On Sunday night, San Benito police suddenly discovered a statue of “Santa Muerte,” aka Holy Death, in the middle of the road. “Santa Muerte statue is a symbol of death and more than likely targeted a person in the area,” said Dr. Antonio Zavaleta, a Professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

The skeletal narco-saint, who looks like a Virgin-Grim Reaper, seems to be everywhere these days. The figure even appeared in Breaking Bad, which likely sparked some interest north of Mexico’s borders. Santa Muerte expert Andrew Chesnut, author of a book titled, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, calls it “the fastest-growing New Religious Movement in the Americas.” Santa Muerte is the most popular holy figure among drug traffickers (and their victims) in Mexico. But recently, without much explanation, Santa Muerte has managed to amass an estimated following of 10-12 million devotees – which includes supporters in places like Canada and Australia – who pray to the her for the good health, fortune, love, and miracles she’s known for.

Back tattoos, ornaments, statues, votive candles, appearances in popular TV shows – Santa Muerte isn’t just a Latino thing, it’s a consumer thing. There are even public shrines in places as diverse as Montreal and New Orleans, as white Americans have begun to follow the cult of Holy Death.

“It is a universal notion, the idea of worshiping Saint Death because it’s something we have in common. It’s the only thing we all have in common because we all will die,” said Derrik Chinn, a writer and teacher who’s lived in Tijuana for nearly a decade.

The dark, negative image of Santa Muerte is now ​softening as a result of her pop culture appeal. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, refuses to recognize Santa Muerte – describing the worship of the figure as a form of Satanism.

The popularity of the folk figure has baffled researchers across the country.

Art Tavana
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