Tucked away in urban neighborhoods across the United States, and especially in those sections with large numbers of Latin American immigrants, are little shops called botanicas. These botanicas specialize in a particular form of folk Catholicism, a syncretistic blend of European (largely Spanish) Catholic traditions with indigenous elements (mostly Native American and Afro-Caribbean, but with a sprinkling of European occultism as well). Known under various cultural expressions – as Curanderismo in Mexico, as Santeria in the Caribbean, etc. – this folk Catholic underground is generally a lay movement, with an emphasis on healing, personalized magic, and divination.
The botanicas sell the supplies (candles, powders, herbs, etc.) with which people can cleanse their homes or bodies of evil influences, make offerings and supplications to the saints, heal physical or psychic ailments, or even defend themselves against curses. Many people go the botanicas for consultations regarding specific problems, and receive treatments from the healers (curanderas) on site. The shops also sell the standard Catholic supplies – novena candles, rosaries, crucifixes, saint medals, and statues. Among the most popular statues in the last few decades, probably due to the large number of Latin immigrants, have been those of the Santa Muerte (Holy Death).
Santa Muerte is sort of a perverse reflection of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with the Virgin being depicted as a skeletal figure in imagery that partly mimics Grim Reaper iconography. She is seen by her devotees not so much as a saint, but as a personification of a metaphysical or theological concept (Death) along the lines of an Archangel. Devotees erect altars and shrines, make offerings and prayers, and request protection from her. She is seen as a “neutral” figure, much like death itself, and can be petitioned equally by the holy and unholy alike. This perhaps best explains her popularity among criminals.
The devotees of Santa Muerte have been described as a cult, but those who petition her usually do so in a highly individualistic, non-organized manner. Observers have placed the number of devotees between 1 and 5 million. The Santa Muerte phenomena is predominant among the outcasts of Mexican society – the marginalized, the impoverished, and especially criminal elements (such as drug traffickers and dealers, kidnappers, etc.) and those who skirt the law by participating in an underground economy (such as counterfeiters). The Santa Muerte phenomena has swept across Mexico (especially to border towns, where immigrants, many of whom are engaging in illegal activity, carry the Santa Muerte for protection) and into the United States. The heart of the devotion is in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City – a notorious barrio in which counterfeit goods, drugs, and even weapons are sold openly on the streets, and in which police generally fear to tread. There are ten Santa Muerte shrines in Mexico City, and over one hundred altars.
Despite the overall underground nature of the Santa Muerte devotion, one figure stood out as its most visible advocate, and tried to take it into the religious mainstream – Monsignor David Romo Guillen, the Archbishop and Primate of what was originally known as the Mexian-U.S. Catholic Apostolic Traditional Church. The church Romo heads, due to the political pressures that it has faced in Mexico, has experienced several name changes. It was most currently known as the National Sanctuary for the Angel of the Holy Death.
A veteran of the Mexican Air Force, and a married father of five children, Romo began leading Santa Muerte masses in 2002, at the shrine (or sanctuary) he founded in the Tepito neighborhood. He officially registered his church with the government in 2003. The masses were held at midnight, with usually 200 to 300 in attendance, and the majority of the attendees comprised of young people. The masses were a syncretizing blend of Roman Catholic and Santa Muerte prayers and services. Reflecting the nature of Santa Muerte, who is amenable to all petitions, the candles in Romo’s shrine are ominously inscribed with the words, “Death to my enemies.” When not invoking death on its enemies, Romo’s church sold books and paraphernalia, and, of course, collected tithes.
Romo has also established his church as a reforming movement that contrasts the official Roman Church in several areas. He promotes condom use for men and women. The church is open to homosexuals transvestites, and the transgendered. Priests are allowed to marry, women can become ordained, and there is no censure of divorce.
