Home 2013 February Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings, Part 2

Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings, Part 2

U.S. law enforcement agencies face the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship; of greatest concern, the activities of this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States. Part 2 of 3. By Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D.

Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings
Part 2 of 3 | (Part 1) | (Part 3)
By Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D.


Killings in Mexico

Similar circumstances have helped link killings in Mexico to Santa Muerte worshipers. While such incidents—including those with ritualized components—represent a small minority of murders perpetrated by Mexican cartels and gangs, enough allegedly have taken place to generate alarm.

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It remains unclear if these violent killings represent the acts of secular psychopaths or those following some sort of ritualized spiritual purpose.

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  • In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection.10
  • During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
  • In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers.
  • In December 2009 and January 2010 in Ciudad Júarez, perpetrators murdered individuals in apparent Santa Muerte ritual killings. Regarding one incident, authorities found at the crime scene the remnants of an apparent altar and the words “Santa Muerte” and cuídanos flakita (take care of us, skinny) spray painted. In the second crime, gang members burned a victim behind a house containing an altar and a small Santa Muerte statue. Interviewed neighbors said that the killers—part of the Hillside 13 Gang—asked for “something big”; as a result, the perpetrators performed multiple human sacrifices.
  • In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
  • In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.
  • In Cancun in June 2010, investigators found the bodies of six tortured victims, three with their hearts cut out and with the letter “Z” carved into their abdomens, in a cave outside of the resort city. Presumably the killers belonged to the Los Zetas Cartel, and the victims belonged to a competing group.
  • In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims. The perpetrators left two skulls and numerous cigarette packs as offerings. The circumstances behind the origins of the skeleton and skulls—if they were prior cult victims—remain unknown.11

Additional incidents allegedly have occurred involving victims with their skin and hearts removed. Other cases have included individuals castrated and beheaded while alive, lit on fire and burned to death, and butchered and quartered. Sometimes, authorities found only the victim’s skin. It remains unclear if these violent killings represent the acts of secular psychopaths or those following some sort of ritualized spiritual purpose. Over five centuries ago, worshipers offered the skins of human sacrifices to the Aztec gods. It has not been confirmed whether some Santa Muerte worshipers have revived this practice.

These ritualized killings bring back memories of the 1989 murder of an American college student in Matamoros. Investigators found the victim’s brain in a ritual black cauldron, or nganga, belonging to a local marijuana-smuggling ring that practiced an extreme form of Palo Mayombe. This gang offered over a dozen people, including the victim, as human sacrifices to ensure the magical protection of its members. An old crime scene photo displays a Santa Muerte statuette among the ritualistic tools belonging to the group.12  An incident once considered anomalous now serves as an early event warning of the growing influence of narcocultura in Mexico.

Finally, the massacre of Santa Muerte-worshiping cartel members may represent the broadening of spiritual violence in Mexico: “A report of mass murder in the northern State of Sinaloa revealed that over 50 victims were discovered with tattoos and jewelry depicting Santa Muerte.”13 This event took place before 2007 and characterizes a failed raid on Sinaloan-controlled territory being brutally avenged.

Murders in the United States

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…the massacre of Santa Muerte-worshiping cartel members may represent the broadening of spiritual violence in Mexico….

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In the past, inspired and ritualistic killings occurred primarily south of the U.S. border in Mexico. What may have served as the turning event was the October 2010 Chandler, Arizona, beheading incident—though at least one earlier murder exists:14

During 2005 and 2006 in south Texas, Gabriel Cardona Ramirez, a kill-team leader for the Los Zetas Cartel, engaged in multiple homicides. Relating to one incident: “In a telephone conversation with convicted Zeta Sicario Rosalio ‘Bart’ Reta intercepted by DEA agents, Cardona bragged about how he slashed…two teenagers with a broken bottle, gathered their blood in a cup, and made a toast to the Santisima Muerte, or death saint. He later disposed of their bodies in a barrel filled with liquid fuel, a method known as a guiso, or stew.15

However, the more recent Chandler event gained considerable media attention and became thoroughly documented due to the police incident report released to the media. During the early hours of October 10, 2010, a cartel kill team stabbed and beheaded Martin Alejandro Cota “Jando” Monroy, 38 years old, in his apartment. Earlier, Monroy had stolen marijuana and methamphetamines from the PEI-Estatales/El Chapo drug trafficking organization and fled from Mexico to avoid his own murder. Initially, he had been captured by the Los Relampagos enforcement/kidnapping group sent by the cartel, but he talked his way out of being killed by offering a house he falsely claimed to own as collateral for the stolen narcotics. Via the El Gio Syndicate, the cartel sent three operatives to the Phoenix, Arizona, area to locate and watch Monroy until orders to kill him came through. The operatives befriended Monroy and moved in with him before the murder. Prior to the killing, Monroy, a neighbor, and the three killers spent the night drinking at a local bar and talking about Santa Muerte. Earlier, Monroy bragged that he had protection from death, previously died five times and came back, and could kill someone by just looking at them.16

A written report, videotape, and photographs documented Monroy’s murder, which featured his body and severed head laying in his living room. The police incident report noted the Santa Muerte imagery at the crime scene.17

The written report listed burning candles and a small statue and picture of Santa Muerte. It did not mention the colors of the candles, statue, or the nuances of the photo (though this information should exist in video footage and photographs), and no items were collected for processing as evidence.18 This suggests that authorities treated the crime scene solely as a secular homicide and did not focus on the spiritual potential surrounding the killing. If nothing else, the kitchen directly opened up to the living room, suggesting that the lit candles illuminating the Santa Muerte shrine cast their glow on the killers and the victim during the beheading.

