Officials in Nuevo Laredo have destroyed more than 35 statues dedicated to a “Death Saint” popular with drug traffickers—prompting protests from followers of the “folk Catholic” cult, who charge religious discrimination and have demanded a meeting with President Felipe Calderón. The statues, most depicting a robed skeleton resembling the Grim Reaper, line roads and highways around the Mexican border city. More than 30 such shrines have been destroyed in the campaign launched this week by city police backed up by federal army troops.
The cult of “Santa Muerte,” considered the Patron Saint of Criminals and the Dispossessed, has been gaining popularity across Mexico’s northern borderlands as the narco economy in the region has exploded. Low-level traffickers, forced to risk their lives and freedom for their livelihood, look to Santa Muerte—also known as “Santa Niña Blanca,” or Saint of the White Child—for succor. Popular accounts hold that Santa Muerte will answer prayers from the evil as well as the good—even for a rival’s death. Many of the statues are elaborate, marble constructions—some with electric lighting, and often festooned with candles and offerings. The owner of one statue, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation from police, told Texas’ El Paso Times he spent $2,000 building his shrine. The actual sacred skeleton image is kept in a small church in Nuevo Laredo’s Colonia Morelos neighborhood. The saint is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
City authorities said the roadside shrines were built without permission on public land. But their destruction enraged Santa Muerte church leaders—including Archbishop David Romo, who in a homily last Sunday called on followers across Mexico to hold protests against the demolitions. “It was both an open act of religious intolerance and an act of arrogance,” Romo said. “We are entering a stage of religious and governmental terrorism.”
Romo called on followers to stage protest marches during Easter week—Semana Santa—including a potentially provocative Easter Sunday march to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s widely-revered Roman Catholic patroness.
Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico, said the Catholic Church is in no way involved in the demolitions of the Santa Muerte shrines. But he added that “it is no secret that this religious organization is associated with drug traffickers and organized crime… it is not only superstitious, but diabolical.” (El Paso Times, AP, March 29; Catholic.net)
See our last post on Mexico’s narco wars.