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Santa Muerte & The Spiritual Realities Of The Drug War

The occult Mexican folk 'saint' is a very old enemy, manifesting in a new way -- and it has come to America
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(Image above of a Santa Muerte altar found in a drug house raided by San Antonio, Texas, police.)

In 2010, when I had my Beliefnet blog, I got a letter from a reader who was (and I guess still is) an American priest and member of the Dominican religious order. Here's what he wrote:


I spent my pastoral year working at our mission in Mexico, and I also work with Hispanics here in the states.

As a cult, La Santa Muerte is growing in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the United States, and it is setting itself up with Temples, “priests”, and so forth, and it is making an attempt to challenge Catholicism, which is not silent about it in Mexico or here. I know, for example, that Card. George and other bishops in this country have spoken out forcefully against it as have bishops in Mexico. I myself as a deacon and in my adult catechism classes have preached against it. Sometimes, members of La Santa Muerte have attacked Catholic churches, and some people have destroyed their temples. The problem is complicated.

We tend to think of Mexico as a Catholic country, and it is — or was — in a way. But, as you know, things are not always as they seem. In the first place, it is not always and everywhere a well-catechized country, much to our shame. The faith is often not more than superficial. Also, there is the Mexican Revolution, the Cristero War, and 70 years of anti-Catholic legislation and rule by the PRI. In the center of the country — Guanajuato, Colima, Jalisco, Edomex, Puebla, for example — the faith is much deeper, but in the north and the south it is not so strong and never really has been, although it varies from place to place. I found in the north, along the border, a great deal of indifference to the faith. There is also a lot of superstition and syncretism.

Some of this is the fault of the Church. Often priests are elevated to a new social status by ordination, especially when they come from poor families, and they act like it. They rarely appear in public as priests (partially a left-over of seventy years of laws against wearing religious garb in public), they wear fine clothes, and they drive fine cars. This is, of course, a generalization, but the exceptions prove the rule. Further, it seems to me that the Church hierarchy has never really gotten over its loss of political power with the coming of the Mexican Revolution and the fall of Porfiriato, and they should worry more about their moral voice rather than a political one. But the other problem, as you rightly pointed out in another article, is a crisis of holiness and, to be honest, a willingness to shed ones blood as a witness to the faith.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for religious. Last year, in the state of Guerrero, the vocations director and two seminarians were pulled from their car and shot numerous times. The bishops and religious superiors in Mexico have stated that they will not pay ransoms for religious abducted by the narcotraficantes. And make no mistake, they are being threatened more all the time. In Juarez, sisters I know have narrowly missed being killed, and priests and religious who work with the poor are in very real danger, in addition to what they describe as living and working in war zone. In Tijuana, the cloistered nuns would not let me walk around the block after Vespers because, even in my habit, it was no longer safe to do so, and they and the active sisters talked about the priests and religious being threatened in the archdiocese. Dioceses in Texas have received priests whose lives are in very real danger. The greater sadness, though, is that some bishops are quietly paying bribes to defend their priests, and those that dare to speak out are often exiled — supposedly for their safety. And the few bishops who dare to speak out, such as Bp. Raul Vera, OP, of Saltillo, receive fairly regular death threats. One day somebody will make good on them, confident that the government will be helpless to do anything about it. There are heroic and saintly voices in Mexico, but if the Church is to win the hearts and minds of the people, and ultimately the salvation of their souls, then the Church there must itself be of one mind and one heart, and that mind and heart must be the mind and heart of Christ — and Christ on the cross, if need be.

On a different note, the government is losing the war, I think. Tijuana, for example, is presenting itself as a success story, but there have already been more narco-related murders there this year than at the same time last year, which means they are headed for an astounding total. And of course the battle, whether between the government and the narcos, between rival cartels, or even between rival factions of the same cartel, is spiraling into other parts of Mexico that have until now not really witnessed this kind of violence. And it is not just Mexico. According to religious and others I know in Guatemala, it is on the verge of morphing into a narco state. The government is very unstable.

