Lined up inside a dark-black painted building in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, worshippers of La Santa Muerte wait their turn to place their rolled-up paper prayers at the feet of a 5-foot tall statue of an idolized female skeletal figure. She is draped in a white, laced cloak and holds a small globe in one hand, and a tall wooden scythe in the other.
Many of the Santa Muerte statues started popping up in this city around 2009, when drug-related violence began to ravage this border town. More than 10,000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez alone since 2007, when Mexico’s outgoing President Felipe Calderón first declared war on the country’s drug cartels. The murder rate earned Ciudad Juárez the title of murder capital of the world for a while.
Followers recognize La Santa Muerte as an iconic figure of prayer for those looking for protection. The Catholic Church in Mexico denounces the worship as a cult.
The origins of Santa Muerte worship is debated, but many believe it came from the ancient Aztecs and their worship of death. The modern image of Santa Muerte is believed to have surfaced in the mid-20th century in poor areas of Central Mexico. Now, Santa Muerte can be found throughout all of Mexico, the border, and even some parts of the United States.
“You can ask the Santa Muerte for many things,” said Yolanda Salazar, self-proclaimed priestess of the Santa Muerte cult in Ciudad Juarez.
“Here in Juárez, people pray for protection, but also health, and for love. What’s important is it comes from the heart. If your intentions are true, it will help you,” she said.
Salazar lives in and runs this particular sanctuary, which is located in the heart of the city, just a drive of a few minutes from the border with the United States. It’s believed there are many makeshift sanctuaries and Santa Muerte altars in Juárez, but Salazar’s is public, and the most popular.
She said she had just a handful of followers in 2010, when she first opened her Santa Muerte sanctuary, which consists of perhaps 100 or more small and large statues of Santa Muerte. This year, her weekly prayer vigils to the Santa Muerte draw in a crowd similar to the size of a Catholic Mass.
On this particular night, her vigil resembled more of a Mexican fiesta than an underground worship of death. Mariachi music flooded out into the street, and the 25 or more worshipers ate and danced while the others went inside to make their offerings.
“This has always existed here, but people were timid about professing their belief. They were afraid to be judged by society,” Salazar said. “But now, a lot of us don’t really care what society thinks.”
According to Salazar, the violence in the city has drawn many followers to her sanctuary, searching for protection that neither the church nor their government can give them.
“Now that it’s come to light, I would say that 40 percent of the people in Juarez believe in Santa Muerte,” she said. “Still, not all are professing it.”
In Mexico, a traditionally Catholic society, the worship of a deity that isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church usually means an association to criminal organizations. Members of drug cartels, commonly referred to as narcos, have long been followers of the Santa Muerte.
Narcos make offerings to the icon in return for protection in their illicit activities. In some rare and very brutal cases, the offerings have consisted of human body parts.
Eight people were arrested in northern Sonora state in March of this year after they were accused of killing two ten-year-old boys and a woman in ritual Santa Muerte sacrifices.
Salazar said that this type of worship is not the “true cult” of La Santa Muerte.
“This is not exclusively for the narcos,” she said. “Even police go to her for protection. Even they realize how powerful she is.”
The Catholic Church in Mexico has consistently denounced the worship of such a deity, but it cannot deny the rise in adoration for such figures in Mexico’s violent border towns.
Rev. Felipe de Jesús Juárez, head priest at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in CD. Juárez, says the belief of Santa Muerte arrived in Ciudad Juárez around 2009 and 2010, at the height of the violence. Though the murder rate has dropped dramatically, the culture of death has not.
“We are all exposed to this new cultural situation. Here in the border we see a lot of different types of beliefs,” Juárez said. “This started with people who don’t have a good moral base. They are grabbing death, putting a cloak on it, and making it a saint. But it’s not a saint; it’s death.”
In the case of Santa Muerte, once followers pray to her, they believe she will grant them favors, but they must repay her.
“If they don’t, they believe they will be punished,” Juárez said. “So many live in fear.”
He said he opposes such a practice because he believes the grace of God is free.
Nonetheless, Juárez recognizes the power of Yolanda Salazar and her followers of this growing cult in his city.
“This woman, a self-proclaimed high priest who started out of her house, now has a full building with a sanctuary,” he said. “The devotion in Mexico is very strong.”
And nowhere is the diversity of Santa Muerte worship more prevalent than inside the gates of a Salazar prayer vigil. Little boys and girls hold flowers and candles as offerings; their parents write the prayers on small sheets of paper.
All while a group of teenagers stand and chat near the door, waiting their turn to enter and place their own prayers.
“I feel a lot of security,” said Alexia Varaza, 20, a follower of Santa Muerte. “I’ve had a lot of luck with La Santa Muerte. She gives me strength.”
Varaza’s mother and father are believers in the cult, but the rest of her family is skeptical.
“That stuff’s for sicarios — for killers!” said Varaza, explaining what her family thinks of the cult vigils she attends every weekend.
“That’s not what it is for me. I just tell them I’m a student, and I need the good luck!”
Whether for sicarios or students, Salazar’s doors are open 24/7 to people searching for protection in a city saturated with violence.
“The real cult, our cult, is to go out and profess the goodness of La Santa Muerte,” Salazar said. “That’s why I opened the sanctuary.”
Salazar has plans to open another Santa Muerte sanctuary next year, with the expectation that her following will continue to grow as massively as during the past year. She certainly will be praying to her beloved Santa Muerte for that to happen.
Alex Peña is a freelance foreign correspondent currently covering Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Previously, Pena was based in Nairobi, Kenya covering East Africa for Voice of America TV, and has also filed stories from the Middle East, including the border of Jordan and Syria. He graduated from the journalism program at Florida Gulf Coast University in December 2011.