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One thing all drug cartels have in common is that they have strong loyalty among its members. One way they do this is through the fear of death not only for its members but their entire family as well. Another way in which they obtain loyalty is by offering far greater rewards than they would ever be able to obtain in any other way. Most cartels are formed in poor countries that have corrupt governments and where illegal drugs are their leading exports. Another new way that they are gaining control and loyalty over its members is through religion. This is taking the form of satanic cults.
The drug war has been going on for so long, the inward, secret lives of narcotics traffickers are beginning to take on a life all of their own, separate from the national borders we know as their homes. They have their own rituals, coded languages, technology, and now, even a secret religion has sprung up around their lives.
It’s called the cult of Santa Muerte – “Holy Death” – and it’s more intense and deadly than anything that came before it.
From Mexico City to border towns such as Laredo, and lately in large American cities such as Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, her cloaked, skeletal icon, usually depicted gripping the Grim Reaper’s scythe, is often seen hanging from the windows, entryways and sometimes on the tattoos of her disciples.
Her appeal lies in basic human desires — especially those of the poor and drug runners who entreat her for protection and vengeance.
“Healing, money, protection, or they want power,” said Orpha Ortega, who along with her husband William serves as a Southern Baptist missionary in Mexico City.
The Santa Muerte cult is a growing concern for pastors in border towns such as Laredo, where a meeting hosted by Southern Baptist missionaries in January drew Spanish-speaking pastors, church leaders and at least one concerned police officer whose experiences at a local jail prompted him to attend. (Spanish-language video of the meeting is accessible at http://www.sbtexas.com/videos.)
The death cult figures prominently in the surging violence by Mexican drug traffickers known as narcos in interior Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border, William Ortega told those at the meeting.
For six of the 12 years they’ve been in Mexico City, the Ortegas have ministered in the Tepito neighborhood, which is notorious for its thriving black market. Poverty, drugs and violence are pervasive, and the largest shrine to Saint Death is an institution there.
Of the 28 million people in Mexico City, about 2 million are estimated to be followers of Saint Death, Ortega said, with large numbers of them in Tepito.
The Ortegas welcomed the news in January that Mexican authorities had arrested the leader of the Tepito shrine and the closest thing the cult has to a high priest, David Romo, on kidnapping and money laundering charges.
Increasingly, the death cult has moved north, making inroads into border towns and American cities where Mexican immigrants find work.
Ortega said adherents largely form two groups: drug dealers and the poor, with the former seeking protection from authorities and vengeance on their enemies and the latter seeking healing, protection from the violence around them, and prosperity. The death saint, her followers claim, offers all of the above.
A Baptist worker in the Laredo area told the Southern Baptist TEXAN he hears testimonies of healing from cancer, AIDS and other ailments at the hands of Saint Death.
“But most of the time, their promise of healing or protection involves the killing of someone else in order to receive a miracle or in order to receive a protection,” the worker said.
That was one of the points Ortega emphasized during the Laredo meeting. In the Texas border town and across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo is the largest number of Saint Death followers along the Rio Grande, Ortega said.
Often, Christians are seen as enemies of the cult for winning converts and refusing to syncretize orthodox Christianity with the death cult.
Although the Mexican government officially removed Santa Muerte from its list of recognized religions in 2005 and the Roman Catholic Church has deemed it a pagan cult, many of its adherents are said to mix their Catholicism with Santa Muerte practices, the missionaries said.
With its authority in mostly oral tradition and its roots in ancient Aztec and Mayan death gods, the cult easily spreads its message through folklore. Worship practices include the placing of rum, flowers or candy at the feet of a Santa Muerte altar, begging her favor in exchange for her favorite gifts.
In Mexico City, the Ortegas have had success in some areas planting churches and winning converts, but they said in Tepito some of the churches don’t last long “because they are weak Christians and it is hard for them to grow with all of the opposition around them,” Orpha Ortega said.
“You can go there [to Tepito] and give them a tract and they will read it, but it’s almost like fighting against Satan himself,” Ortega said. “It’s a real battle there.
“We still have not been harmed and are grateful to God for that. So continue praying for us to be strong and be brave. And for other people for God to open their eyes.”
In some border towns where many followers are either tied to drug cartels or are seeking protection from them, the rise of the death cult has posed major challenges.
