Russell Contreras at the AP explores the world of La Sante Muerte:
Popular in Mexico, and sometimes linked to the illicit drug trade, the skeleton saint known as La Santa Muerte in recent years has found a robust and diverse following north of the border: immigrant small business owners, artists, gay activists and the poor, among others—many of them non-Latinos and not all involved with organized religion.
Clad in a black nun's robe and holding a scythe in one hand, Santa Muerte appeals to people seeking all manner of otherworldly help: from fending off wrongdoing and carrying out vengeance to stopping lovers from cheating and landing better jobs. And others seek her protection for their drug shipments and to ward off law enforcement.
You should read the whole article, which is pretty interesting: It describes how La Santa Muerte evolved from "an underground figure in isolated regions of Mexico" who "served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses" into a large, multifaceted, cross-border phenomenon. Contreras also details the offerings left on the saint's shrines ("votive candles, fruits, tequila, cigarettes—even lines of cocaine") and a backlash that has led some of the saint's sworn foes to destroy her roadside altars.
And there's a civil liberties angle. The article reports that "the vast majority of devotees aren't crooks," yet it also includes this passage:
U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte in West Texas said he has testified about La Santa Muerte in at least five drug trafficking cases where her image aided prosecutors with convictions. Last year, Almonte testified that a Santa Muerte statue prayer card, found with a kilogram of methamphetamine in a couple's car in New Mexico, were "tools of the trade" for drug traffickers to protect them from law enforcement. The testimony was used to help convict the couple of drug trafficking.
Almonte goes on to acknowledge that "there are good people who pray to her who aren't involved in any criminal activity." Then why is her paraphernalia admissible evidence at all?
Bonus links: Last month the FBI released a fearful report on La Santa Muerte and ritual killings. Some of the document's claims should set off alarm bells for skeptical readers. A list of crimes allegedly linked to the fath, for example, begins with a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me claim that a car thief who died behind bars "killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte"; this story, a footnote informs us, was "provided to a researcher by a local Santa Muerte follower." (Coming up next: The FBI investigates tales of a vanishing hitchhiker.) Another item involves some decapitated bodies found around Ciudad Júarez in 2008; we are informed that "Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshippers." I don't doubt that there are violent people involved with this religion, but many of these crimes just sound like standard drug-cartel violence to me, with some odd details that allow the authorities to project a spooky "cult" narrative onto the deaths.
For a more skeptical take, read Joseph Laylock's essay comparing the fear of Santa Muerte's devotees to the Satanic panic of the 1980s. The FBI's analyst, I should note, calls for a "balanced perspective" that "avoid[s] a repeat of the Satanism scare." But I'm not sure he achieved that goal.