The Rise of the Cult of Death

Constanzo’s altar included Santa Muerte statues and Constanzo’s high priestess -- a woman named Sara Maria Aldrete Villareal -- was given the nickname La Madrina, Spanish for godmother. This is also one of the many honorifics Santa Muerte devotees give to their goddess. After her capture Villareal had this to say about the cult:

I don’t think the religion will end with us, because it has a lot of people in it. They have found a temple in Monterrey that isn’t even related to us. It will continue.

And indeed the cult has come a long way since the 1989 Matamoros murders. At last count there were at least ten public shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte in Mexico City and up to 120 public altars. A self-proclaimed bishop of the cult named David Romo Guillen ran “masses” at midnight venerating Santa Muerte starting in 2002. Attendance was estimated to average between two and three hundred people. In 2011 Guillen was arrested for running a kidnapping ring.

Santa Muerte shrines have increasingly been found among gang related businesses such as drug trafficking and prostitution rings, especially businesses run by MS-13,the Latin Kings, and the 18th Street gang. The shrines are used both to supernaturally aid the worshipers and to terrorize the communities they are in.

In one such case, Jorge Flores Rojas, a sex trafficker operating in Charlotte, North Carolina, used the goddess to scare his victims into submission. After kidnapping the daughter of an acquaintance and raping the girl repeatedly, Flores forced the girl in front of one of his Santa Muerte shrines. There he took her underwear, stuffed them in an offering container, and told the girl should she try to escape the saint would punish her. In this way he kept the teenager in line while he sold her to dozens of men, until she was rescued by police.