“It’s affecting a lot,” said one missionary working along the border. “First of all, they teach their followers they cannot talk to us. We are Christian, we are their enemies, they are taught. Secondly, they try to attack us in different ways. As a missionary here, they have threatened me, written notes. I’ve been on their watch list. It is spiritual warfare.”
On the Texas side of the border, the missionary was quick to note that short-term missionary volunteers are relatively safe, explaining, “It is a problem for us because we are encountering them on a daily, long-term basis.”
“Pray for safety while I’m doing the work,” the missionary said. “Pray for my integrity and holiness. Pray the Lord will provide the right leaders to provide churches. The only way we will win the fight is to plant those churches that preach the truth.”
Bruno Molina, ministry associate for language evangelism at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said the death cult “is a challenge to the Gospel not only in Mexico but increasingly beyond the U.S. border area into other areas of Texas. The very name of its representative organization, roughly translated as ‘The Traditional Church of Mexico-USA,’ implies that they do not see themselves as just a Mexican ‘religious’ phenomenon but that they lay claim to the U.S. as part of their cultic turf.”
“They claim 1.5 million adherents here in the U.S. and, due to our shared border with Mexico, many of them necessarily reside in Texas,” Molina added. “This is evident not only in our jails but also in Texas front yards that display Santa Muerte figures, cars and pick-up trucks decorated with Santa Muerte decals, and people who are tattooed with Santa Muerte figures. The Santa Muerte cult is virulently anti-Christian in that it promotes devotion to someone, namely Saint Death, other than God through Jesus Christ.
The occult and the criminal make for sinister, if not entirely unfamiliar, bedfellows. Talk of magic, necromancy and even Satan’s hand (or should that be hoof?) in violent crimes goes back centuries. In fact, ‘history’s first ever serial killer’, the incredibly bloodthirsty French nobleman Gilles de Rais, spoke constantly of fallen angels and is believed to have murdered – or ‘sacrificed’ –hundredsof children across Europe in the 13th Century. Most, he claimed, were offerings to the various demons he was attempting to summon.
People have been known to kill for the devil, but also because of him too. Satanism, devil worship and other darker forms of occultism can stir up some really quite strong feelings in folk. Even just the faint whiff of the Antichrist can be enough to send entire communities into a murderous frenzy. 17th Century colonial Massachusetts gave the world the most infamous example of that. The Salem Witch Trials saw hundreds of women unfairly accused of being Lucifer’s minions, with dozens tragically hanged and drowned due to the baseless panic.
Mass hysteria, paranoia and widespread fear – often grounded in fundamentalist religious beliefs – can quickly set in, but these tales of sorcery, alchemy and devil worship aren’t always the most reliable. It’s true to say that a certain amount of exaggeration haunts many occult-tinged crimes, with urban legend, rumour and folklore blending uneasily with reality. Yet it would be naive, and just plain wrong, to dismiss the idea that black magic, witchcraft and diabolism can’t become enmeshed in serious crimes.
And crimes don’t come much more serious that luring, beating, torturing, sodimising, mutilating and ritualistically killing 15 innocent people.
Los Narcosatánicos were feared. With a name like that, it’s no surprise. The drug game was a competitive one in Central America in the 1980’s and yet with a fairly modestly-sized outfit, Adolfo Constanzo and his crew were feared and respected by everyone. While the larger cartels out of Mexico operated almost on the scale of small armies or military factions, Constanzo and his partner Sara Aldrete took a different approach to gain a fearsome reputation… They went loco.
Half drug-peddlers, half black magic cult, Los Narcosatánicos practised occult rituals in order to ‘bless’ their deals (and anyone else’s deals for the right price). Becoming an adept witch doctor is how Constanzo climbed up the drug world ladder. The Cuban-American was originally just a petty thief until he used his childhood fascination with the dark arts to become an expert in casting good luck spells. Using a syncretic fusion of practices borrowed from Haitian Voodoo, Congolese Palo Mayombe and Cuban Santería, Constanzo was able to work as something of a freelance witch doctor, blessing major deals for gangs and even hits for the sicarios, the cartel-hired assassins.
Half drug-peddlers, half black magic cult, Los Narcosatánicos practiced occult rituals in order to ‘bless’ their deals.
