In September 2008, 11 decapitated bodies were discovered in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. When police arrested the killers, they found an altar in their home dedicated to Santa Muerte – the patron saint of death for Mexican drug cartels. One year later, an illegal immigrant called Jorge Flores Rojas was arrested in North Carolina for running a sex ring. He, too, had built a shrine in his east Charlotte apartment to Santa Muerte. Flores forced his girls to have sex with as many as 20 men a day while he knelt in his living room praying to the skeletal figure of death. In August 2011, the Mexican army stumbled upon a tunnel that ran right under the US border for 300 metres. It was six feet high and equipped with lights and ventilation. It also housed – you guessed it – an altar to Santa Muerte.
Europeans complain mightily that Muslim immigration has introduced fundamentalism to their secular continent. Yet they tend to look upon Middle America’s fear of illegal Hispanic immigration with contempt, as if its paranoia was motivated entirely by racism. Reporting on new legislation designed to drive illegal immigrants out of the Deep South, The Guardian’s Paul Harris writes that it heralds, “The prospect of a new Jim Crow era – the time when segregation was law – across a vast swath of the old Confederacy. [The legislation] will ostracise and terrorise a vulnerable Hispanic minority with few legal rights.”
Indeed it will, and that is a tragedy. But the debate about illegal immigration isn’t just about competition over jobs or lingering white racism. Many Americans share the European fear that mass migration is subverting their democratic culture from within. In the same way that exotic cells of Jihadists have established themselves in London and Paris, criminal gangs motivated by bloodlust and kinky spiritualism have been found living in the suburbs of Boston and Atlanta. One of its many manifestations is the cult of Santa Meurte.
Santa Muerte is part Virgin Mary, part folk demon. The image of a cloaked saint wielding a scythe is supposed to offer those who venerate it spiritual protection. Offerings come in the form of flowers, alcohol, sweets and tobacco. Contraband can be used to invoke protection from the police. For the poor of Mexico – a nation torn between extremes of wealth and injustice – Santa Muerte is a very pragmatic saint. Like the gang leaders who offer hard cash in return for allegiance, she provides material blessings that the Catholic Church can no longer afford to bestow.
Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in America venerate Santa Muerte and have no association with crime. Nor is the cult purely ethnic: in North California, the Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage is tended by a woman of Dutch-American descent. But the prevalence of Santa Muerte imagery among drug traffickers injects an interesting cultural dimension to the debate over illegal immigration. It accentuates American fears that the drug war in Mexico is turning into an invasion of the USA by antidemocratic fanatics.
The Mexican conflict has claimed 35,000 lives since it began in 2006. Recently, the violence has spilled over the border and spread throughout the US along narcotics routes that stretch from Arizona to New York. The warring cartels are bound by a perverse ideology, with Santa Muerte as a unifying icon that terrifies opponents into submission. The gang known as Los Zetas marks its territory by mounting severed heads on poles or hanging dead bodies from bridges. Its members are family men who regularly go to church. A splinter group, called La Familia, is fronted by a fellow called El Mas Loco (The Craziest One). Loco has published his own bible, a confused mix of peasant Marxism and passages culled from American self-help books. The goal of these groups is to undermine democracy and govern autonomous secret societies through family, blood and religion. It’s a global trend. The Lord’s Resistance Army that slaughtered and raped its way across Uganda from 1987 to 2007 was led by a man who claimed to channel the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the culprit behind this apocalyptic criminality was the death of Communism, which deprived thugs and thieves of a secular ideology to justify their actions. Organisations like FARC and Real IRA converted overnight to pushing drugs. But in Mexico, family and religion filled the vacuum left by the failure of socialism.
Whatever its origins, the spread of the cult of Santa Muerde reflects the fact that the debate over immigration in the US is about more than economics. Sadly, Mexicans seeking work get caught in this existential drama and are either swallowed up into the gangs or demonised in the US for crimes they have not committed. Nevertheless, Americans of every ethnicity are legitimately concerned about their country being poisoned by a criminal subculture that blends political corruption with ritualised murder. Europeans should not be so quick to judge their transatlantic friends. Americans face a vicious threat of their own.