Mexican drug gangs worship Saint Death

Mexican drug gangs worship Saint Death
Tony Allen-Mills – Times Online January 10, 2010

She was yet another desolate victim of the endless drug wars ravaging the northern Mexican borderlands, one of more than 2,600 people murdered in Ciudad Juarez last year. When police found her body in a residential area close to the Rio Grande river, there were two distinctive signs that she had been caught up in the bloodsoaked feuding between the rival Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.

First, her head had been crudely hacked off — a trademark cartel warning to rivals. Second, her torso bore a distinctive tattoo of a cackling skeleton dressed in suggestive female clothing.

Police recognised it at once as Santa Muerte — best translated as Saint Death, a macabre feminine icon who has replaced the Virgin Mary as an improbable source of unholy comfort to Mexico’s legions of gangsters and hitmen.

“If you revere her and are faithful to her, she might look after you. But she’s a mean saint and beware her vengeance,” said Nacho Puente, a Juarez market vendor. In the past he sold statuettes of Santa Muerte mainly to tourists seeking souvenirs of the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s perversely cheerful funeral festival.

To the dismay of the Catholic church and the disgust of the Mexican government, a bogus saint from popular folklore has become a crucial accessory for junkies, gang members and cartel kingpins alike.

The government has dubbed the skeleton a “narco-saint” and sent troops to destroy the garishly decorated roadside shrines erected in her honour. In drug-related trials or in raids on supposed cartel strongholds, Santa Muerte is repeatedly invoked as an indication of depravity and guilt.

At the trial of Gabriel Cardona, accused of kidnapping and murder on behalf of the Gulf cartel, investigators alleged that he collected his victims’ blood in a glass and drank a toast to Santa Muerte. When police smashed into a house allegedly occupied by a leader of the Sinaloa cartel, they found an entire room turned into a Santa Muerte chapel.

To residents of Ciudad Juarez, the fuss over a cartoon-like figurine who appears more of a grim tart than a grim reaper would be funny were it not so desperate. After two years of spiralling strife, a military surge financed in part by the US has not only failed to reduce the mayhem, but many here believe it has made it worse.

“Our city is dying,” said Jorge Contreras, a factory owner. “A lot of businesses are closing their doors. Our entrepreneurs are leaving for the north [the United States]. Our young are losing their jobs and their only opportunities are crime.”

The new year has brought no respite from the bloodshed that has turned Juarez into what many Texans call “Baghdad on the border”. In the first five days of this year 51 murders were reported.

None was more sinister than the execution of Josefina Reyes Salazar, who was shot in the face in broad daylight last Sunday, a few days after she was warned anonymously that she had 24 hours to leave town.

Reyes was well known as both victim and campaigner against human rights abuses. One of her sons was murdered near her home. Another son, Miguel Angel, was taken away by uniformed soldiers in 2008 and has not been seen since.

“All she wanted was justice for her sons,” said Maricela Ortiz, her friend and fellow activist. “She went on hunger strike to demand information from the government. Her bravery made her a target.”

Like Reyes, Ortiz has been threatened for attempting to speak out about the mysterious disappearances that have multiplied since the military moved into the area. “I’ve had a gun put to my head. There are voices on the telephone, warning. People follow us taking video,” she said, her dark eyes smudged with tears.

“I went to a senior government official and he told me politely that I had nothing to complain about because my daughters hadn’t been kidnapped. He said that he knew the names of my daughters and where they went to school. He told me how dangerous it might be if I continued to complain.”

For Gustavo de la Rosa, a human rights activist who was forced to flee across the Rio Grande to a sanctuary in El Paso, Texas, the common view of Mexico’s violence as a containable civil war between rival cartels is a convenient fiction that masks political connivance, rampant corruption and government impotence.

Most analysts agree that the current conflict began in 2008 as a straightforward turf war when the Sinaloa cartel tired of paying off its Juarez rivals in order to move its drugs through their territory.

Since then, De La Rosa said, the gang warfare has splintered into an anarchic free-for-all that the authorities have failed to control; many in Juarez believe that corrupt officials, both civilian and military, are exploiting the mayhem to silence political critics and to make money for themselves.

“I believe there may now be 500-600 armed bandit groups operating in Juarez,” said Delarosa. “Most have between five and 10 members, some are allied with the cartels, others are working on their own.”

The result has been a catastrophic expansion of criminal activity away from drug smuggling into extortion, kidnapping and theft.

There was a brief lull when President Felipe Calderon, desperate to eradicate a serious embarrassment to Mexico’s image abroad, ordered 8,000 heavily armed troops and federal police into Juarez. But the violence resumed with fresh vigour — and is unlikely to stop soon, according to one of Juarez’s most influential business figures, who began our conversation with a warning: “I’m going to be dead tomorrow if you mention my name.”

The businessman, “Senor B”, recalled the day his premises were surrounded by police cars — a move he attributed to corrupt officers who were allegedly part of an extortion plot.

“I called the mayor and said, Pepe, I feel the heat. He sent the chief of police to see me and the chief made the cars go away. They stopped showing up to threaten me. A week later the chief was killed.”

After that “Senor B” fled to El Paso but never felt comfortable away from his home. So he went back to Juarez and turned his premises into a fortress, with high barbed-wire fences and machinegun-toting security guards on a 24-hour watch.

“Senor B” estimated that until recently 80% of the city’s officials were involved in criminal activity — either in the corrupt diversion of public funds, the awarding of municipal contracts to cronies or in the pay of the cartels. Like most of the city’s intellectual and business elite, he doubts that Juarez can recover without a comprehensive cleansing of the political ranks.

“Think of Palermo [once dominated by the Sicilian mafia], Medellin [resurgent former home to the Colombian cocaine cartels] and New York [formerly a US mafia stronghold],” he said. “There are lots of success stories but we need to see the bad people in jail.

“And I’m not talking about criminals and gangsters. I’m talking about the people we elect to solve this problem who become criminals and gangsters themselves.”

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