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Drug traffickers devoted to 'Saint Death'

May 2, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Inside the storefront of a Los Angeles temple, near the votive candles and religious posters, lays an ominous figure that's impossible to miss: a skeleton wrapped in a shroud made to look like money.

She is Saint Death, and her reach is spreading.

The origins of Saint Death, known by Spanish speakers as Santa Muerte, aren't clear. She's not officially recognized by the Catholic Church. But for decades, thousands of people in some of Mexico's most impoverished neighborhoods have prayed to Santa Muerte anyway, hoping she will bestow a life-saving miracle.

"We speak about God, about Jesus, but we also speak about Santa Muerte," says a man who goes by the name of Sisyphus, the pastor of a small temple in Central Los Angeles that's dedicated to Saint Death. "She will help you and grant you favors, but all the favors have to come with a little ingredient: faith."

Santa Muerte has taken on a much more sinister role in recent years. U.S. and Mexican authorities say the skeletal deity has become a patron saint for drug traffickers and criminals who seek protection from authorities.

Sgt. Oscar Mejia of the Inglewood Police Department says he has come across shrines in local homes where drugs have been confiscated.

In an effort to educate local police officers about the religious figure, Mejia is helping to organize a conference that will focus on the patron saints of the Mexican drug trade. The conference, sponsored by the National Latino Peace Officers Association, will include presentations by leading experts on Santa Muerte.

"It's critical for us as law enforcement officers to understand what we're up against," Mejia said. "(Santa Muerte) is supposed to help them and keep law enforcement away from them."

Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich says the conference is about helping law enforcement get a better understanding of the drug underworld.

"This is not about the religion, this is about the conduct that is going on outside of that, the illegal conduct," Trutanich said.

Sisyphus says Santa Muerte has been co-opted by criminals, while her true followers are just normal, everyday people.

"It is wrong to say that only the narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) worship the Santa Muerte," Sisyphus says.

At a recent service at the tiny chapel on Melrose Avenue, a handful of worshipers gathered while the service was streamed on the church's website.

"They're not afraid to say ... 'I adore Santa Muerte, I'm a follower of Santa Muerte,'" Sisyphus says.

Sisyphus says he will continue to work to make clear that not everyone who worships Santa Muerte is a criminal.

"If I were a narcotraficante this would be a mansion," he said as he sat in his temple. "We are the other side of Santa Muerte. We are the light side."

While Catholic Church officials in Mexico have spoken out against Santa Muerte, the Catholic diocese in Los Angeles had no comment on Sisyphus' temple.