Moral Panic

Fear of a Skeleton Saint

A form of worship crosses the Mexican border-and so does a moral panic.


Russell Contreras at the AP explores the world of La Sante Muerte:

Oh when the saints…
Skullduggery Emporium

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?

Good book. You should read it. Click to go to its Amazon page.
Open Court

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.

NEXT: Four Dead in Shootings in Upstate New York

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  1. “La Sante Muerte” how’s that translate? The Mother of Death? The Death Mother?

    1. “Saint Death”

        1. Your mom’s a female

          1. You know who else had a female mother?

        2. Chicks can be saints, no prob.

    2. Should be something like “holy death” or “sacred death” or “sainted death” or something along those lines. “Saint Death,” basically.

    3. It’s not La Madre Muerta, dude.

      1. The only spanish I know is from watching reruns of Romancing the Stone. Look at them snappers.

        1. How DARE you talk about Romancing the Stone as if it were a TV show!

          1. It’s just that I’m a bastard. We all know this. Don’t act shocked.

            1. Speaking of TV shows, we know from The X-Files that the FBI is way into this satanic dipshit stuff.

              1. Por que no te callas!

              2. Bullshit. I’ve been shooting lightning out of my hands for years and using it to electrocute all the popular kids in my jerkwater town, and Jack Black too, and the FBI hasn’t done shit to stop me.

                1. You ain’t using enough amps, because Jack Black keeps making movies. You need to try harder.

            2. Next you’re gonna tell fish not to swim.

      1. I hear if you invoke Warty three times in a thread someone/thing gets raped.

        1. That’s two…

          1. Squatting serves a rapist well. Develops those critical pelvic thrust muscles AGAINST resistance.

            Remember, friends don’t let friends squat high, and if the bar aint bendin’ your just pretendin’ (after losing 30+ lbs to illness… I am sadly just pretendin’ at this point) 🙁

            1. You can’t be the real dunphy – what’s with all the proper capitalization and punctuation?

          2. Bah, look at me contributing to the problem.

          3. Hi Warty! Just wanted to check in and let you know I’m kinda grossed out by eyeballs so I think you’re safe.

              1. I really hate that video, but it’s much better with the Benny Benassi soundtrack.

                1. Any time I hear the song, it just makes me think of its bouncy video, so…um, I forget what I was talking about. Bouncy.

                  1. Yeah that video is awesome.

                    Epi, I’m disappointed you didn’t make a Terminator reference. Or at least Bu?uel.

            1. Wow Nicole, way to be a Warty-rape enabler.

              1. Some women just want to see the world burn…er, get Warty-ied.

                1. burn…er, get Warty-ied

                  I think the autoclaving comes after the defiling.

              2. You cannot enable the inevitable.

  2. 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?

    I don’t know, it’s almost like the government gets to decide what is and isn’t a real religion or something.

    1. So if I am arrested and demand the right to wear pirate dress in jail because of my religion, Pastafarianism, you don’t think it will fly?


      1. Yarr, I think ye will be getting the lash (and if really unlucky, some involuntary sodomy) but no rum, nor pirate garb!

      2. Austrian driver allowed ‘pastafarian’ headgear photo

        I suppose it depends on the country you’re arrested in.

    2. 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?

      It’s the same with all “paraphernalia.” Rolling papers are innocuous, but if cops find a couple seeds and stems in the car with a pack of JOB 1.25, they’ve got themselves a pothead.

      1. This imagery is hugely prejudicial, probably even worse than an AC/DC T-shirt.

        1. AC/DC don’t mean jack. It’s Phish stickers that border somewhere between reasonable suspicion and probable cause, at least before MJ was legalized here. 🙂

          (note: to civil libertarians. I keed)

    3. Or relevant evidence is relevant. Either way.

  3. Could be worse. They could be executing priests and stuff.

  4. It’s fearmongering douchebags all the way down.

  5. Breakdown of WA state case law on search and seizure etc. Establishes that we are CLEARLY far more libertarian and far more restrictive of state/local law enforcement practices in search and seizure (iow messing with people) than almost any other state. Makes me proud to be a Washingtonian. We respect privacy. California actually took legislative action years ago to reign in “independent grounds” readings of their constitution to PREVENT local courts from recognizing far more civil rights, if they dared.

