Faith, Drugs, and Human Sacrifice: A Mexican Folk Religion Has Texas Police Worried

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter

A Mexican folk religion involving human sacrifice and cartel activity has crossed the border into Texas, and its growing popularity has law enforcement worried.

Authorities in Central Texas have warned the public about the rise of a religion devoted to La Santa Muerte, translated as “Saint Death,” or “Holy Death.” La Santa Muerte is a saint popular among members of La Familia and the Knights Templar drug cartels and other violent criminals. Adherents worship La Santa Muerte, depicted as a robed skeleton carrying a scythe in one hand and a globe or scales in the other, with various forms of sacrifice, ranging from fruit, bones, and burning candles, to the ritual murder and butchering of humans.

“For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications,” said Dr. Robert J. Bunker, PhD in an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. “Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States.”

Those killings have crossed the border, according to Bunker’s report. Four homicides related to worship of La Santa Muerte have been documented in the U.S. since 2006, three of which were confirmed as ritual sacrifice. Since the publication of Bunker’s report, other instances of ritual sacrifice related to drug cartel activity have occurred, like the sacrifice of a teen girl in Texas at the hands of MS13 members, according to Dallas News.

The religion of La Santa Muerte has existed for half a century in Mexico and is still developing, attracting adherents not only from violent criminal elements but also from among the impoverished and uneducated.

“Over half of the prayers directed at her include petitions to harm other people via curses and death magic,” Bunker said. “Still, many Santa Muerte followers appear benign—typically poor, uneducated, and superstitious individuals who practice a form of unsanctioned saint worship mixed with varying elements of folk Catholicism.”

Leaders of the Catholic church in both the U.S. and Mexico have condemned worship of La Santa Muerte, and called it’s spiritual practices evil and dangerous in light of their connection to violence and their perversion of traditional Christian theology, according to an AP Report.

“She’s not a saint. There is nothing good that can come out of praying to her,” said Archbishop of NM John Wester. “We have a lot of saints who represent the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is an aberration.”

Bunker added that the evidence of increasing worship of La Santa Muerte in the Southwest U.S. suggested a “spiritual insurgency” component to the drug cartels’ activities. The killings aren’t just secular homicides meant to inspire terror — they are sincerely offered sacrifices, according to Bunker.

Law enforcement officials in Austin, TX, told KVUE ABC the religion of La Santa Muerte is alive and well in Austin and other areas of central Texas. Police have encountered shrines to the folk saint in the homes of suspected drug offenders, and have also seen worship increase among law abiding citizens who simply seek fortune from the La Santa Muerte. There have been no ritualized killings related to the religion in Austin, but the related spiritual practices Austin police witnessed have not always been benign. The names of a judge and a police officer were found on pieces of paper left at the altar of a shrine to the saint.

“Their hope is to actually have the officer or detective or what not — something bad happen to them and they might be able to go free from their cases,” an undercover police officer told KVUE.

Robert Almonte, a former narcotics detective of El Paso, TX, corroborated Austin law enforcement’s claim of an increase in worship of La Santa Muerte among criminals in Texas. Almonte warned law enforcement to increase awareness of the La Santa Muerte cult and to “use extra caution and keep your guard up.”

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