Small Wars Journal

Recent Santa Muerte Spiritual Conflict Trends

Thu, 01/16/2014 - 12:05am

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 16:

Recent Santa Muerte Spiritual Conflict Trends

Robert J. Bunker and Pamela L. Bunker

Via Pablo Lombó, ““The cult of Holy Death is blasphemous,” says Cardinal Ravasi.” Vatican Insider. 10 May 2013,

It is a “blasphemous” cult, “a degeneration of religion.” These were the words Cardinal Ravasi, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture used to condemn the widespread worship of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, which is particularly popular in areas of Mexico affected by criminal violence committed by drug cartels. Speaking at a series of events for believers and non-believers in Mexico City, Cardinal Ravasi spoke out against a cult which is a mix of indigenous Latin American beliefs and the Christian tradition of venerating saints introduced by Catholic missionaries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Santa Muerte is depicted as a fancily dressed female skeleton. People worship La Santa Muerte at home, placing a figure of the saint on an altar, surrounded by offerings in the form of candles, food, drinks (e.g. tequila) and even drugs (e.g. marijuana). They invoke her by reciting a prayer and asking for favours. In general these are favours other saints cannot grant and the gifts offered would be completely inappropriate if offered to other saints.

Cardinal Ravasi called these practices “anti-religious”, adding: “Religion celebrates life, but here you have death. It's not religion just because it's dressed up like religion; it's a blasphemy against religion.” This is especially true if one considers that the cult is most popular in parts of Mexico where there drug cartel violence reigns supreme. The cardinal stressed that in a country where an estimated 70 thousand people died of drug-related violence in the past six years, a clear message had to be sent out to young people: "The mafia, drug trafficking and organised crime don't have a religious aspect and have nothing to do with religion, even if they use the image of Santa Muerte.”

There are no statistics on how many people worship the saint but places of worship keep on sprouting up in Mexico and within Mexican communities in the U.S. In recent years, there have been some worrying incidents surrounding the cult. For example, in March 2012, two children and a woman were killed in the state of Sonora (on the U.S.-Mexico border), by a group of eight people who admitted they had poured their blood round an altar dedicated to the saint, to ask her for protection.

Despite evangelizers’ attempts to uproot this indigenous tradition, it actually grew stronger, although it has been transformed over the centuries.

In the past, the cult was condemned by parish priests and bishops because of its links to popular witchcraft. But it survived through the practice of illegal rites. With the reform of the Religious Associations and Public Worship Law, ISCAT, the Mexican-US Traditional Catholic Church – which according to its congregation, is linked to the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church – was granted official status, becoming the “home” of the Santa Muerte saint. In 2007, however, Mexico’s Interior Ministry withdrew the church’s official status.

The drug cartels and members of groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha have shown indifference to these formalities and continue to pray to the Santa Muerte saint, asking her for power, protection, luck, love and even happiness.

Via Vladimir Hernandez, “The country where exorcisms are on the rise.” BBC Mundo. 25 November 2013,

Does God exist? Does the Devil exist? The Catholic church believes they both do - and some priests say they are currently having an immense battle in Mexico.

To some it may seem extraordinary, but priests say the country is under attack by Satan, and that more exorcists are needed to fight him.

This attack, they say, is showing itself in the gruesome drug-related violence, including human sacrifice, that has engulfed the country since 2006.

According to the latest official figures available, at least 70,000 people have died in this period, including gunmen, members of the security forces, and many innocent civilians.

But, the priests say, it's not just the numbers. The savagery also stands out.

In recent years it has not been uncommon in many parts of Mexico for children to find dismembered bodies on the streets on their way to school. Or for commuters on busy roads to drive past bridges with severely tortured corpses hanging from them. Scenes from hell….

Via “Desaparecen tres sacerdotes en Tamaulipas; a otro lo matan a golpes.” Procesco. La Redacción. 30 de Diciembere 2013,

MATAMOROS, Tamps. ( Tres sacerdotes de la Iglesia católica de Tamaulipas se encuentran desparecidos; otro murió a causa de una golpiza que le propinaron presuntos miembros del crimen organizado y uno más continúa delicado tras ser atacado con un bat, confirmaron fuentes de la Diócesis local.

“En días pasados desaparecieron otros dos sacerdotes de Ciudad Victoria”, aseguró la fuente que solicitó mantenerse anónima.

En las misas del pasado domingo, en algunas iglesias de la capital se elevaron oraciones para que regresen con vida, agregó la fuente.

La desaparición de los sacerdotes se suma a la de Carlos Ornelas Puga, secuestrado el 3 de noviembre pasado y de quien hasta ahora se desconoce su paradero. Fue plagiado de una parroquia del municipio de Jiménez, perteneciente a la diócesis de Ciudad  Victoria.

Además de los desaparecidos, otro sacerdote de la Iglesia, identificado como Guillermo Amaro César, murió a causa de los golpes que le propinaron presuntos miembros del crimen organizado. Sin embargo, las autoridades estatales manejaron la versión de que fue víctima de un asalto.