I am not hopeless, but the reality is certainly grim. May the Lord and our Blessed Lady guide us and keep us.

A reader back then passed onto me this gripping article from Small Wars Journal, about the spiritual significance of the narco wars in Latin America. Remember, this is twelve years old; the situation may have changed since then, but I don't think it has gotten any better. Excerpt:

Conventional wisdom holds that narco gang and drug cartel violence in Mexico is primarily secular in nature. This viewpoint has been recently challenged by the activities of the La Familia cartel and some Los Zetas, Gulfo, and other cartel adherents of the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) by means of religious tenets of ‘divine justice’ and instances of tortured victims and ritual
human sacrifice offered up to a dark deity, respectively. Severed heads thrown onto a disco floor in Michoacan in 2005 and burnt skull imprints in a clearing in a ranch in the Yucatán Peninsula in 2008 only serve to highlight the number of such incidents which have now taken place. Whereas the infamous ‘black cauldron’ incident in Matamoros in 1989, where American college student Mark Kilroy’s brain was found in a ritual nganga belonging to a local narco gang, was the rare exception, such spiritual-like activities have now become far more frequent.

These activities only serve to further elaborate concerns amongst scholars, including Sullivan, Elkus, Brands, Manwaring, and the authors, over societal warfare breaking out across the Americas. This warfare– manifesting itself in ‘criminal insurgencies’ derived from groups of gang, cartel, and mercenary networks– promotes new forms of state organization drawn from criminally based social and political norms and behaviors. These include a value system derived from illicit narcotics use, killing for sport and pleasure, human trafficking and slavery, dysfunctional perspectives on women and family life, and a habitual orientation to violence and total disregard for modern civil society and democratic freedoms. This harkens back to Peter’s thoughts concerning the emergence of a ‘new warrior class’ and, before that, van Creveld’s ‘non-trinitarian warfare’ projections.

A recent insight, gained by the authors after the conclusion of a major research project on Mexican drug groups, is that this insurgency has at its basis a spiritual, if not religious, component that threatens the underlying foundations of our modern Western value system. This component is derived from the well known cartel technique of offering an individual ¿Plata O Plomo?–take our silver or we will fill you with our lead. As a tactic taken by groups with a theological bent, such as La Familia, this offer becomes Faustian, join us and in the process give up your soul or die, a choice historically associated with incidents of religious conversion at the tip of a sword. That technique is typically carried out by young religions, such as militant Christianity and Islam, during their expansionistic phases. These post-battlefield mass conversions are considered by the victors as actually saving the souls of those joining the righteous ranks of God’s chosen.

The image above comes from this recent San Antonio TV station's report on the spread of Santa Muerte's cult beyond drug traffickers, but also the pseudo-saint's key role within the drug trade.

It is very difficult for Westerners, with our secular mindset, to understand what is going on here. It is also difficult for US and European Christians to grasp it, given how despiritualized our Christianity has become. This all comes to mind first because on my subscription-only Substack the other day, I posted a theory of spiritual warfare in Mexico, sent to me by a reader who has done a lot of work there for years. His basic theory, which he admits might be crankish, is that when the Spanish conquistadores conquered the Aztecs and banished their demon gods of human sacrifice -- largely through the work of God through the Guadalupe miracle -- the demons never really went away. He concludes like this:


So here’s the synopsis, the conclusion that I draw: Mexican history across half a millennium can be understood as a direct and violent contest between Christ, whose forces here are led by the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the powers of hell, whose forces are personified in — well, all of it, the Mexica pantheon, the deceiver of Fr Hidalgo, the Freemasonic delusions, the demon of Madero, the Santa Muerte cultists, on and on. It is cyclical. When hell lost its rule over Mexico in 1521, it greatly resented it — in ways it did not resent the loss of many other lands — and it has been wracking the nation in convulsions, trying to win it back, ever since. We can only guess as to why. We only know that it does, and we know that a champion has been sent in Our Lady to lead the defense.

