In Box

A Saint for Lost Souls

Mexico's increasingly destitute poor are turning to what the U.S. military calls a "death cult" for comfort.

The barrio of Tepito, where it's said that everything is for sale except dignity, has been one of Mexico City's roughest neighborhoods since Aztec times. Famous for its black market and its boxing champions, Tepito is a place where residents learn to fight early and fight hard. These days it has also become the epicenter of Mexico's fastest-growing faith: Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, a hybrid religion that merges Catholic symbolism with pre-Hispanic worship of the skeletal Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, Lord and Lady of the Dead.

I recently went there for an outdoor mass at one of Santa Muerte's first public shrines, founded eight years ago by a great-grandmother named Enriqueta Romero. When I visited in November, Romero placed a necklace with skull pendant around my neck as some 5,000 worshippers surged toward the glass-encased skeleton outside her house. Clad in a faded housedress, she told me that Mexico's Catholic churches stand empty while thousands of Holy Death shrines have spread across the country because "the church reprimands," but Santa Muerte never does. "She accepts everyone, with faults and without."

Ex-convicts attest to Santa Muerte's help in springing them from prison, while other devotees beseech her for help with jobs, illnesses, a pregnant daughter, a drug-addicted child. Taxi drivers and prostitutes plead for protection, as do soldiers and police. A gaunt blonde in skintight jeans and pancake makeup places a candle beside Romero's shrine, while a transgender woman clutches her personal altar like a child. Worshippers bring gifts -- candy, cigarettes, tequila, flowers, fake paper money -- to the little temporary shrines that line the sidewalks around Romero's house like a flea market. Some anoint the skeleton with mescal; others hold joints to her bony lips.

The worship of Santa Muerte, first noted among Mexico's poor in the middle of the last century, remained a largely underground practice until the last decade; since then, it has become a full-fledged mainstream cult with 2 million to 5 million followers, practiced in an increasingly public fashion both in Mexico and the United States. Its rise has provoked alarmist rhetoric. A U.S. military report brands Santa Muerte "the death cult of the drug lords," and indeed her shrines are frequently uncovered during police raids on narcos on both sides of the border. In March 2009, the Mexican Army bulldozed some three dozen shrines near the U.S. border as part of a psychological war on "narcoculture."

But the drug war is only tangentially connected to Santa Muerte: "Her primary base is poor people -- those excluded from the formal economy or who have lost faith in the judicial system," says Lois Ann Lorentzen, director of the University of San Francisco's Center for Latino Studies in the Americas. Santa Muerte's popularity, rooted in dangerous urban areas like Tepito and the rural regions that increasingly resemble them, reflects economic and political uncertainty in a country where almost 50 million people live below the poverty line.

The faith's recent growth coincides with developments that have disproportionately affected its already marginalized followers. The world financial crisis hit Mexico harder than most other countries due to its reliance on U.S. trade; the economy shrank 7.3 percent in 2009, its worst year since 1932. Even before that, many border factories producing goods for U.S. companies had relocated to China, and the livelihoods of millions of peasants were undermined by the 2008 elimination of farm tariffs under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The worldwide downturn has affected Mexican migrants as well, with remittances to Mexico dropping 15 percent last year.

At the same time, Mexico's drug war has taken a turn toward ultraviolence, with more than 15,000 killed since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels following his disputed 2006 election. While the rich armor their cars, hire bodyguards, and implant microchips so they can be traced in a kidnapping, the poor have no such options. "People are asking Santa Muerte for protection," says filmmaker Eva Aridjis, who made a documentary about the cult, "protection against herself really, against death."

HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

For historian Ronald Wright, the cult's growth is a specifically Mexican response to the country's woes. While people in other developing countries facing similar pressures, such as Colombia or poor areas of the Middle East, have turned to fundamentalist forms of Christianity or Islam in response, Mexico is drawing largely on elements from its own culture. "Mexico's poor feel abandoned," he told me. "Elsewhere in the world, people who feel marginalized are turning to fundamentalisms, but Mexico's poor are drawing on ancient traditions to reconstruct an identity that helps them survive."

Despite Santa Muerte's dark reputation, the Tepito mass, held on the first Sunday of each month, has a carnival atmosphere. Mariachi bands play next to the shrine. A pretty nurse brings her young niece to pray for a sick relative while shirtless street toughs drink beer and show off the Santa Muerte tattoos on their chiseled chests. "It is not safe to wander around," says Luis Martinez, a burly member of Enriqueta Romero's family who pronounces himself my bodyguard at her behest. A vendor of pirated DVDs, Martinez shows me his tattoo of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. Like most devotees, he sees no contradiction between Catholicism and Holy Death: The Catholic Church still claims around 90 percent of Mexicans as members, though recent battles over same-sex marriage and abortion suggest its influence might be on the wane.

In the case of Santa Muerte, the church pronounces the cult heretical, the religion of criminals. Yet efforts to combat drug trafficking by destroying shrines are rather like bulldozing tattoo parlors to get rid of biker gangs. Such tactics may well engender a backlash: In the wake of last year's crackdown, hundreds of Holy Death followers marched in the main square of Mexico City chanting, "We are believers; we are not criminals."

