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Santisima Muerte: Patron saint of security threat groups
By Tony Kail , Director, Forensic Theology Resource Center
Published: 07/09/2007

Orangeskeleton As a security threat group coordinator you may discover a mysterious image that has been appearing on the skin and in the writings of a number of criminal organizations. ‘Santisima Muerte’ or ‘Holy Death’ is an image that is finding popularity among members of such gangs as MS-13 as well as members of Mexican drug cartels.

The image typically appears as a skeletal figure holding a bladed sickle or a globe. Its exact origins are unknown, but there are a number of speculations that the icon comes from a mixture of Aztec heritage, Spanish Catholicism and even African religious culture. Regardless of the figure’s origin, its current symbolism has criminal justice professionals concerned.

The mythology of Santisima Muerte teaches that the spirit has the power to affect events in the lives of humans. Events surrounding money, love and justice can be manipulated through the power of the folk saint. Current literature and personal interviews with followers communicate a focus on the spirit’s power to protect criminals from law enforcement. International newspapers have even carried examples of ‘prayers’ that drug dealers offer to the spirit. U.S. law enforcement agencies in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Texas have encountered shrines and altars to the saint inside dwellings of narcotics traffickers.

Santisima Muerte’s most popular image is found in the form of a plastic or ceramic statue. The statue is hollowed out with various ingredients such as beans, rice, coins and thread placed inside. These ingredients represent various aspects of the saint and are typically ‘sealed’ in the base of the statue with wax.

The image can be male or female in gender, and is depicted in a number of colors including red, black, gold, white and green. The colors represent the specific purpose that the statue is being used for in rituals. For example, a black statue represents protection and aggressive magic while red represents matters pertaining to love. Some variations of the saint include removable hands, which can be removed from the image and returned to the image when the prayers are answered.

Offerings given to Santisima Muerte include gifts of flowers, fruit, coins, alcohol and cigarettes. Prayers called ‘Oracions’ are given to the saint to ask for her assistance and protection. Traditional religious artifacts of the Catholic Church such as rosary beads and prayer cards may be found in her shrine.

Magical operations with Santisima Muerte are known as ‘Trabajos’ or ‘Workings’. The three primary areas of magical assistance appear to focus on physical and spiritual protection, good fortune and issues relating to love.

While inmates may not have access to statues of the saint, corrections personnel may observe inmates with tattoos of the saint. Images may also be found on the jewelry of her followers. Some carry ‘amulets’ or ‘charms’ made from seeds, plastic beads and stone decorated with the saint’s image. A popular Santisima Muerte image is a mass produced amulet in the form of a necklace with the skeletal image on one side and an image of the saint ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ painted on the back.


There are no established sacred texts or orthodox rituals associated with the image, but a traditional church has been established in Mexico with some branches throughout the United States. There is an established church for the folk saint known as the ‘Traditional Catholic Church of Mexico-United States’ in Mexico City. Most followers of the saint appear to be practicing rituals obtained through oral teachings and a few written prayer books available through some retail outlets.

Santisima Muerte is also honored by those who are not involved in criminal activity. Some believe she is simply a saint that can identify with the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Inmates may pray to the image for protection from other inmates. Santisima Muerte is the personification of death and may be honored in order to avoid her wrath. The ‘angel of death’ may also give her followers ‘psychological strength’ if they believe that she will keep them from death.

The image’s subculture appears to be accepted within the religious cultures of Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria, Palo Mayombe and Haitian Voodoo. The religious communities of Mexican Curanderismo and Brujeria also appear to incorporate the image into their spiritual practices. Some followers of the folk saint call upon her powers without fully integrating the saint into their full-time religious practices.

Santisima Muerte is but one of a few folk saints that are honored for the protective power over criminal activities. The folk saint ‘Jesus Malverde’ is a ‘robin hood’ of sorts from Sinaola Mexico that was hung for committing crimes in the early 1900s. His image is adorned on jewelry for his ability to protect narcotics traffickers from law enforcement authorities. He is also known as the ‘narco saint.’

The Santisima Muerte subculture appears to growing. A number of incidents surrounding the figure continue to give the spirit’s reputation more credibility as a protector of crime. Murdered victims of the notorious Mexican Gulf Cartel were left at a public shrine to Santisima Muerte in Monterrey Mexico on May 11, 2007.

Reports of shrines discovered among drug labs and in the homes of drug dealers continue to grow. Corrections personnel should familiarize themselves with the use of the image among the inmate population.

Tony Kail is the Director of the Forensic Theology Resource Center, a private agency that provides training and consultation to law enforcement and public safety agencies on unfamiliar religious groups and ritualistic crime. Consultation services for corrections personnel are available at no cost. Contact the center at 1-800-205-4256 or www.cultcrime.org.



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