piece, written by Alma Guillermoprieto...from May 2010...
When he will leave prison is anyone's guess, but El Niño has reason to feel hopeful: He relies on a protector who, he believes, prevented jail
wardens from discovering a couple of strictly forbidden objects in his possession that could have increased his punishment by decades. "The guards
didn't see a thing, even though they were right there," he says. This supernatural being watches over him when his enemies circle around—and she
is there, as Antonio says in support of his buddy's faith, after all the friends you thought you had have forgotten your very name, and you're left,
as the Mexican saying goes, without even a dog to bark at you. This miracle worker, this guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners, is La
Santa Muerte, Holy Death.
In this expanding spiritual universe, the worship of a skeleton dressed in long robes and carrying a scythe—La Santa Muerte—is possibly the
fastest growing and, at first glance at least, the most extravagant of the new cults. "If you look at it from the point of view of a country that
over the last ten years has become dangerously familiar with death," González says, "you can see that this skeleton is a very concrete and clear
symbolic reference to the current situation."
Unknown to most Mexicans until recently, this death figure resembles medieval representations of the grim reaper but is fundamentally different from
the playful skeletons displayed on Day of the Dead—the day when Mexicans' departed loved ones return to share with the living a few hours of
feasting and remembrance. Her altars can now be found all over Mexico, on street corners and in the homes of the poor. Women and men alike are her
followers. In the heart of Mexico City, in a neighborhood that has always been raucous and defiant, Enriqueta Romero leads a prayer session in honor
of the skeleton every first of the month. Simultaneously flinty, foulmouthed, and motherly, Romero was among the first and the most effective
propagandizers of a cult that some believe got its start in towns along the Gulf of Mexico but now covers a wide territory up and down the country. In
California and Central America as well, young people light candles in La Santa Muerte's honor and tattoo her image on their skin in sizes small to
extra large. A few years ago the Interior Ministry revoked its registration of La Santa Muerte as a legitimate religion, to no effect. Newsstands sell
instructional videos showing how to pray to the saint, and even chic intellectuals are beginning to say that the cult is muy auténtico.
In the 1990s the fragile peace among the displaced Sinaloa families broke down. They fought each other for control of the major border transit points
and then began fighting sometimes with, and sometimes against, an upstart trafficking group with no Sinaloa connections. This was the self-styled
Cartel del Golfo, from the Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas. An offshoot of this group was the Zetas, a band of rogue military personnel originally
trained as elite antinarcotics forces. Ordinary Mexicans had their first inkling of how much more brutal the drug violence was going to be in
September 2006, when a group of men dressed in black walked into a roadside discotheque in the state of Michoacan and dumped the contents of a plastic
garbage bag on the floor. Five severed heads came rolling out.
In Mexico City the director of penitentiaries refuses admission to reporters unwilling to sign a statement promising that they will not write
"propaganda" in favor of the cult of La Santa Muerte. At the Center for Enforcement of the Legal Consequences of Crime, on the other
hand, the director of the prison lets me talk without preconditions to some of the prisoners about their faith. Escorted by the prison guards past a
series of checkpoints and corridors, I am startled to end up in a long open-air corridor whose left wall has been decorated with cheerful cartoon
images of Snow White, Tweety Bird, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the like. These were painted at the prisoners' request, a guard explains, so that
children might feel less terrified when they came to spend the holidays with their fathers. Facing the cartoon wall is a high wire fence and behind
it, a collection of hangarlike buildings surrounded by grass and even a few trees.
This is where Antonio, the accused kidnapper, writes corridos, or outlaw songs, a couple of which have even been recorded. And where El Niño, the
convicted murderer, sticks pins into black velvet and winds brightly colored threads around them in elaborate patterns to frame cutout images of the
Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, and La Santa Muerte. He first learned of Holy Death through television, which might seem a strange source for such
a spiritual revelation, but it was the path open to him behind his wire enclosure. Now nothing can break his faith in his new protector.
We talk in the shade of a leafy tree in the prison yard, several of us sitting around a rickety table a couple of prisoners have brought out and
carefully rubbed clean. A host of other inmates who initially had closed loomingly around us eventually stand quietly, nodding in agreement as Antonio
explains what gives La Santa Muerte her powerful attraction: "La Muerte is always beside you—even if it's just a little postage stamp that you put
up above your cot, you know that she's not going to move, that she'll never leave."
El Niño's grandmother has told him that if he ever gets out of jail, she doesn't want to see him, and she doesn't want his daughter to see him
again, ever. But unlike his flesh and blood, La Muerte needs him: "If you promise her a white flower, and you don't bring it to her, you feel bad,"
he says. "She weeps, and so you feel bad." And therefore he makes promises to her that he keeps.
Midday approaches, and the heat is rising fast. The men nudge each other, and one goes off to fetch a cracked plastic jug of water, which he serves
with unexpected courtesy to the unusual guest. I ask about rumors flying around that the rituals for La Santa—the Santísima, the Little Skinny One,
the White Child—involve human blood and even human sacrifice. A prisoner in another facility, where conditions were infinitely worse, had told me
that this was true.
El Niño and Antonio say just that La Santa Muerte will grant your prayers—but only in exchange for payment, and that payment must be proportional
to the size of the miracle requested, and the punishment for not meeting one's debt to her is terrible.
The men and I have been in conversation for a while, and despite temperatures that must be turning their cell blocks into furnaces, there is something
about the openness of the prison, the grass, the trees, even the comradely way the inmates treat the lone guard on duty, that makes the place seem
almost pleasant. ("He spends 12 hours a day here," Antonio says. "He's as much a prisoner as we are.")
As the men relax, their courteous ways with me even make it possible to imagine that they are not guilty of terrible crimes, that their faith in La
Santa Muerte is merely a matter of preference and not born of desperate need. Then I ask El Niño if he thinks that when he gets out, it will be
possible to lead a normal life.
His face twists into a bitter smile. "With everything I've done?" he says. "There's going to be people waiting to take me down the moment I
walk outside the gate." We shake hands, and he and Antonio thank me for the chance to talk. I return to the other Mexico, where hope also requires a
great deal of faith. Please visit the link provided for the complete story.