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Mexican cult: ‘like fighting against Satan’
Jerry Pierce, Baptist Press
April 28, 2011
7 MIN READ TIME

Mexican cult: ‘like fighting against Satan’

Mexican cult: ‘like fighting against Satan’
Jerry Pierce, Baptist Press
April 28, 2011

LAREDO, Texas — They call her “La Santa Muerte,” the Saint

of Death, whose followers have multiplied rapidly over the last decade as

violence has gripped Mexico and spilled across the border, according to

missionaries who have witnessed the death cult’s growing influence.

From Mexico City to border towns such as Laredo, and lately in large American

cities such as Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, her cloaked, skeletal

icon, usually depicted gripping the Grim Reaper’s scythe, is often seen hanging

from the windows, entryways and sometimes on the tattoos of her disciples.

Her appeal lies in basic human desires — especially those of the poor and drug

runners who entreat her for protection and vengeance.

“Healing, money, protection, or they want power,” said Orpha Ortega, who along

with her husband William serves as a Southern Baptist missionary in Mexico

City.

The Santa Muerte cult is a growing concern for pastors in border towns such as Laredo,

where a meeting hosted by Southern Baptist missionaries in January drew

Spanish-speaking pastors, church leaders and at least one concerned police

officer whose experiences at a local jail prompted him to attend.

(Spanish-language video of the meeting is accessible here.)

The death cult figures are prominently in the surging violence by Mexican drug

traffickers known as narcos in interior Mexico

and along the U.S.-Mexico border, William Ortega told those at the meeting.

Photo by Kristen Hiller

In Mexico City’s notorious Tepito neighborhood, where the Saint of Death cult (“La Santa Muerte”) has a stronghold, International Mission Board worker William Ortega and Mexican pastor Mauricio Rojas pray for a man battling addiction.

For six of the 12 years they’ve been in Mexico City,

the Ortegas have ministered in the Tepito neighborhood, which is notorious for

its thriving black market. Poverty, drugs and violence are pervasive, and the

largest shrine to Saint Death is an institution there.

Of the 28 million people in Mexico City,

about 2 million are estimated to be followers of Saint Death, Ortega said, with

large numbers of them in Tepito.

The Ortegas welcomed the news in January that Mexican authorities had arrested

the leader of the Tepito shrine and the closest thing the cult has to a high

priest, David Romo, on kidnapping and money laundering charges.

Increasingly, the death cult has moved north, making inroads into border towns

and American cities where Mexican immigrants find work.

Ortega said adherents largely form two groups: drug dealers and the poor, with

the former seeking protection from authorities and vengeance on their enemies

and the latter seeking healing, protection from the violence around them, and

prosperity. The death saint, her followers claim, offers all of the above.

A Baptist worker in the Laredo area

told the Southern Baptist TEXAN he

hears testimonies of healing from cancer, AIDS and other ailments at the hands

of Saint Death.

“But most of the time, their promise of healing or protection involves the

killing of someone else in order to receive a miracle or in order to receive a

protection,” the worker said.

That was one of the points Ortega emphasized during the Laredo

meeting. In the Texas border town

and across the Rio Grande in Nuevo

Laredo is the largest number of Saint Death followers

along the Rio Grande, Ortega said.

Often, Christians are seen as enemies of the cult for winning converts and

refusing to syncretize orthodox Christianity with the death cult.

Although the Mexican government officially removed Santa Muerte from its list

of recognized religions in 2005 and the Roman Catholic Church has deemed it a

pagan cult, many of its adherents are said to mix their Catholicism with Santa

Muerte practices, the missionaries said.

With its authority in mostly oral tradition and its roots in ancient Aztec and

Mayan death gods, the cult easily spreads its message through folklore. Worship

practices include the placing of rum, flowers or candy at the feet of a Santa

Muerte altar, begging her favor in exchange for her favorite gifts.

In Mexico City, the Ortegas have

had success in some areas planting churches and winning converts, but they said

in Tepito some of the churches don’t last long “because they are weak

Christians and it is hard for them to grow with all of the opposition around

them,” Orpha Ortega said.

“You can go there (to Tepito) and give them a tract and they will read it, but

it’s almost like fighting against Satan himself,” Ortega said. “It’s a real

battle there.

“We still have not been harmed and are grateful to God for that. So continue

praying for us to be strong and be brave. And for other people for God to open

their eyes.”

In some border towns where many followers are either tied to drug cartels or

are seeking protection from them, the rise of the death cult has posed major

challenges.

“It’s affecting a lot,” said one missionary working along the border. “First of

all, they teach their followers they cannot talk to us. We are Christian, we

are their enemies, they are taught. Secondly, they try to attack us in different

ways. As a missionary here, they have threatened me, written notes. I’ve been

on their watch list. It is spiritual warfare.”

On the Texas side of the border,

the missionary was quick to note that short-term missionary volunteers are

relatively safe, explaining, “It is a problem for us because we are

encountering them on a daily, long-term basis.”

“Pray for safety while I’m doing the work,” the missionary said. “Pray for my

integrity and holiness. Pray the Lord will provide the right leaders to provide

churches. The only way we will win the fight is to plant those churches that

preach the truth.”

Bruno Molina, ministry associate for language evangelism at the Southern

Baptists of Texas Convention, said the death cult “is a challenge to the Gospel

not only in Mexico

but increasingly beyond the U.S.

border area into other areas of Texas.

The very name of its representative organization, roughly translated as ‘The

Traditional Church of Mexico-USA,’ implies that they do not see themselves as

just a Mexican ‘religious’ phenomenon but that they lay claim to the U.S.

as part of their cultic turf.”

“They claim 1.5 million adherents here in the U.S.

and, due to our shared border with Mexico,

many of them necessarily reside in Texas,”

Molina added. “This is evident not only in our jails but also in Texas front

yards that display Santa Muerte figures, cars and pick-up trucks decorated with

Santa Muerte decals, and people who are tattooed with Santa Muerte figures. The

Santa Muerte cult is virulently anti-Christian in that it promotes devotion to

someone, namely Saint Death, other than God through Jesus Christ.

“Our evangelism department is committed to exposing this challenge to the

Gospel and working with our pastors to equip their church members to meet this

challenge.”

Orpha Ortega said she was faced with the cult’s growing influence when she and

William traveled to her son’s college graduation last year in Lynchburg,

Va., only to happen upon Santa Muerte

paraphernalia for sale in a local store.

William Ortega said the couple is encouraged by the promises of 1 Corinthians

15:55-58, that the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ’s victory.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of

Texas Convention.)

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