Home 2013 February Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings, Part 3

Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings, Part 3

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 3 of 3. By Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D.

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


Law Enforcement Investigations  

Law enforcement professionals who encounter Santa Muerte artifacts and related narcotics cult paraphernalia at crime scenes should not dismiss them hastily. Such items provide insight into the spiritual orientation of suspects, arrestees, persons of interest, and potential victims of Santa Muerte-linked killings. For instance, an altar containing blood, bones, burned plastic police figurines, and black statuettes and candles will determine different worshiper intent than one containing a rainbow statuette, blue and bone candles, and offerings of various types of fruit.

Some Mexican cartels, such as Los Zetas, consider Santa Muerte their patron saint; for this reason, the more specific the information gathered the better. While understanding the ritualistic nature of a homicide ultimately may not help to convict a suspect for the specific crime investigated—though additional charges may be warranted due to its premeditated nature—doing so will help provide baseline criminal data that authorities can use at the regional law enforcement intelligence center level.

Officer performance and safety issues, primarily those of an emotional or mental nature, need consideration during investigations of crime scenes involving Santa Muerte altars and ritualistic activities—even benign ones. Peace officers in cartel training have stated that they will have nothing to do with such Santa Muerte artifacts as altars, candles, statues, amulets, pictures, and sacrificial items because they consider them evil and, as a result, will not enter dwellings that contain them. In fact, Santa Muerte informational training can prove so stressful for some law enforcement and public safety officers that they can become physically ill and pass out. This has happened during training more than once.22 Programs and writings concerning wellness and spirituality in policing can provide “spiritual armor” against dark ritualistic crime scenes and altars containing human remains.23

While U.S. law enforcement personnel in some parts of the nation, such as southern Texas, are familiar with Santa Muerte worshipers working for the cartels, officers in other areas know little about such cartel members. Introductory booklets and reports, subject matter experts, and training programs can provide useful background on this growing cult. Training also is offered by local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) centers whose Mexican cartel and gang-focused training increasingly has narcotics saint content. Such training is being provided by the Los Angeles HIDTA and other entities in the southern border state areas.

Open Quotes

Law enforcement professionals who encounter Santa Muerte artifacts and related narcotics cult paraphernalia at crime scenes should not dismiss them hastily.

Close Quotes

For specialized federal assistance, the FBI can provide training in management of death investigations and spirituality. Law enforcement agencies can submit requests in writing in coordination with their local FBI field office (Note—Training commitments are based on resource, FBI personnel, and other training availabilities.).

Investigative support programs pertaining to Santa Muerte related killings still emerge as the need for them is being identified nationally.  This means that additional training and resources provided by local, state, and federal organizations may become available to U.S. law enforcement officers in the future. While no certainty exists that Santa Muerte-inspired, much less ritualistic, killings will spread within the United States, recent trends suggest that they will occur at least sporadically. For U.S. law enforcement officers, it proves far better to be prepared and vigilant than caught off guard.


The latest variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte promotes extreme, corrupt, and criminal—even evil—behaviors. Law enforcement agencies need to provide a balanced, yet vigilant, response.

The rise of a fully criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could emerge across the border and manifest domestically in the United States. 

The author would like to thank Robert Almonte, U.S. Marshal, Western District of Texas, whose “Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld” training provided additional research and law enforcement practitioner insights used in this article.

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.


22 Sessions conducted by U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte.

23 Samuel L. Feemster, “Wellness and Spirituality: Beyond Survival Practices for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2009: 2-8; “Spirituality: An Invisible Weapon for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 2009: 1-12; and “Spirituality: The DNA of Law Enforcement Practice,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2007: 8-17.

Additional Resources


Kevin Freese, The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Santa-Muerte/santa-muerte.htm.

Tony Kail, Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint of Death (Seattle, WA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2010).

Tony Kail, Magico-Religious Groups and Ritualistic Activities: A Guide for First Responders (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2008).

Internet Resources

Robert J. Bunker and Pamela L. Bunker, Santa Muerte and Mexican Narcocultos (Quantico, VA: FBI Academy, Quantico, 2011), http://fbilibrary.fbiacademy.edu/bibliographies/santamuertenarcos.pdf.



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