slaves, indigenous peoples, the poor, and criminals.” (Freese, 2005) Similar to other syncretic religions such as Voodoo or Santeria, Santa Muerte is a combination of Catholicism and traditional Mexican worship.  This explains the role of the folk saints.  Within syncretic religions the followers will still be able to worship saints of the society or culture all the while professing to be members of a Christian tradition. 

The Santa Muerte cult could probably best be described as a set of ritual practices offered on behalf a supernatural personification of death.  The personification is female, probably because the Spanish word for death, muerte, is feminine and possibly also because this personification is a sort of counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe.  To believers, the entity exists within the context of Catholic theology and is comparable to other purely supernatural beings, namely archangels.  The cult involves prayers, rituals, and offerings, which are given directly to Santa Muerte in expectation of and tailored to the fulfillment of specific requests.  These bear some resemblance to other traditions.  The origin of the cult is uncertain; it has only been expanding recently.  The cult appears to be closely associated with crime, criminals, and those whose lives are directly affected by crime.  Criminals seem to identify with Santa Muerte and call upon the saint for protection and power, even when committing crimes.  They will adorn themselves with her paraphernalia and render her respect that they do not give to other spiritual entities. (Freese, 2005)


The FBI has reported that:

Santa Muerte ideology has developed in Mexico for approximately a half century and has spread into the United States and Central America. The cult’s popularity has increased with its ties to illicit narcotics trafficking in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a “saint of last resort,” Santa Muerte always has had a following among those who live in extreme circumstances. As one expert explains, “The Santa Muerte cult could best be described as [following] a set of ritual practices offered on behalf of a supernatural personification of death…she is comparable in theology to supernatural beings or archangels (Bunker, n.d.)

Santa Muerte should not be viewed as a religion, more just a set of ritualized beliefs.  Meaning that Santa Muerte is not a god and is not being worshipped as one but instead is a spiritual being that will intercepted on behalf of the follower to grant a wish, if proper ritual is followed:

While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements. Mexican authorities arrested one high priest, Romo Guillén, on kidnapping charges in December 2010. Individuals in his gang posed as members of the Los Zetas Cartel.7 In 2009 he called for holy war against the Catholic Church. During that same year, the Mexican army destroyed numerous Santa Muerte shrines. Members of the Catholic Church and the army see the growth of this cult as a dangerous development (Bunker, n.d.)

Mexican authorities have taken steps to prevent the spread of Santa Muerte, but these efforts appear to be failing.  The more that attemps are made to end these practices the more it would appear that these practices are beginning to spread. 

Violence and Santa Muerte:

As outlined in the introduction to this research report:  Followers of Santa Muerte hold many similarities with insurgent groups in the Middle East and Central Asia.  In both of these cases religion is used to justify violent actions.  In the case of Santa Muerte  it is being used by followers in the narco-culture that will use worship of Saint Death as a method to protect themselves from law enforcement and also as  a form of intimidation.  For those that believe in the power of Santa Muerte that will not be willing to go against or inform on Drug Cartels that are utilizing Santa Muerte as a form of intimidation.  “the massacre of Santa Muerte-worshiping cartel members may represent the broadening of spiritual violence in Mexico: “A report of mass murder in the northern State of Sinaloa revealed that over 50 victims were discovered with tattoos and jewelry depicting Santa Muerte.”13 This event took place before 2007 and characterizes a failed raid on Sinaloan-controlled territory being brutally avenged.” (Bunker, n.d.) Violence that was associated with followers of Santa Muerte was at one time contained to Mexico.  However, as Mexican violence has begun to spill across the U.S. border, violence associated with Santa Muerte is being seen in the U.S. “In the past, inspired and ritualistic killings occurred primarily south of the U.S. border in Mexico. What may have served as the turning event was the October 2010 Chandler, Arizona, beheading incident—though at least one earlier murder exists: During 2005 and 2006 in south Texas, Gabriel Cardona Ramirez, a kill-team leader for the Los Zetas Cartel, engaged in multiple homicides. Relating to one incident: “In a telephone conversation with convicted Zeta Sicario Rosalio ‘Bart’ Reta intercepted by DEA agents, Cardona bragged about how he slashed…two teenagers with a broken bottle, gathered their blood in a cup, and made a toast to the Santisima Muerte, or death saint. He later disposed of their bodies in a barrel filled with liquid fuel, a method known as a guiso, or stew.” (Bunker, n.d.)

As the violence that is associated with Santa Muerte and the organizations that utilize belief in Santa Muerte continue to migrate across the Mexican/U.S. border it becomes vital that those involved with law enforcement and national security policy have a clear understanding of Santa Muerte and forms of violence that is associated with these groups.  This understanding will assist with investigations of Santa Related incidents and gang related violence.  For example, “   Some Mexican cartels, such as Los Zetas, consider Santa Muerte their patron saint; for this reason, the more specific the information gathered the better. While understanding the ritualistic nature of a homicide ultimately may not help to convict a suspect for the specific crime investigated—though additional charges may be warranted due to its premeditated nature—doing so will help provide baseline criminal data that authorities can use at the regional law enforcement intelligence center level.” (Bunker, n.d) Gang and narcotic task forces need to be aware that transnational street gangs and Mexican Drug Cartels are not traditional types of street gangs.  These groups are much more organized than their traditional predecessors and are also more violent.  If crime trends continue it will be important that violent crime investigations recognize the potential that an incident may be associated with Santa Muerte and should be willing to cooperate with gang and intelligence organizations to identify perpetrators of violence.


 News. (2013, July 16). BBC News - Q&A: Mexico's drug-related violence. BBC - Homepage. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Beyer, C. (n.d.). Syncretism - What is Syncretism?. Alternative Religions. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Bunker, R. J. (n.d.). FBI — Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings (Part 1 of 3). FBI — Homepage. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Bunker, R. J. (n.d.). FBI — Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings (Part 2 of 3). FBI — Homepage. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Bunker, R. J. (n.d.). FBI — Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings (Part 3 of 3). FBI — Homepage. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Freese, K. (2005). The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed. Fort Leavenworth: Foreign Military Studies Office.

Kail, Tony (2011-09-11). Santa Muerte: Mexico's Mysterious Saint of Death. Fringe Research Press. Kindle Edition.