Followers of Mexico’s “Saint Death” cult figure, revered by thieves and drug runners but also law-abiding housewives, say their faith is being persecuted by the government’s war against drug cartels.
Dozens of worshipers marched through Mexico City on Good Friday, many barefoot and showing off tattoos of the macabre cult figure, in the latest of a series of protests after soldiers and police bulldozed elaborate roadside shrines to the saint near the northern border with Texas.
Known as “Santa Muerte” in Spanish, the saint is often depicted as a skeletal “grim reaper” draped in white satin robes, beaded necklaces and carrying a scythe. Followers leave offerings of tequila, rum, beer, cigarettes, cash, flowers and candy at altars adorned with rosaries and candles.
Mexican authorities destroyed more than 30 such shrines erected near the city of Nuevo Laredo last month on the grounds that they were built without the proper licenses. Some shrines were also knocked down in Tijuana, triggering protests there.
“We just want people to respect our faith like we respect other religions,” said Pablo, a 28-year-old at the protest who said he once avoided a jail sentence by praying to Saint Death.
The Catholic Church frowns on the cult, whose origins may trace back to Aztec and Mayan death-gods or to ancient European traditions, but many devotees call themselves Catholics.
The lure of the death saint is that she is said to honor requests without judging them.
Her followers number up to 5 million, said the cult’s high priest David Romo, ranging from police and politicians to kidnappers and gangsters who are said to ask her for protection before setting out on hits.
Romo said his church condemned violence and had no links to drug traffickers, but he leaves the door open to everyone.
“Christ went to see prostitutes, thieves, all marginalized people,” Romo said in his cramped office in the saint’s largest sanctuary in Mexico City, a run-down storefront around the corner from a street lined with prostitutes.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has launched an army assault on Mexico’s drug gangs, but the increased firepower has failed to contain the violence. Some 6,300 people were killed last year.
In 2007, gunmen from the powerful Gulf Cartel handcuffed three men and shot them dead at a Santa Muerte altar in Nuevo Laredo, leaving lit candles, flowers and a taunting message for rivals.
At the shrine in Tepito — a rough part of the capital with a market that reputedly sells contraband and drugs — chicken coops line the walls near the pews facing two life-sized skeleton statues wearing glittering dresses and crowns.
Friday’s marchers walked in silence from the shrine to Mexico City’s historic center, carrying Saint Death statues and flaming torches. One held a skull on a stick sporting wispy black hair.