The FBI’s Growing Concern with the Cult of “Holy Death” (Santa Muerte)


Agents within the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation have publicly raised serious concerns about the growing Latin American cult of “Holy Death,” or “Santa Muerte,” and openly questioned whether recent grisly beheadings and lynchings of hundreds of people by Mexican cartels may have been part of ritualistic offerings to dark spiritual forces, and not simply a message to rival gangs.


Santa Muerte ideology developed in Mexico and Argentina for approximately a half century and has recently spread into the United States and Central America. The shadowy 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.”
While not a fully developed or official 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.  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, the FBI and the Mexican army view the growth of this cult as a dangerous development and the Vatican has recently openly condemned the cult, calling it blasphemous.  The cult has waged an actual war of violence against the Catholic Church and the Mexican government, not just an ideological one.


For U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship raises many concerns.  Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States.
The cult appears to have more European than Aztecan origins, with some individuals describing Santa Muerte as a new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a “bad-girl” counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Santa Muerte photo3

The imagery includes that of a robed skeleton carrying a scythe and globe or scales.  Part of its popularity results from her characterization as nonjudgmental (amoral) and a source of supernatural intervention for her followers who engage in the correct rituals and provide the proper offerings and sacrifices.  Over half of the prayers directed at her include petitions to harm other people via curses and death magic.


The recent growth of this dark cult appears directly tied to the narcotics wars in Mexico, which 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 counterorganized 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, they note that 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.
Such a form of imminent mortality facing adherents makes the worship of Santa Muerte spiritually dark.  The death of someone’s enemies, protection from harm (or, at least, hope for a quick and glorious death), cultivation of a dangerous reputation, and ability to enjoy the benefits of fabulous riches—including the company of beautiful women—become paramount.
With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Rather than plates of food, beer, and tobacco, in some instances, the heads and bodies of victims (and presumably their souls) have served as offerings to invoke powerful petitions for intervention.


Santa Muerte rituals vary, and worshipers disagree about some of the symbolism and the proper procedures to gain the spiritual and physical results petitioned.  However, adherents generally consider Santa Muerte a jealous and vengeful “deity” who demands that her followers conduct the rituals and sacrifices properly to avoid her divine wrath. Candle magic, herbs, oils, amulets, spiritual energy, and various mystical items play an important role.
Often, the colors and mixtures of items employed determine ceremonial intent and arrangement of the altar. Components of the rituals also hold importance. Candles help to focus worshiper concentration and act as a conduit so that Santa Muerte receives the prayers.
Smoke blown, alcoholic drink spit out, and narcotics smeared on statues are thought to help activate them. The bases of candles and statues also may have items or artifacts embedded in them and may be anointed with oils and herbs to enhance their power.
More extreme forms of worship involve bowls of blood—animal and human—at the altars and smeared on the religious icons and on the devotee as part of a blood pact.


Feast days held in Argentina devoted to this “deity” are held at midnight until the sun comes up.  The music never stops at these feasts, and it is a grand orgy of carnal pleasures, food, ceremonious deeds, and interactions. After the feasting, the adepts perform the rituals at home. The Culto Privado was one of the two cults that practiced black magic, the other was more religious based and were seen as fake.


Within the private aspect of the cult, special altars are arranged in honor of Senor La Muerte.  Specific totems and offerings are made to the altar, like roasted pork ribs, cigars, wine, and black/red candles are arranged in triangles around it.
Everything that was presented must be ritually discarded after a few days by discarding them in a hollow of a tree or buried at a cemetery.  Rites are also carried out at graves, where the dark currents are supposedly more effective.

santa Muerte coahuila 2

Evidence of the popular outgrowth and further evidence of the popularity of the cult of Holy Death is the popular occult book publisher “IXAXAAR.”  Ixaxaar publishes books such as the “Liber Falxifer” or the “Book of the Left Handed Reaper,” which sells on eBay for thousands of dollars.


Associated with Ixaxaar is the “Calvary Cross Botanica”or “CCB.”  This online retailer openly advertises a variety of totems and ritual items associated with the cult of death, including relics and items made of human bone.


Experts are unsure how many members of the cult of Holy Death actually exist, but conservative estimates place its membership in the hundreds of thousands worldwide.

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