También se reportó el caso de otro cura golpeado recientemente, quien pertenece a la parroquia del Buen Pastor. Se presume que se negó a oficiar una misa que se celebraría en una capilla dedicada a la Santa Muerte.

Hasta ahora las autoridades de la Iglesia católica y las estatales no han dado información sobre los atentados contra los religiosos.

Translation: Three Catholic Priests Reported as Missing in Tamaulipas. At least three Catholic priests from Tamaulipas have been reported as missing; two of which are from Ciudad Victoria.   Additionally, a fourth priest was murdered after being beaten to death with a bat while a fifth priest (beaten in the same manner) remains in critical condition.  Details regarding three of the victims are listed below: 

• Priest Carlos Ornelas Puga, kidnapped on 03 November from a Church in Jimenez, Ciudad Victoria.

• Priest Guillermo Amaro Cesar. Was beaten to death by alleged

organized crime operators. 

•  An unnamed priest from the Buen Pastor Church was recently beaten with a bat after he refused to conduct mass in a chapel that was built in honor of the Santa Muerte (patron saint of drug traffickers).

The names of the other two missing priests were not reported in this source.

To date, neither authorities nor the Catholic Church has commented on the attacks perpetrated against priests in Tamaulipas.

Analysis:  An action-reaction cycle of ‘spiritual conflict’ may now be evident in Mexico between the Catholic Church and the gang and cartel adherents of the narcocultura form of Santa Muerte worshipers. The first document highlighted from   May 2013 concerns Cardinal Ravasi, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who proclaimed Santa Muerte a blasphemy. He condemned the cult as both ‘anti-religious’ and ‘death focused’ with the underlying message that it was in league with demonic forces.  This is evident via the mention of the well-known human sacrificial incidents in the Sonoran town of Nacozari de Garcia. It was widely circulated in the press in March 2012 and was linked to a group of Santa Muerte practitioners. It should be remembered that Santa Muerte followers are a diverse population—with an older and more benign variant that follows the death saint within a pseudo-Catholic spirituality, while at the same time, accepting more of the traditional teachings of Catholicism. At the same time a darker and more threatening variant of this spirituality has been incorporated into the narco value system based on Santa Muerte deification which rejects any form of mainstream Church teachings. Followers of this variant include some of the cartels and gangs, specifically Los Zetas, components of the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, assassination (murder for hire) teams, and an unknown number of Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13/Mara 13) members.

The second document from November 2013 addresses the pronounced rise in exorcisms taking place in Mexico. It comes six-months after the heresy charge being leveled against Santa Muerte and its worshipers by the Church. This development has to be considered part of a well defined and articulated policy of waging a counter-spiritual offensive against the dark religious overtones of narco based Santa Muerte deification. It can be viewed as a follow-on component of the earlier 2009—and what appears to be a still ongoing—Mexican Army program of physically destroying Santa Muerte shrines. However, no actual coordination between Mexican State and Vatican anti-Santa Muerte policies appear evident; rather, these appear to be incremental and reactive responses to a growing threat to both the State and the Church in Mexico. Of note in this news document is the unprecedented demand for exorcism services, the video embedded in the story concerning the use of a ‘mass exorcism in a Veracruz church’, and the increasing view by the Church that the cartels are linked to demonic (Satanic) forces stemming from the barbarization of violence taking place. This spiritual offensive may very well be creating an environment in which an ‘us’ (Catholics) versus ‘them’ (Santa Muerte followers) mentality is being created in Mexico. Of concern is the population of ‘others’—estimated to be in the low millions—who exist in a gray area of folk Catholicism through pseudo-Catholic devotion, representing the older and more benign form of Santa Muerte spirituality. How this population will be affected and whether Church policies will result in a diminishing of this group through reincorporation into more mainstream Catholicism or pushing individuals into more radicalized and darker forms of spirituality is unknown. However, at the moment, this large population is presently in a form of limbo to varying degrees from the Church’s perspective.1

The third document written in Spanish, with a translation provided for the readers, was published at the end of December 2013. The incidents are of great concern because they appear to suggest that some sort of ‘spiritual cleansing’ of Catholic priests may be taking place in Tamaulipas a state that has both a Zetas and Gulf cartel presence. Priests in Mexico have been subjected to robbery, extortion, and what have been typically viewed as secular killings for some time now by individual criminals and the more organized gangs and cartels. These new incidents are different and look to be part of a recent and systematic rash of killings and kidnappings. The most threatening of these incidents, from a spiritual perspective, involved attempting to forcibly make a priest engage in a blasphemous activity. It involved beating a priest from the Buen Pastor Church2 by criminal elements “after he refused to conduct mass in a chapel that was built in honor of the Santa Muerte” [The Procesco article translation in this note]. Another source—likely based upon a different translation of the Procesco article—identifies this as “in a home constructed chapel dedicated to ‘Santa Muerte.’”3 Regardless of the locale, leading such a mass—potentially what has been labeled a ‘black mass’ in this instance—would be considered a heresy.  As a result, the priest refused to lead the mass and was critically beaten with a bat, with his current status unknown.4 The reaction by public authorities have been mixed, with local Mexican law enforcement first not commenting on these incidents and then denying that priests have been targeted but rather that common street crime is to blame.5 The Church has made no comments concerning these incidents.