Since the Chandler incident, two other killings (one confirmed as Santa Muerte-linked and one possible) allegedly have occurred within the United States. In April 2011 local law enforcement officers investigating a dozen killings in Chicago, Illinois, identified multiple suspects as Santa Muerte followers. Two had Grim Reaper tattoos. Santa Muerte shrines were found in the homes of the arrestees, who slit their victims’ throats in some of the killings.19

In September 2011 a man in Sullivan City, Texas, was found stabbed and burned to death in the remains of his trailer. Next to the rubble stood a small shed containing a Santa Muerte shrine with still-lit candles. Presumably, the shrine is associated with the homicide victim, but the motivation behind the crime remains under investigation.20

Having only four documented (three confirmed) Santa Muerte homicide related incidents is encouraging, particularly because the Mexican cartels have operatives in over 1,000 U.S. cities.21 Methodological issues pertaining to the possible underreporting of such killings—because authorities misidentified them or the media did not report them—and the crossborder potentials of the Santa Muerte-linked killings still pose concern.

 Dr. Bunker has worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and currently serves with the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and as an adjunct faculty member with Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. At the time of the writing of this article the author was serving as an instructor with the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.


10 Story provided to a researcher by a local Santa Muerte follower.

11 First compiled in 2009, this listing has increased with the inclusion of newly occurring, as well as identified, incidents. See Pamela L. Bunker, Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker, “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos,” in Narcotics Over the Border, ed. Robert J. Bunker (London, UK: Rouledge, 2011), 166; and Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Societal Warfare South of the Border?” Small Wars Journal (May 22, 2011), http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/societal-warfare-south-of-the-border. New incident sources include: “Another Slaughtered in Honor of the Holy Death,” Noticieros Televisa (January 10, 2010), http://neglectedwar.com/blog/archives/875 (accessed August 28, 2012); “Indetifican Cabeza ‘Ofrendada’ en Tumba de ‘El Barbas,’” (January 18, 2010), http://www2.esmas.com/noticierostelevisa/mexico/estados/130952/identifican-cabeza-abandonada-tumba-el-barbas  (accessed August 28, 2012); Mail Foreign Service, “Drug Cartel Victims Discovered with Their Hearts Cut Out Close to Mexican Resort of Cancun,” Daily Mail (June 7, 2010), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1284590/Bodies-hearts-cut-close-Mexican-resort-Cancun.html (accessed August 28, 2012); and Daniel Borunda, “Skeleton, Santa Muerte Altar Found at Alleged Kidnapping Site in Juárez,” El Paso Times, July 15, 2011, http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_18481956 (accessed August 28, 2012).

12 Tony M. Kail, “Crime Scenes and Folk Saints,” Counter Cult Apologetics Journal 1, no. 1 (2006): 4.

13 Ibid.

14 Bunker, “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos,” 166.

15 Jason Buch, “Zeta Gets Life,” Laredo Morning Times, March 6, 2009 (also posted as “Zeta Blood Lust: Three More Cartel Members Plead Guilty in Major Fed Case” and mirrored on a number of Web sites). See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2201097/posts (accessed August 28, 2012).

16 Laurie Merrill, “Chandler Beheading Tied to Mexican Drug Cartel,” The Arizona Republic, March 2, 2011, http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2011/03/02/20110302chandler-beheading-mexico-drug-trafficking0303.html (accessed August 31, 2012).

17 Publicly released report from the Chandler, Arizona, Police Department.

18 Ibid.

19 Frank Main and Kim Janssen, “Sources: Two Charged in Double Murder Suspected in 10 Other Killings,” Sun Times, April 2, 2011, http://www.suntimes.com/news/crime/4054640-418/story.html (accessed August 31, 2012).

20 Stephanie Bertini, “Santa Muerte Shrine Found Outside Sullivan City,” KRGV.com, September 21, 2011.

21 Accusations have focused on recent Arizona shooter Jared Loughner as being a Santa Muerte follower. These appear unfounded even though he had a skull shrine with offerings in his back yard and engaged in other bizarre activities. While he may have had an affinity for Satan or the Grim Reaper, such associations do not mean that Loughner, a mentally unstable individual, is a Santa Muerte follower; and U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2011 (Washington, D.C.: August 2011): 8



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