As the mass begins, Romero invites me onstage next to her shrine. Silence falls over a crowd that stretches as far as I can see. Men and women, young and very old, eyes closed or raised to the sky, they listen intently as a man with a microphone pleads with the "White Girl," the "Holiest Death," to bring succor to those in need. Even the children pay attention. There is earnest devotion, tears, and a sense that here at last is someone who listens. If anything threatens the national security of Mexico, it is not the religious beliefs of the poor, but the political and economic despair that draws them here.

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

In Box

The FP Quiz

Are you a globalization junkie? Then test your knowledge of global trends, economics, and politics with 8 questions about how the world works.  

1. If the United States deported all its illegal immigrants at once, how long would the bus convoy be?

a) 18 miles   b) 180 miles   c) 1,800 miles

2. The world's wind-power generation capacity increased how much in 2009?

a) 11 percent  b) 21 percent  c) 31 percent

3. Which country had the highest rate of economic growth in 2009?

a) Afghanistan   b) China    c) Qatar

4. In 2009, China produced 568 million metric tons of crude steel. How much did the No. 2 country produce?

a) 88 million metric tons    b) 298 million   c) 458 million

5. Which country spends the most time on social-networking websites?

a) Australia   b) Japan   c) United States

6. Which country had the lowest rate of economic growth in 2009?

a) Latvia         b) Lithuania    c) Iceland

7. How much did new-car registrations change last year globally?

a) 14 percent decrease    b) no change    c) 7 percent increase

8. By how many percentage points did worldwide unemployment change from 1999 to 2009?

a) up 0.2 points    b) up 1.2 points   c) up 2.2 points

Answers on the next page.

Answers to the FP Quiz

1) C, 1,800 miles. To deport the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States en masse, it would take more than 200,000 buses, stretching more than 1,800 miles, according to a Center for American Progress report. The cost would be nearly $300 billion over five years.

2) C, 31 percent. The economy may have been sputtering along in 2009, but wind turbines were spinning furiously, with installed wind-power capacity increasing nearly a third from 120.6 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2008 to 157.9 GW by the end of 2009, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. China more than doubled its wind-power capacity, overtaking Spain -- where Don Quixote famously tilted at windmills -- for the No. 3 spot. At this rate, it could soon surpass No. 2 Germany and No. 1 United States.

3) A, Afghanistan. The insurgent-overrun country may have a per capita GDP of only $461 and an unemployment rate of 40 percent, but its economy was booming last year at an estimated rate of 15.7 percent, according to the IMF. Much of that growth was due to internationally backed reconstruction programs, as well as private construction and services, such as the $1.5 billion invested in telecom since 2003. Meanwhile the economy of oil-rich Qatar, the second fastest-growing, expanded 11.5 percent, and No. 3 China increased its GDP 8.5 percent.

4) A, 88 million metric tons. In 2009, world crude-steel production tumbled 8 percent compared with 2008, as construction projects were put on hold during the Great Recession. But China has been building large amounts of infrastructure and increased its steel production 13.5 percent to 567.8 million metric tons, 47 percent of the world's total, according to the World Steel Association. That's 6.5 times the 87.5 million metric tons that No. 2 Japan produced and 2.6 times what China itself produced a mere six years earlier in 2003.

5) A, Australia. Aussie users of social-networking sites spent an average of almost seven hours on activities such as twittering and "friending" people in December 2009, according to media-information firm Nielsen. American social networkers were similarly addicted, with 6 hours, 9 minutes, that month, while the Japanese, at 2 hours, 50 minutes, appear to spend their time on other activities. Overall, social networking is more and more of a time-suck. In the 10 countries analyzed by Nielsen, average social-networking time increased 82 percent, from just over three hours in December 2008 to five and a half hours in December 2009. [Update, June 9, 2010: The new answer, based on more recent information from Nielsen, is Italy. Please see this Passport post.]

6) B, Lithuania. Lithuania's economy shrank 18.5 percent in 2009, while the decrease was 18 percent in Latvia and 14 percent in Estonia, according to IMF estimates. From 2000 to 2007, the Baltic economies were roaring, in part due to economic liberalization and relatively low-cost labor. But the credit boom turned into a credit crunch with the financial crisis. Although Lithuania had a slightly worse economic crash last year, Latvia has received much attention due to the 7.5 billion euro bailout it received from the European Union, the IMF, and others in 2008 and the collapse of its government in February 2009.

7) A, 14 percent decrease. The rising middle classes in China and India may have been buying cars like crazy, and governments may have tried to stimulate their economies with various "cash for clunkers" programs, but with the economic downturn, 2009 was the worst year on record for automakers, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But new-car registrations are forecast to rise 4.7 percent this year, with the Asia-Pacific region leading the way with nearly 20 million passenger-car registrations.

8) A, up 0.2 percentage points. Although the roughly 10 percent unemployment rate in many developed countries has received much attention, in the decade from 1999 to 2009, worldwide unemployment increased relatively slightly from 6.4 to 6.6 percent, according to International Labour Organization estimates. Currently, East Asian workers are doing the best, facing a 4.4 percent unemployment rate in 2009, down from 4.7 percent in 1999.