Saint of Death draws followers in Mexico

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. Mexico is experiencing a horrifying wave of violence. More than 1,000 people have been killed already this year. They're casualties in the war between Mexican authorities and drug gangs. So it's not surprising that a religious cult, Santa Muerte � or �The Saint of Death� � has gained a following. The Catholic Church views Santa Muerte as an ally of the devil. But a total of 2 million Mexicans gather on the first day of the month to ask for protection from a figure they consider an angel. The World's Lorne Matalon reports from Mexico City.

LORNE MATALON: 200 men, women, and children are gathered in a small home before several macabre looking statues, dressed in black and each wielding a scythe, the symbol of death. The air is thick with jasmine incense. A priest stands before them and the congregation responds, �There is no God as great as you.� The people are venerating Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. She's a female spirit, and her devotees gaze at her life-sized skeleton, draped in jewels and wearing a feathered hat. She is often called the Patron Saint of Criminals. And here in Tepito, a barrio where killings are common and the cartels ever present, there are plenty of those around. The priest, David Romo, tells followers he knows that violence is spiraling in Mexico. But, he says, �if we worship Santa Muerte, we cleanse ourselves of bad spirits and we will overcome.� The people ask not only for protection but for death to their enemies. The Mexican government has linked followers of Santa Muerte to crimes ranging from murder to extortion to kidnapping. But she also enjoys a following among those who seek protection from the criminal world. Gerardo Toro Mendoza, a 35-year-old policeman, says Santa Muerte is with him during dangerous workdays. He says, �For protection, for violence that's taking place, many people are searching for someone to protect them. And who is better than Santa Muerte?� The origins of Santa Muerte are mysterious. Some scholars suggest a link to the Aztecs who worshipped a God and goddess of death. Others link it to Yoruba traditions brought to the Americas by African slaves. Whatever its origins, the Catholic Church considers Santa Muerte to be satanic. But that doesn't deter adherents, many of whom consider themselves to be good Catholics. David Lida is author of �First Stop in the New World: A Study of Mexico City's Culture.�

DAVID LIDA: Veneration of Santa Muerte is a reflection of Mexicans' relationship with authority. The fact that the Catholic Church does sanction the saint doesn't mean much to them, they know in their hearts what they believe in and who they answer to, and it's not the government or the established Church. They worship in their own way.

MATALON: The cult of Santa Muerte has been spreading, not least through narcotics money. Writer David Agren has chronicled Santa Muerte's modern day role.

AGREN: On the highways leading up to the Mexico-US border, there are a lot of �capillas�, shrines to the Santa Muerte and they're built with money from narcotics dealers. US Drug Enforcement officials will also report that more frequently they find an image of the Santa Muerte than they do a drug raid. So it's definitely picking up within people that are committing very illegal activities.

MATALON: But many followers who gather on the streets in a festive atmosphere insist they want respite from the killings. Santa Muerte worship is now spreading across the border to cities such as Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where middle-class Mexicans say they're trying to reconnect with a part of their heritage. For The World, I'm Lorne Matalon, in Mexico City.