Santa Muerte looks nothing like your typical saint. A strange hybrid of the Virgin Mary and the grim reaper—statues and other pieces of contemporary folk art show her decked out in flowers or a bridal gown, brandishing a scythe—she might be at home on a Santana album cover, or the wall of a tattoo parlor.
But Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death,” is more than just a morbid decoration. She is the central figure of what some scholars say is the fastest-growing religious movement in North America. Los santos de los narcos, or “narco-saints,” are informal patrons of Mexico’s chief illicit trades: money laundering, smuggling, and, of course, drug trafficking. A product of religious syncretism—specifically, a blending of Iberian Catholic and Mesoamerican traditions—Santa Muerte has never been canonized. In fact, the Vatican is openly critical of her growing prominence. In an interview with the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, Father Hugo Valdemar, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, called the cult of Santa Muerte blasphemous, diabolical, and anticultural. “Culture is intended for the development of the person, his potential, his qualities, and the expression of his spirit,” he said. “The cult of Santa Muerte is destructive. What it seeks is death.”
And yet, despite this condemnation, her flock is flourishing. Enriqueta Romero, an adherent so frequently interviewed by Mexican and foreign press that she’s become a sort of spokeswoman for the Santa Muerte movement, attributes this to the folk saint’s democratic nature: “She is fair and listens to everyone’s prayers.” According to Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Mexican botánicas (esoterica shops) sell more Santa Muerte figurines than they do icons of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. “She has a reputation for being an incredibly speedy and efficacious miracle worker,” says Chesnut, describing her as a healer and a whiz at solving legal problems. “And unlike most canonized saints, at the end of the day, she isn’t Catholic, so you can ask her for anything—to bless a shipment of crystal meth, for example.”