I should point out that we know from history that the conquistadores were in many cases horribly abusive to the conquered natives. In fact, Bishop Zumarraga of Mexico City, the one who was the first witness to the Guadalupe miracle, wrote back to the Spanish crown to beg for help in restraining the cruelty of the conquistadores. That sad and appalling fact -- of the colonials' cruelty -- in no way diminishes the savagery and evil of the vanquished native religion, which, as I said, required mass human sacrifice.

Now, why do I bring this up here? Because of this recent piece in The Dallas Morning News about drug-dealer occult rituals in Dallas. It's behind a paywall, so you might not be able to read it all. Excerpts:

Inside a small house in a southern Dallas neighborhood, people gathered around altars, slaughtered animals and doused themselves in the blood. The participants were drug traffickers, the feds say, who took part in occult rituals to protect themselves and their illicit operations from law enforcement. They even paid for a “hex” to be placed on a local DEA agent investigating them, court records show. The agent’s name was found on an altar.

Their alleged cult leader, a Mexican-American known as “Padrino” or godfather, could not, however, foresee the fate that awaited them. Agents arrested more than 40 men and one woman across North Texas since 2021 on federal drug trafficking charges.

The defendants hotly disputed the government’s claims about a cult and argued the bloody rites were a valid religious exercise. Most pleaded not guilty, and many remain locked up awaiting trial.

Agents found multiple blood-soaked altars at the house near Paul Quinn College in southeast Oak Cliff as well as a “blessing book” in the home of the “godfather,” Daniel Vallejo, the alleged cult leader and one of the charged defendants.

They also found cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in his house and others, court records show. A DEA agent in the case, Marcus West, said at a detention hearing last year that the cult’s purpose was “to bless the success of the ongoing drug-trafficking enterprise.”

The ceremonies Vallejo presided over in his home, although shocking to some, do not necessarily denote evil or darkness. Experts say they are strongly rooted in old folk traditions in Mexico and its organized crime underworld. Howard Campbell, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, said such beliefs stem from African and indigenous Latin American traditions, blended somewhat with Roman Catholicism.

The ceremonies are often viewed as “black magic and witchcraft” due to the animal sacrifices, he said. Others might interpret it as the worship of violence. Campbell said those assessments are inaccurate, as is the cult reference, which signifies immoral and sacrilegious practices that are unacceptable. Without proper historical and cultural context, people can reach simplistic conclusions, he said.

“There’s probably a tendency for people to overreact when they see this and see it as devil worship or something like that,” said Campbell, who specializes in Latin American studies and Mexico, in particular.

One more:

The DEA agents testified about the group’s ceremonies during detention hearings in which prosecutors were asking judges to detain the defendants until trial because they were dangerous or a flight risk.

The FBI has called such beliefs part of a cult steeped in “deviant spirituality” and used by drug traffickers to justify their criminal actions.

Campbell, the anthropologist, said these beliefs aren’t the cause of criminal behavior but a “remedy to deal with their existential anxiety about the dangers of the business.” Like the cab driver who carries with him a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“We don’t want to fall into that demonization of people because their beliefs fall out of the mainstream,” he said.

Law enforcement officers tend to denigrate and demonize groups they oppose on the basis of such things as clothing, tattoos, sexuality and religion; to attack the individual for who they are, not necessarily for what they did, Campbell said.

There are some things so stupid that it takes an intellectual to believe it. A "simplistic conclusion" about that horror scene? Describing these blood-soaked cultists as mere people whose "beliefs fall out of the mainstream," and who are doing this stuff "to deal with their existential anxiety"? Good Lord. You see here the radical inability of the secular liberal mindset to explain realities and phenomena that exceed its tightly drawn rationalist boundaries. This anthropologist explains to the newspaper's readers that it would be bigoted to pass judgment on these Santa Muerte believers. I'm sure a lot of people believe that. I had a liberal Protestant churchgoing friend once who would embrace and display things like this, because the friend believed it was exotic and showed solidarity with Latin American and Caribbean cultures. The friend had zero knowledge of the real spiritual powers behind this stuff, nor did my friend want to know. She thought criticism of it was a sign of bigotry.

