Love, money, protection—all are reasons to greet La Santa Muerte with a kiss. On the first of each month worshippers crowd a shrine in Tepito, a Mexico City barrio, despite the Roman Catholic clergy's denouncement of the icon.
Love, money, protection—all are reasons to greet La Santa Muerte with a kiss. On the first of each month worshippers crowd a shrine in Tepito, a Mexico City barrio, despite the Roman Catholic clergy's denouncement of the icon.

Troubled Spirits

In Mexico, the harsh realities of daily life have elevated unholy saints, who now stand beside traditional icons.

The inmate known as El Niño, or Little Boy, entered the Center for Enforcement of the Legal Consequences of Crime nine and a half years ago. Tall and gangly, with a goofy, childlike smile, he appears never to have grown up, though the memory of his deeds would make another man's hair go white. Abandoned by his father when he was seven years old and raised by his maternal grandparents, he was 20 when he committed the murder that landed him in this prison in the north of Mexico. His buddy Antonio, neatly dressed, alert, quick moving, and round eyed, was shoved into the same holding cell, charged with kidnapping. "We've been friends since then," one says, as the other agrees.

When he will leave prison is anyone's guess, but El Niño has reason to feel hopeful: He relies on a protector who, he believes, prevented jail wardens from discovering a couple of strictly forbidden objects in his possession that could have increased his punishment by decades. "The guards didn't see a thing, even though they were right there," he says. This super­natural being watches over him when his enemies circle around—and she is there, as Antonio says in support of his buddy's faith, after all the friends you thought you had have forgotten your very name, and you're left, as the Mexican saying goes, without even a dog to bark at you. This miracle worker, this guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners, is La Santa Muerte, Holy Death.

She is only one among several otherworldly figures Mexicans have been turning to as their country has been overwhelmed by every possible diffi­culty—drought, an outbreak of swine flu followed closely by the collapse of tourism, the deple­tion of the reserves of oil that are the main export, an economic meltdown, and above all, the wretched gift of the drug trade and its highly publicized and gruesome violence. Although the total number of homicides in Mexico has actually decreased steadily over the past two decades, the crimes committed by the drug traders are insistently hideous and have so disrupted the rule of law that ordinary Mexicans regularly wonder aloud whether las mafias have already won their war against the Mexican state.

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