The blessings needed blood, though. Blood or at least body parts. Snakes and chickens were often used for smaller scale spells, while larger offerings were required for more involved blessings. Cats, dogs, goats… Even lion cubs would be sacrificed on occasions. Eventually, Constanzo convinced himself that he needed human body parts to conduct more involved rituals. So he started grave robbing and using human remains in the homemade brews he would cook up in his nganga, or cauldron.
Constanzo was a smart, ambitious and utterly ruthless man. While local dealers would reward him quite generously for his ‘consultancy’ work, he had soon learned enough about the drug trade to know where the real cash was to be made – with the cartel bosses and corrupt officials that worked with them. So he and Sara Aldrete (who, by this time, had assumed the role of ‘high priestess’ of the cult) decided to scale up. There was to be no more cutting off of snake’s heads in outhouses and digging up graves for handfuls of cash. There were going to do things properly.
The pair bought Rancho Santa Elena, which would quickly become known as ‘The Devil’s Ranch’, in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. They began to recruit members to the group and started buying and selling marijuana and cocaine themselves. Plus, of course, Constanzo was offering his very special service of sacrificial blessings. Only he introduced a new premium version of them. He started kidnapping and killing young men as part of the ritual…
So far, so bizarre, right? But while Los Narcosatánicos’ dark antics may sound like the plot of a grim horror film, this tale is – sadly – only too true. It may be difficult to believe that huge criminal networks and organisations would pay some smooth-talking huckster types huge sums of money to boil up a pot of blood and guts like something out of a Grimm fairytale. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that Central America is a part of the world that’s still very much in touch with its ancient traditions and cultures, with superstition there extending much further than just avoiding walking under ladders. In fact, a recent survey suggests that more than a third of all Mexicans believe in magic and many regularly consult with Brujería-practising witch doctors.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon upped the ante on the Drug War in 2006 by taking down the highest-ranking members of certain cartels, violence in the country has increased exponentially. Since then some 45,000 people have died in the drug war. The level of violence and death without warning has spurred the spread of the Santa Muerte religion in Mexico and beyond. Santa Muerte, in turn, spurs the narcos to become more and more violent.
The worshippers of Santa Muerte are primarily disenfranchised, poor Mexicans who turn to the cartels as a means of employment but soon begin the same cycle of murder and torture as those who came before them. The activities they’re forced to conduct aren’t accepted by pure Catholicism, so they turn elsewhere for comfort.
Santa Muerte has developed as a belief system for over 50 years or more. According to the FBI, “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.” Unlike Death or the Virgin of Guadalupe, as she is often represented, her scales don’t actually work, a reflection of her amoral nature. Since many narco foot soldiers will end up dying a brutal death, the appeal of worshipping a death-like figure is obvious. In the meantime, Santa Muerte advocates are enjoying the world’s earthly pleasures.
While the FBI stops short of calling the worship of Santa Muerte a full-blown religion, it does have its own belief system, as well as priests, temples, and shrines, along with all the rituals associated with religion – including ritual killings.
A statue of Santa Muerte in a practitioner’s home.
Ritualistic Santa Muerte killings are abundant in Mexico and South America amongst narco-traffickers, but the killings are now making their way into the United States, albeit, primarily close to the border cities already struck by violence that has become the signature of the War on Drugs, and only four have been confirmed as related to Santa Muerte.
Border agents and local police have been thoroughly trained on the ins and outs of the religion and its followers, but luckily very few have been seen on the U.S. side of the border. Only time will tell how these cults will affect the US.
wearethemighty.com, “This is the death cult the FBI says is spreading among drug cartels,” By Blake Stilwell; crimeandinvestigation.co.uk, “LOS NARCOSATÁNICOS: DRUGS, CULTS, VOODOO & HUMAN SACRIFICE;” baptistpress.com, ” Mexican cult: ‘like fighting against Satan himself’,” By Jerry Pierce; counteringcrime.org, “Mexican Drug Cartels, Other Crime Groups Have Weaponized Social Media;” sputniknews.com, “Source of ‘Saint Death’ Cult Venerated by Mexican Drug Cartel Members Uncovered, Media Says,” By Andrei Dergalin;
Mexican Drug Cartels, Other Crime Groups Have Weaponized Social Media
Mexican drug cartels and other violent criminal gangs like MS-13 have weaponized social media, just like ISIS, using the Internet as a literal force multiplier to intimidate, stalk and extort their victims.