They should talk to missionaries and others who have to live with this stuff. They should talk to exorcists. A few years back, a Catholic priest who used to be in touch with me wrote to say that in his parish, near the US-Mexico border, he was often called out to the homes of Mexican parishioners to exorcise their homes, because of demonic, poltergeist-like activity. Inevitably, he said, they had been practicing syncretic religion, bringing in pagan rituals and mixing them with Christian ones in their home. He told me that he would sternly warn the families that if they want to keep the poltergeist stuff away, then they must stay away from all this syncretism. But, he said, most of them always, always go back to it -- and then call him out again to rid their houses of the evil spirits.

I'm sure that anthropologist would roll his eyes at the claim of poltergeist activity, and condemn the priest for being some sort of colonialist for condemning and combatting the syncretic folk religion and the spiritual powers that accompany it. Don't you believe it. This stuff is real -- and really dangerous. I have many, many such stories, and have seen some things with my own eyes.

A couple of years ago, I met in Nashville an American pastor, an Evangelical who is fairly well known in his region (he wasn't from Nashville; we were at a conference together), who told me that only a month earlier, his wife had been miraculously healed of a terrible and incurable disease. The disease was an extremely rare progressive condition that caused her face to spasm uncontrollably. Only a few months earlier, it had become so bad that she could no longer go out in public without her face entirely obscured. Doctors could not help her. At one point, the wife, of Mexican descent, learned from her brother that their great-grandmother in Mexico City had had a longterm affair with the Cuban ambassador, and produced a family with him. The ambassador's wife back in Cuba had been confined to an insane asylum. When she learned of the affair, the betrayed wife hired a sorcerer to cast a spell on her rival. According to the terms of the spell, the firstborn females of every generation produced by the affair would either die or be afflicted with a horrible disease. When the pastor's wife recalled this family legend, she realized that things had happened exactly as the sorcerer commanded. She, of course, was the firstborn female of her generation, in her family.

These are Evangelicals, which means they don't engage in spiritual warfare stuff, which in the Protestant world belongs to the Pentecostals. But in desperation, they sought out a Pentecostal "deliverance minister". They met with him, told him about the curse, and asked him to pray over her. He did, invoking the name of Christ against the curse-- and, said the pastor, he watched his wife's spasmodic face grow calm. This had happened only one month before the pastor and I met. He said everything has been perfectly fine with his wife since then.

Wow, I just searched the pastor's name to see if he or his wife had told this story publicly. Turns out that they have: Here is a link to the story of Pastor John Mark Comer and his wife Tammy.

That anthropologist, and those with his mindset, could not help Tammy Comer. The deliverance minister could, and did. As many of you know, I'm working now on a book about the "re-enchantment" of Christianity -- that is, about rediscovering the spiritual reality and power of Christianity, which has been suppressed and even denied in the post-Enlightenment West. The thing about re-enchantment is that it can't be selective. If you are going to experience the spiritual wonder and power of the true God, you are also going to have to accept what St. Paul and all the early Christians new: that evil discarnate beings exist, hate humanity and God, and that we are inevitably engaged in constant warfare with them. If you think Christian enchantment is only about angels and happy-clappy spiritual phenomena, you are not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.

The Rice University professor of religion Jeffrey Kripal, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, says that there is a lot of evidence, based in experience, to nullify the idea of a materialist universe. He begins his piece by telling a story from Mark Twain, about how he foresaw his brother's death, and a similar story from our own time, told by a medical pathologist. Kripal laments that scholars insist that these things cannot be true, in part because we can't subject them to laboratory tests for verification. Kripal says that would be like complaining that we can't study the stars in the daytime. More:

Take my own discipline, the history of religions, which is filled with countless tales that make my two opening stories look ordinary. We are told endlessly, and quite correctly, that religious experience of every sort is “constructed” by local languages, ritual practices, and institutions. We thus insist on “contextualizing” every experience and event, which means locking them down tight to a particular physical point in space-time and so not allowing them to inform how we understand other obviously similar experiences and events at other points of space-time.