  6. Nothing says Warrantless entry of a residence without PC more than Domestic Violence (numerous nimrods previously claimed cops couldn’t legally do it. War on DV means don’t even need PC

    State v. Lynd, 54 Wn. App. 18 (Div. I, 1989) Nov. ’89 LED:07 (Looking for DV victim following hang-up call ? man with cut on face admits to hitting spouse, but says that she is no longer home ? officers may go in to look for her)
    State v. Raines, 55 Wn. App. 459 (Div. I, 1989) Jan. ’90 LED:10 (Looking for DV suspect ? officer responding to DV report from neighbor, know of history of DV, officer’s see man looking out window as they arrive, woman answers door and says “no problem” and no one there but her and son ? officers may go in to look for suspect)
    State v. Menz, 75 Wn. App. 351 (Div. II, 1994) Feb. ’95 LED:17 (Anonymous caller reports sounds of DV; when police arrive, door open on a cold winter night, TV on, and no response to knock and announce ? officers may go in to check on status of occupants)
    U.S. v. Black, 466 F.3d 1143 (9th Cir. 2006) Dec. ’06 LED:13 (For officers responding to a DV 911 call from a victim, exigent circumstances and community caretaking function justified entry of residence to look for the victim, whose present whereabouts were unknown, even though there was some reason to believe that the victim was no longer present in the premises).

    1. otoh,

      But in State v. Shultz, 170 Wn.2d 746 (2011) March ’11 LED:16, the Washington Supreme Court held that the circumstances of (1) overheard shouting, (2) somewhat excited or flustered demeanor of the woman opening the door to police, and (3) her initial lie regarding the presence or absence of another person in the premises (the other person appeared to police before they entered) did not add up to emergency DV circumstances that would justify non-consenting entry of the premises.
      And in State v. Williams, 148 Wn. App. 585 (Div. II, 2009) April ’09 LED:05, where an uncle was located outside the motel room that he was sharing with his adult nephew, and the uncle alleged that the nephew had previously assaulted him shortly before while inside, there was no justification for police entry under the community caretaking or emergency aid rationales where the nephew was alone inside and not himself in any distress or danger.

  7. Not to be all Debbie Downer here, but I’m thinking a kilo of meth by itself is sufficient to get you busted for drug trafficking. Yeah, the couple got convicted after Raylan Almonte testilied about some BS, but the Santa Muerte seems to pale in comparison to enough meth to keep a hooker convention wired for a week.

    1. “Look kids, Santa came last night!”


      “And she left a kilo of meth!”

      1. For some people, the meth would get a “Yay” too.

    2. Nothing nefarious about the concept of paraphernalia laws (setting aside the idiocy of the War on Drugs in general).

      Otherwise legal items, found in proximity to drugs become illegal. Similarly, if I catch a burglar with a bunch of tools on him, I can charge him with Possession of Burglar tools, even though those same tools, when present in a garage are perfectly innocuous.

      It’s a reasonable construct of law, Santa Muerte HYSTERIA aside.

      1. Dude, you’re missing the point. I don’t give a shit what you have next to a KILO OF METH. You could have a bible and a canceled check from your donation to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Kilo of meth is prima facie drug trafficking. No more is necessary.

        And paraphernalia laws are bullshit, as any container at all can be described as drug paraphernalia. You have a container? Paraphernalia! It’s a way to add more charges on to get the poor schmuck to plea.

        1. I get your point, I just don’t agree with it. But I respect it.

          That aside, a kilo of meth is NOT prima facie drug trafficking in WA state. Case law has established that weight ALONE is not sufficient corpus delicti for trafficking. It’s strongly prejudicial, but you must have SOME other evidence that supports trafficking in addition to mere weight. It doesn’t take much (customer list, scales, sales log, short stay traffic especially late at night), but that’s the case law.

          Granted, FEDERAL case law and in many states is so punitive that weight alone IS prima facie evidence of trafficking, but not in my jurisdiction.

          1. I think drug paraphernalia laws are a way to bust somebody with no drugs. Can’t find any drugs, but you’re pretty sure he’s a druggie? Paraphernalia charge. It’s weak sauce used to harass people when you don’t have a real charge, and a way to add more potential time to encourage a plea if you do have drugs.

            OTOH, reading the paraphernalia laws in TX gave me a lot of insight as to why meth labs explode.

