It was the most awful confession Father Ernesto Caro ever heard in 22 long years of serving the church.
The sinner was a killer for the Los Zetas cartel, Mexico's most heinous crime syndicate. His specialty was chopping people into pieces, while they were still alive.
"He said he smiled while he was doing it. He said he enjoyed it and that he was laughing," Caro, a priest and exorcist in Monterrey, told the Daily News. "He told me terrible things."
It took four months of weekly visits to rid the murderer of demons possessing him, Caro said.
The convict — who was incarcerated for murder and kidnapping — converted to Catholicism in 2012 and began a new, nonviolent life, the priest said. He's heard the man secured an early prison release, but doesn't know his whereabouts, Caro said.
"God sends me these people," said the exorcist for the Diocese of Monterrey.
Exorcism is on the rise as a weapon against the ever-escalating violence of drug cartels, priests and religious experts say. Though no one keeps statistics, priests say the heightened frequency is fueled by the growing popularity of Santa Muerte (St. Death), the favorite saint of narcotics syndicates and about 10 million followers around the world, an estimated 2 million of them in Mexico.
The female folk icon is depicted as a skeleton shrouded in a cloak, a la the Grim Reaper, in statues that are ubiquitous in Mexican shops and roadside stands. Sometimes sporting a tiara, sometimes covered in cash, Santa Muerte is credited with everything from bringing wealth and health to protecting illegal drugs and the cartel criminals who ferry them.
The Vatican has condemned Santa Muerte’s followers as a Satanic cult. In Mexico, priests blame her cartel worshippers for bringing unprecedented acts of evil on ordinary citizens.
Since 2006, cartel violence has spun out of control in Mexico, with as many as 80,000 people killed by warring drug gangs. The savagery has escalated to such an extent that in some areas decapitated, dismembered and disemboweled bodies are an everyday sight.
"People think they're demon-possessed, because they feel tormented … that evil spirits have engulfed them," Andrew Chesnut, author of "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint," told The News.
Recently, "cartel members started praying to her for protection from death and protection from law enforcement. Since she's not a Catholic saint, if you want to ask her that your shipment of crystal meth makes it from Michoacan (a central Mexico drug stronghold) to New Mexico, you do that because she's not Catholic," said Chesnut, who teaches Catholic and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The folk saint — who dates to 18th century Spanish Catholics in Mexico — is immensely popular in Latin America and even the United States. But she is equally unpopular with the Mexican government. Soldiers and federal police continually tear down roadside shrines to her — many of them erected by illegal cartels — because the presence of Santa Muerte is believed to glorify crime syndicates and their debauchery.
Crackdowns on the sites escalated in recent years after cartel members started leaving Santa Muerta artifacts at the scenes of mass killings and extreme worshippers started making in human sacrifices to her.
Exorcisms are particularly popular in outlying villages, where priests often celebrate weekly Mass to drive demons from tormented souls, experts say.
In videos posted to YouTube, exorcisms in poor and dangerous areas such as Veracruz, show women and men howling, screaming and rolling on the floor as a priest presides.
The guttural moaning, sometimes accompanied by vomiting, are horrifying and sound eerily like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist."
Even priests admit to feeling fear.
When Father Caro exorcised his first cartel member, three or four years ago at his parish in Monterrey, he looked into the man's eyes "and saw the devil," Caro said. Then the man "writhed on the floor like a snake," he said.
"Sometimes I am a little scared, when it becomes physical," the priest said. In 22 years of performing the Catholic ritual, Caro said, he'd never seen a cartel member before the man who arrived at his church.
"Evil is growing," he warned.
Though the act of exorcism remains a church-sanctioned ritual, it is not often publicly discussed by the Holy See.
Pope Francis received a great deal of attention last year when he was credited with performing the act on visitor to Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square. After the Pope laid hands on the wheelchair-bound man from Mexico, the visitor convulsed and then slumped.
The Vatican played down the incident, saying in a statement that Francis "didn't intend to perform any exorcism."
Some Catholic churches in the U.S., instead of offering full-fledged rituals to drive out Satan, often offer "healing" services to cleanse the soul.
"Full possession is kind of rare," said Michael Scherrey, a charismatic priest who recently relocated to Detroit from Houston, where he served in healing services to a congregation with many Hispanic members. "The enemy is always trying to get hold of people … but it's not usually from the inside," he said.