For example, individuals have been seeing dead loved ones (or loved ones about to die at a distance) for millennia, which suggests strongly that experiences like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and Swedenborg are very much a part of our world and not simply constructed by culture. Such comparisons are deeply suspect these days, mostly because they end up suggesting something at work in history that is not strictly materialist—like a mind that knows what is going to happen before it happens, or a departed soul that appears to his sleeping wife.

In the same vein, we are told, again quite correctly, that religion is about power and politics, or economics, or patriarchy, or empire and colonial oppression, or psychological projection, or the denial of death, or—now the latest—cognitive templates, evolutionary adaptation, and computerlike synapses. And ultimately, of course, what religion is really about is nothing, since we are nothing but meaningless, statistically organized matter bouncing around in empty, dead space.

In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.

We have conscious intellectuals telling us that consciousness does not really exist as such.

This is an essay about the study of consciousness, not of the occult and paranormal phenomena. But the things Kripal says apply to the approach we take to religion. More:

Consider the musings of one contemporary neuroscientist, David Eagleman, who teaches and does research at the Baylor College of Medicine. At the end of his book Incognito, Eagleman turns to the question of the soul and expresses reservations about promissory materialism, the commonly heard claim that, although we do not yet know how to explain mind through material processes, we eventually will. Indeed, everything will eventually be explained in a materialist framework, because everything is only matter.

Maybe, Eagleman concludes. Or maybe not. It is extremely unlikely that we just happen to be living at the moment when all things will soon be explained. Previous generations claimed the same, and they were all quite wrong. The likelier scenario, he observes, is that the more we learn about the brain and consciousness, the stranger, not simpler, things will get. Here is where one of his thought experiments comes in. A parable:

Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. … Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. … You come to a clear conclusion: The voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. At some point, a young person asks you how some simple loops of electrical signals can engender music and conversations, and you admit that you don’t know—but you insist that your science is about to crack that problem at any moment.

Assuming that you are truly isolated, what you do not know is pretty much everything that you need to know: radio waves, electromagnetism, distant cities, radio stations, and modern civilization—everything outside the radio box. You would not have the capacity to even imagine such things. And if you could, Eagleman says, “you have no technology to demonstrate the existence of the waves, and everyone justifiably points out that the onus is on you to convince them.” You could convince almost no one, and you yourself would probably reject the existence of such mysterious, spiritlike waves. You would become a “radio materialist.” Eagleman points out at the end of his book: “I’m not asserting that the brain is like a radio, but I am pointing out that it could be true. There is nothing in our current science that rules this out.”

The Dallas anthropologist is a version of the Kalahari Bushman, who can only explain the sinister phenomenon agents found in that Dallas house in terms of academic neutrality, which may not at all account for the reality of what happened in that house. I propose that a trained Catholic exorcist, or a missionary experienced in Africa, Latin America, and other places where these dark folk religions are commonly practiced, has more knowledge of what is actually going on here than an academic who has committed himself to a neutral, materialist model of interpreting spiritual and religious phenomena.

I also propose that the drug war, with the narcotraficantes, is not just one of cops and drug dealers, cartels and guns, but also of demons and spiritual bondage. If I were that hexed DEA agent, I would get myself to an exorcist for prayers, and would commit myself to daily prayer against spiritual attack by malign forces. I know some of you are rolling your eyes and laughing. Doesn't bother me, not when you've seen the things I've seen, and heard the testimonies I've heard from people who have dealt with these phenomena personally. Remember, we live in a WEIRD culture -- Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic -- and think of all these things as part of a superstitious past that we have grown beyond. The rest of the world knows better.

(I welcome your stories of encounters with this stuff. Email me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and put MUERTE in the subject line.)