            1. Depends on the jurisdiction. In many, you NEED actual drugs to charge paraphernalia.

              For example, a “water pipe” is not illegal. Nor are syringes. They *only* become paraphernalia when found in proximity to actual drugs.

              I can find a spoon with burnt black residue, syringes, a tin with black residue, cotton balls, isopropyl alcohol, antihistamines, etc. – all heroin paraphernalia, but UNLESS I can find actual heroin, in testable and confirmable amounts (often residue aint going to cut it), it doesn’t count as paraphernalia.

              Head shops will sell you a water pipe,btw, but if you ask for a bong, they won’t.

              1. Also, where I work, first time possessory offenses of coke, meth, etc. are automatically diverted to MISDEMEANOR court, even though the law says it’s a felony. Charge will be pled down to Attempt Vucsa (gross misdemeanor) or maybe paraphernalia. So, it APPEARS to be a no drug charge, just paraphernalia, when in fact, it’s just a plea deal.

                1. I remember the first time I purchased a pipe at a head shop the lady asks “Would you like a…” *long pause* “… bag with that?”
                  Being a nervous teenager I just wanted to get out of there so I did.
                  About a month later they got busted for selling stuff to put into their wares.

              2. I always find that a little funny. Seems perfectly possible to smoke tobacco or other legal herbs from a bong and to smoke pot from a water pipe.

            2. OTOH, reading the paraphernalia laws in TX gave me a lot of insight as to why meth labs explode.

              Reason #5184759874325084257984275 why the War on Drugs is evil.

  8. Kind of reminds me of the Santer?a panic in South Florida back in the 80/90’s, which was ostensibly over the practice of animal sacrifice.

  9. The Pumpkin King isn’t a chick. Get your facts straight, Mexicans.

  10. Santa Muerte has appeal going back to pre-Columbian times–both the Aztecs and the Mayans had goddesses that essentially served the same function.

    And it should be said that the primary thing Santa Muerte does is offer those who pray to her an easy death. She’s the patron saint of people who–generally–have to deal with strangers in precarious situations at night. So, she’s the patron saint of hookers, who will often sport tattoos of her, and taxi cab drivers that work at night, and bartenders in rough neighborhoods that are open late…people who are prime candidates for being murdered.

    Most tourists probably see her featured prominently in taxis. Taxi drivers the world over are prime victims for violent crime, obviously, and Santa Muerte offers them an easy death–and respect from the devil if she’s the one that delivers you to hell.

    Santa Muerte comes from the same impulse that drives the Day of the Dead, with whole families getting together to celebrate the dead. It’s like Thanksgiving and Halloween all rolled up together. When I first saw her, when I was living in Mexico, I remember thinking the driver was a Deadhead–it’s the same kind of iconography. In fact, I think the Grateful Dead use Santa Muerte for some of their images. When you see a woman that sometimes looks like the Virgin Mary, with roses all around her, etc., except that she’s a skull and or skeleton, you’re looking at Santa Muerte.

    1. Incidentally, I use to live across the street from someone that practiced, I don’t know what you’d call it, almost like being a new age health practitioner and a curse breaker, and priest for hire–all rolled up in one. They had a giant Santa Muerte in a bridal dress in their front window, and if you needed a favor or something, you could go to them and they would help you pray to Santa Muerte…

      It was like a market solution to the fact that the Catholic Church wouldn’t offer access to Santa Muerte. But there was lots of demand for it–so some smart entrepreneurs started serving that market.

      I find that kind of market driven religion kinda compelling. It doesn’t have the money back guarantee of a J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, but if they’re selling piece of mind to people who need it on the cheap? Then the people who are paying for it don’t need to wait until they’re dead to know whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth.

  11. “Then why is her paraphernalia admissible evidence at all?”

    FRE 401:

    “Evidence is relevant if:

    (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and

    (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.”

    FRE 402:

    “Relevant evidence is admissible unless any of the following provides otherwise:

    the United States Constitution;
    a federal statute;
    these rules; or
    other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court.
    Irrelevant evidence is not admissible.”

    Why wouldn’t it be admissible? What defect is there in it?

    It’s perfectly legal to jog down the street, but if you were caught on camera jogging away from a bank robbery for which you’re being tried, surely that’s RELEVANT. Relevant evidence need not be dispositive, ffs.

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