"Saint Death" booms in border drug war

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico - A death cult that venerates a scythe-wielding skeletal figure is booming in Mexican border cities south of Texas where hundreds have died this year in all-out drug war.

The centuries-old pagan cult of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, has sprung back up in Mexico in recent years and claims some 2 million faithful, ranging from elite politicians to kidnappers and gangsters.

The revival began in Mexico City. Now, roadside shrines to the ghoulish figure stud highways approaching the U.S. border around the city of Nuevo Laredo, where more than 45 people have been killed in the drug fight so far this year.

Craft stall holders and shops called "hierberias" that sell potions and other esoteric items are stocking up on skeletal talismans and statuettes of Santa Muerte, who resembles a gaudy version of the grim reaper.

Some stalls offer figures made from ground-up ox bones that stand three-feet (one-metre) high. Others sell discreet talismans, candles and amulets, which traders say sell faster than those honouring Mexico's much loved Virgin of Guadalupe.

"We sell more Santa Muerte articles than anything," Guadalupe Merida said at her stall packed with trinkets in the city's sweltering El Mall craft market. "Everyone is buying them."

More than 500 people have been killed in Mexico this year in a drug wars, mostly between smugglers from the western state of Sinaloa and the Gulf cartel, based in Tamaulipas.

Soldiers and federal police took over Nuevo Laredo this week and suspended the allegedly corrupt local police force to try to curb the drug killings.

Experts on the cult say its following on the border is being driven by the spiralling death toll there, as drug hitmen seek Santa Muerte's protection while they kill rivals.

"What better homage to Santa Muerte Could there be than offering her up several people every day?" said Homero Aridjis, a writer whose best-selling book on the cult is now in its fifth edition.

The figure's origins are unclear and although often worshiped like a Christian saint, it is not recognised by the Catholic Church.


Violence peaked in Nuevo Laredo last week when suspected cartel hitmen machine gunned the city's new public security chief, Alejandro Dominguez, to death just hours after he was sworn into the job.

At least two more killings have occurred in the city since troops moved in. Many jittery stall holders declined to talk in detail about the death cult.

But Aridjis, who has tracked the cult's growth in Mexico, says drug traffickers seek favours from Santa Muerte they could not ask of saints venerated by the Church in Mexico, the world's second largest Roman Catholic nation.

"They say 'Protect me tonight because I am going to commit a crime. I am going to ambush my enemies, I am going to smuggle drugs to the United States,'" Aridjis said.

Local residents not caught up in crime call on the saint, also known as "La Nina Blanca" or the "White Child," to keep loved ones out of the path of a stray bullet or prevent their children from falling into a life of crime.

But the figure is more often associated with criminals.

"It is becoming a savage, brutal cult," on the border, Aridjis said. "People are living in a psychosis of fear."