In Mexican borderlands,unusual saint of death draws followers

When police raided the home of a powerful Mexican drug trafficker, a statue of a skeleton standing on a homemade altar peered back at them with eerie, yellow eyes.

The figure, known as La Santisima Muerte, or Saint Death, is a spirit representing death worshipped by everyone from drug traffickers to jealous housewives in Mexico's borderlands. Anthropologists say a growing number of border residents are turning to witchcraft and black magic for power over a host of evils, from deceit and jail time to poverty and sickness.

"God helps the good and the devil helps the bad, but death treats everyone the same," said Blanquita Tamez, a Monterrey spiritual counselor who calls on Saint Death for worshippers.

Tamez said she began praying to Saint Death when she was a little girl. Her grandmother was also a follower.

Statues of the grim reaper dressed in a long cloak and wielding a scythe line the shelves of Monterrey's markets. Saint Death also appears on medallions that dangle from the necks of waitresses in tough cantinas.

Last year, police found a statue of Saint Death when they raided the home of the Gulf cartel's lieutenant, Gilberto Garcia, in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. The Gulf Cartel was the strongest of the border-based Mexican cartels until 1996, when Juan Garcia Abrego was sentenced in Houston to 11 life terms for drug smuggling.

Many drug lords turn to black magic and folk saints for protection.

Nearly every town along the Rio Grande hosts channelers to call on the different spirits. Herb shops along the Texas-Mexico border sell magic candles that believers burn in their homes to ward off everything from traffic tickets to bad grades. Some candles in glass holders picture a giant X over a police officer.

The church has frowned upon such practices and is especially concerned about Saint Death — which borders on black magic.

Prayers to Saint Death often mention the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Catholicism's Holy Trinity.

"That's nothing more than religious ignorance and superstition," said Rev. Pedro Garza, a priest in Monterrey, a city of 4 million people.

At times such practices have gone to the extreme. In 1989, Mark Kilroy, a 21-year-old U.S. pre-med student, was kidnapped off a busy street in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. The mutilated remains of Kilroy and 14 young men, were later found on a Mexican ranch. The victims had been boiled alive, castrated, slashed and shot, their brains and hearts cut out of their bodies.

Drug smugglers who carried out the satanic ritual believed the sacrifices would give them supernatural protection from the law.

But some say Saint Death stems less from violence and more from the same pre-Colombian beliefs behind Mexico's popular Day of the Dead holiday in which people picnic on tombs and seem to embrace death as a part of life.

Images of death are nothing new in this country. Jose Guadalupe Posada, the 19th Century printmaker who is considered by many to be the father of modern Mexican art, used images of skeletons working, riding bicycles and doing other everyday activities to poke fun at the middle class and politicians.

During Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday, people eat skulls made of candy and decorate their homes with paper streamers depicting skeletons.

Tony Zavaletta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said Saint Death's following appears to be growing, noting that more markets along the Texas-Mexico border now sell the Saint Death images and amulets.

Zavaletta said that each spirit appeals to different people for different reasons. Drug traffickers, for example, might be drawn to Saint Death because they live often dark lives.

"Just like people choose different flavors of ice cream," Zavaletta said, "People also choose different entities to represent them."