In what direction future spiritual conflict trends between Santa Muerte narco adherents and the Church will go is unknown. Further, some sort of organized push-back involving priests in Tamaulipas being targeted has not as of yet been confirmed but is suggested by the trending evident. Additionally, within the context of greater potential spiritual insurgency concerns in Mexico, a second front needs to be considered in addition to that of Santa Muerte linked gangs and cartel. This focuses on the recent incidents in Michoacan during the Fall of 2013 between the local Bishop of Apatzingan representing the Church and the Knights Templar

(Caballeros Templarios) cartel.  That Bishop Miguel Patino Velázquez, backed by his priests, is openly siding with the local citizens’ militias (vigilantes) who have fortified numerous towns and villages against the Knights Templars who control much of Michoacan.6 As a result, the Bishop has been under the threat of assassination for his statements and activities and, as a result, has been given Federal government protection.7 To complicate matters even further, the Mexican government has sent mixed signals concerning the legitimacy of the local citizens’ militias and, as of mid January 2014, is attempting to disarm them which would place State and Church policies in a contradictory situation.8

Of greater interest in this ongoing incident, however, is the view of the Church concerning the spirituality of the Knights Templar cartel and its members. The Templars—who belong to a pseudo-Christian cult modeled on a Medieval religious order—have not as yet been branded as heretics by the Catholic clergy but rather are said to be viewed as having their souls contaminated.9 Still, the Bishop has been in direct communication with the Vatican concerning the abuses and atrocities committed by the Knights Templars upon his pastoral followers and, we can assume, the spiritual insurgent challenge that cartel represents to mainstream Catholicism. If the violence continues against the Church in Michoacan, it leads to the potentiality that the Vatican and its representatives in Mexico may also at some point brand the Knights Templars with a more unfavorable pronouncement or even label them as heretical or blasphemous in nature.


1. See also Aaron Akinyemi, “Mexico: Overworked Exorcists Exhausted by Popularity of Skeleton Saint Cult.” International Business Times. 30 November 2013, and Heather Saul, “Catholic church trains more priests to perform exorcisms.” The Independent. 8 January 2014,

2. Unconfirmed if this is the same church; The priest appears to be from Immar el Buen Pastor; Ignacio Allende 630 Reynosa, Cuidad Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. See,

3.  “Violence against Catholic clergy reported in border state of Tamaulipas.” MGR—The Mexican Gulf Reporter. 31 December 2013,

4. The Zetas are known to use wooden paddles—which look like flat bats—with the letter “Z” either carved into them (or written on them) for the enforcement of member discipline and to beat their victims. If such a paddle was used it would represent a direct link to Zetas’ involvement. For an image of a paddle and bats used for the torturing of victims—see “Los Zetas and the Army clash in Escobedo, Nuevo Leon.” Borderland Beat. 6 May 2011, For paddles with a “Z” see “"La Comandante Rojo", Zeta Cell Leader detained.” Borderland Beat. 20 November 2012,

5. “Violence against Catholic clergy reported in border state of Tamaulipas.” MGR—The Mexican Gulf Reporter.

6. Joshua Partlow, “Mexican bishop takes on cultish cartel in drug war battleground state.” The Washington Post. 1 December 2013,

7. Havana Pura, “Authorities Thwart Assassination Attempt on Bishop of Apatzingán.” Borderland Beat. 6 November 2013,

8. “Mexican police start to disarm vigilantes in Michoacan.” BBC News. 14 January 2014,

9. Joshua Partlow, “Mexican bishop takes on cultish cartel in drug war battleground state.”

Further Reading

Pamela L. Bunker and Robert J. Bunker, “The Spiritual Significance of ¿Plata O Plomo?” Small Wars Journal. 27 May 2010,¿plata-o-plomo.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Societal Warfare South of the Border?” Small Wars Journal. 22 May 2011,

Robert J. Bunker, “Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings.” FBI Law Enforcement  Bulletin. 3 Part Series. February 2013,

Categories: Mexico - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Pamela Ligouri Bunker is Managing Partner, C/O Futures, LLC, and is a researcher and analyst specializing in international security and terrorism related narratives. She holds undergraduate degrees in anthropology-geography and social sciences from California State Polytechnic University Pomona, an M.A. in public policy from the Claremont Graduate University, and an M.Litt. in terrorism studies from the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland. She is co-editor of Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance (Routledge, 2015) and has published many referred and professional works including additional books.

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at