Much like Hollywood celebrities, Mexican cartels have vast social media followings. The notorious Sinaloa Cartel, for example, has more than 88,000 followers on Twitter, while Los Zetas, an uber-violent Mexican cartel that has broadcast murders on YouTube, has a Facebook universe with approximately 47,000 connected accounts like these.
To some extent, young, net-savvy criminals use social media the same way as young people everywhere: To document and brag about their lives. Instagram and Twitter posts featuring cash, gold plated guns, luxury cars and even pet tigers are a powerful recruitment tool for jobless young men who see the gangster life as a path out of drudgery.
According to The Dark Side of Social Media: The Case of the Mexican Drug War, social media also provides strategic value for criminal cartels, allowing them to disseminate intimidating messages to the public and authorities on a far wider scale than they ever had before, and to broadcast warnings and threats to rivals and potential rivals. Visuals on cartel accounts range from love letters to decapitated bodies to gruesome videos of beheadings and torture. Drug cartels and gangs also send threatening messages directly to government authorities and civilians alike, using encrypted systems like WhatsApp and Facebook messenger.
Activities in cyberspace drive violence in real life. In one horrifying 2014 event, a Mexican physician who often tweeted about the drug war was herself murdered, with her killers using her own Twitter account to announce her death and broadcast grisly images of her dead body. This violence has often spilled into the United States, in particular with MS-13 using the internet to identify victims, and lure them to their death.
Even though these accounts often contain highly graphic violent content, just few ever get shut down. For law enforcement, the cross-border nature of this criminal activity presents a big challenge. But since most major social media firms are based in the United States or are listed on U.S. stock markets, there’s one area where Washington could have supreme authority: over the Internet.
Instead, a quarter-century-old law continues to provide broad immunity to tech firms, even when they knowingly host and spread content uploaded by drug cartels, violent gangs, terrorists and other illegal groups. ACCO is fighting to have that law reformed, to make the Internet a safer place.
Source of ‘Saint Death’ Cult Venerated by Mexican Drug Cartel Members Uncovered
In 2020 an altar made by a Mexican gang and dedicated to La Santa Muerte, featuring “satanic masks” and containing “human remains along with skulls covered with blood”, was reportedly found during a police raid in the municipality of Cuauhtemoc, Mexico City.
The origins of a macabre death-worshipping religious cult may lie in a small Mexican town where locals stopped venerating Jesus, the Daily Star reports.
The object of the cult adherents’ devotions is known as La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, usually depicted as a “skeletal grim reaper”, and “has roots in Aztec and Mayan death gods”, as the newspaper puts it.
And while so far it has been unclear exactly where this phenomenon originated from, a cartel expert and former US federal marshal named Robert Almonte now postulates that it began several decades ago, in the town of Tepatepec in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo.
As Almonte explained, when he visited a Santa Muerte “cathedral” in the city of Pachuca back in 2007, which he described as “a beat-up old warehouse building with a lot of really dark stuff in there – statues of Santa Muerte, witches, and The Devil”, he spoke with the caretaker of the place and was directed to Tepapetec.
“In visiting that church, I was told by the locals that about 70 years ago, the parishioners at a Catholic church wanted their priest to allow them to place a statue of Santa Muerte, representing the Angel of Death”, he said. “At first the priest refused, but eventually gave in and allowed it. After a while, the priest began noticing that the parishioners were praying only to the Angel of Death, and ignoring the other statues of the Catholic saints – and even ignoring the statue of Jesus Christ. This angered the priest and he ordered the statue to be removed, where it eventually ended up at a private shrine in the area.”
Almonte also said that he managed to visit that shrine and that the locals told him “the same story”.
The newspaper also points out that while not all of the Santa Muerte worshippers are involved in criminal activity, last year, an altar made by a Mexican gang and dedicated to the saint was discovered during a police raid in the municipality of Cuauhtemoc, Mexico City; the altar in question was “reportedly made up of satanic masks and contained human remains along with skulls covered with blood”.
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