A unique Mexican-based religion — that includes ritualistic human sacrifice — is being observed more frequently among drug traffickers and violent criminal cartels. Texas law enforcement officials, including the statewide Texas Rangers, and the Catholic Church hierarchy are warning Mexicans and Americans about these blood rituals that honor the La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”).
Leaders on both sides of the border are warning their people about the pagan-like religion devoted to La Santa Muerte, which translates to both “Holy Death” and “Saint Death.” Mexican law enforcement has states that the religious practice of Holy Death has gained widespread popularity since the late 1980s among Mexican-American Catholics.
Catholic clergy and lay leaders warn that Catholicism has “absolutely nothing to do with La Santa Muerte” and its practices are not based on The Bible’s New Testament nor on Catholic dogma, according to former drug enforcement officer Nicholas Cassami. “While this phenomenon appears to be recent, the fact is that cops in many parts of the country have experienced investigations into ritualistic, quasi-religious crimes. For instance, in New York City groups such as Santaria and Brujeria slay animals such as chickens, goats, dogs and cats. Usually the animals are stolen or bought and then sacrificed,” Cassami said. (See below for descriptions of other ritualistic pagan practices.)
The focus of worship is a female image dressed in what appears to be a Catholic nun’s habit. Santa Muerte is followed by Mexicans who pray for spirits to help them in their quest for vengeance. Narcotics cartels actually pray for the spiritual protection of heroin, cocaine or weapons shipments especially those headed for the United States.
Worshipers are known to say Catholic prayers in front of shrines honoring her. It’s said that such practices were used to conceal the identity of the woman being honored from their Catholic masters during the days of slavery under the Spaniards and Portuguese landowners and soldiers.
“We’re seeing more and more criminals that are praying to Santa Muerte,” Robert Almonte, a former narcotics agent said in a television interview on KVUE in Austin, Texas.
Almonte recently retired from law enforcement and is now providing training throughout the United States. He educates law enforcement on the signs of the folk religion. He claims officers are now “encountering elaborate La Santa Muerte shrines” when they enter homes on drug search warrants or in meth- amphetamine labs or drug dens where customers are allowed to ingest their purchased drugs-of-choice.
According to a 2014 FBI law enforcement bulletin the following incidents were connected to this Mexican religious practice:
- In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection.
- During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
- In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers.
- In December 2009 and January 2010 in Ciudad Júarez, perpetrators murdered individuals in apparent Santa Muerte ritual killings. Regarding one incident, authorities found at the crime scene the remnants of an apparent altar and the words “Santa Muerte” and cuídanos flakita (take care of us, skinny) spray painted. In the second crime, gang members burned a victim behind a house containing an altar and a small Santa Muerte statue. Interviewed neighbors said that the killers—part of the Hillside 13 Gang—asked for “something big”; as a result, the perpetrators performed multiple human sacrifices.
- In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
- In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.
- In Cancun in June 2010, investigators found the bodies of six tortured victims, three with their hearts cut out and with the letter “Z” carved into their abdomens, in a cave outside of the resort city. Presumably the killers belonged to the Los Zetas Cartel, and the victims belonged to a competing group.
- In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims. The perpetrators left two skulls and numerous cigarette packs as offerings. The circumstances behind the origins of the skeleton and skulls—if they were prior cult victims—remain unknown.
Ritualistic Crime and Spiritualism
Here is a brief list of groups prominent in this country:
This religion originated in Africa and became common in some of the Caribbean islands. It migrated to the U.S. from Cuba and Puerto Rico, but it can be found among Dominicans and other Latino nationalities.
Santeria is a mixture of paganism as practiced by the pre-Columbus natives; idolatry as practiced in Africa and then brought to the islands ruled by Spain and Catholicism which was forced upon the black slaves and indigenous peoples by the Spaniards. In order to hide their pagan practices from their Spanish rulers, these people began substituting statues of Catholic saints for their own icons. To their slave owners and rulers these people appeared to worship and pray to the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph. Saint Peter, etc., when in reality they were communicating with the good and evil spirits of their own religions. Santeria’s rituals include animal sacrifices to specific spirits. Today, for the most part, chickens are used for sacrificial rites.
This writer observed Santeria first-hand while working in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Although Santeria indeed limited their objects for sacrifices to chickens, there was the killing and mutilation of other animals including a French poodle found sans its head, and a goat stolen from a city owned petting zoo. Recently,animal protection agencies began to enforce laws prohibiting the cruel treatment of animals by practitioners of this religion.
This group is similar to the above, the difference being witchcraft thrown into the mix of Catholicism and paganism. It originated in South America and is practiced extensively in US-owned Puerto Rico, as well as other Latino nations. The defining element of Brujeria is the feared evil spell. Animal sacrifice is part of this religion. as well.
Santeria and Brujeria resemble one another so closely that most worshipers practice the rituals of both — at least in the New York metropolitan area. Although these two religions — Santeria and Brujeria — entail only animal sacrifices, there are stories circulating in the New York metropolitan area about supposed human sacrifices, but there exists no substantial proof of these homicides.
As with the Santeria, animal protection agencies are cracking down on the animal sacrifices. For instance, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) have enforcement officers who are sworn peace officers (in New York State, there are differences between police officer status and peace officer status) and they enforce the laws regarding animal torture and killing. For example, a large number of Long Islanders were arrested for their use of chickens in their ceremonies.
However, there are non-practitioners who have vigorously defended the members of the group of Santeria, saying that chickens experience the same pain and suffering when they are killed for food products as they would experience in the Santeria rituals.
This is probably the best known of the Caribbean religions. It originated in Africa and then the West Indies. It is still widely practiced in Haiti, Brazil and the Antilles. It is also widely practiced in the Southern United States, especially in Louisiana and parts of Georgia. Its main focus is snake-worship and adherents do perform animal sacrifices. Viewed as a colorful and unique religion, there are reports that it is practiced by white middle- and upper-class Americans.