As Romo stepped up his public visibility on behalf of Santa Muerte devotion, and especially as the head of a body calling itself the “traditional” church, the cult began to receive critical attention from ecclesiastical authorities. When Jose Guadalupe Martin Rábago (head of the Episcopal Conference) and Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera described the Santa Muerte devotion as “Satanic,” Romo filed a defamation suit before the Interior Ministry. This suit led to an investigation of Romo’s Traditional Church’s status as a recognized religious body in Mexico.
In his propaganda for the Santa Muerte devotion, Romo argued that it could be used to evangelize the marginalized outsiders of the urban barrios in the same way that the Virgin of Guadalupe was used to evangelize the indigenous population of Mexico. Romo also organized protests and demonstrations on behalf of the devotion in order to convince the Mexican government to continue to recognize his church.
Nonetheless, in 2005 the Interior Ministry issued a report which withdrew recognition of Romo’s church. Romo responded by calling on Santa Muerte devotees to vote against the political party and politicians who were behind the decision. He then spearheaded the formation of an organization called the National Association of Altars and Sanctuaries of Santa Muerte (which would effectively begin to replace his Traditional Church) in order to promote social development and community service projects. The new association was supported by 80% of the Santa Muerte altars in Mexico City, and helped engender a sense that the cult was gaining some public legitimacy.
In 2009 Romo called on Santa Muerte devotees to engage in a “holy war” against the Roman Catholic hierarchy for its increasing frequent condemnations of the devotion. As the drug wars and narco-terrorism worsened across Mexico, government officials began to focus on the Santa Muerte cult as an aspect of the drug war. In March of 2009 government troops destroyed 30 Santa Muerte altars in the narco ravaged northern state of Nuevo León, alleging that the altars were linked to drug traffickers. Reflecting the complicated nature of the devotion, many of the troops involved in the raids on the altars had asked Santa Muerte to bless their weapons. In response to the raids, Santa Muerte devotees once again took to the streets of Mexico City under the leadership of Romo, protesting for religious freedom.
Romo’s combative and controversial advocacy for Santa Muerte essentially came to end in January of 2011 when he was arrested, along with seven other followers, and charged with running a kidnapping ring and laundering the ransom monies through his personal bank account. His supporters rallied to his defense, claiming that the Mexican government and Roman Catholic Church were conspiring to suppress their faith.
Despite the claims of collusion between the government and Roman Catholic Church, Romo and his church had also drawn criticism among the other devotees of Santa Muerte shrines in Mexico City. The general criticism was that he was trying to be the leader of a devotion that could really have no leader but the Santa Muerte herself. Usually intermingled with this criticism was the condemnation of Romo for “commercializing” the devotion.
Beyond these critiques, Romo was also long rumored to be engaging in shady, criminal, and even murderous tactics. Jonathan Legaria, the organizer of a rival Santa Muerte shrine, whose shrine boasted the largest (seventy feet high) Santa Muerte statue in the city, was murdered in a drive by shooting in July of 2008. Legaria and Romo had exchanged numerous public criticisms and rebukes of one another. As a result of the rivalry, Romo described his shrine as the “One and Only National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte” in order to distinguish it from Legaria’s shrine. Although Legaria’s followers refrained from publicly implicating Romo, there was strong suspicion among them that the Monsignor was to blame.
In September of 2011, Romo was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Interestingly, he has yet to be tried on the kidnapping and ransom laundering charges, but was convicted instead for using a voting credential that bore his photograph, but under a different name, with which he was then said to have opened bank accounts in which he could receive ransom payments.
This story was compiled from the following sources:
“A Mexican Cult: Death in Holy Orders,” The Economist, January 7, 2010.
“Mexico has arrested a leader of Santa Muerte ‘church,” Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, January 05, 2011.
“Rival Santa Muerte church claims captured ‘bishop’ does not represent the Mexican death cult,” Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2011.
“Leader of Mexico’s Holy Death sect sentenced to 12 years,” Fox News, September 15, 2011.
“The Death Cult of the Drug Lords – Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed” by Kevin Freese, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm