Santisma Muerte: A Troubling Trend in Radicalization
“I don’t know Hakim. This isn’t typical; it’s spreading. I’ve worked here for a few years now and this is different. The inmates are doing some strange religious stuff. We know they are praying, but we don’t know who they are praying to.” LASD Deputy
Faith can be a good thing, spurring some to good works and upright lives. The same is true of most laws, and this is echoed in scripture, “Knowing this, the law is not for a righteous man but for the lawless…” Criminals have no regard for law; it’s the very reason they flee from justice. But they do want faith. They seek help with their endeavors and seek a different apostle, god or saint if you will. They crave a relationship with someone who will allow them to operate outside of the law while granting protection, forgiving sins, and striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. If I was a criminal this might work for me; I might convert to some form of Santisma Muerte , as long as I can drop a few hexes along the way.
Yet the purpose of this article is not to focus on religious practices or primary loyalties we may not agree with; my purpose is to point out how radicalization is proliferating in many forms. Proliferation often takes place through mentoring. In fact, ideas about faith, ethnicity, culture and identity itself are being captured in diverse forms of indoctrination through questionable mentors who seek to undermine any form of legitimate rule of law. These practices are common with cults, sects, insurgents and revolt leaders. A familiar pattern is forming; criminal soldiers are creating disciples among a disaffected Hispanic population. It’s the latest craze in radicalization. Shrewd criminal networks and gangs are now acting upon the tenets of the Saint of Death in hopes of creating an even stronger bond with their members and solidifying their claims to authority by adding religious identity. Mexico and the state of Texas are the most fertile grounds for an expanding movement toward Santisma Muerte. The new preachers may soon pose a greater threat to international security by promising a holy death to their recruits and filling them with fervor unmatched by typical criminal orgs and gangs.
Recently one of my consultants returned from Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas with firsthand accounts of what she witnessed the few days she was there. The four most important findings are listed below.
1. She resided in the “colonia” area of the city stating it was “… like a very poor subdivision.” Fortunately she stayed with her cousin who was the president of neighborhood relations. Upon arrival her cousin informed the police that she had a relative in town visiting. In response to her request for security the police kept a car nearby because they were aware of the fact that visitors from the U.S are prime targets for assaults and muggings.
2. One of the photos taken on the trip was of the Cross of Nails. The symbolism spelled out what every nail attests to – a female that has been reported missing. Folks in Juarez and El Paso echoed chilling sentiments concerning the alleged abductions; “They were all killed or kidnapped.” She was told that these most of them were rumored to be given to gang members or drug cartels as gifts, especially if they were virgins. The rumor mill insisted that the Mexican police were involved, whether true or not, this belief is wide spread. Many family members have turned to Santisma Muerte as a result of their lack of faith or trust in the police or the protection of traditional saints. Protection is all important in this area and many turn to superstition and red or black magic for peace of mind. Red magic is for the purpose of helping your cause, whereas black is intended to inflict harm on adversaries.
3. The state of the neighborhood was rife with poverty and gangs. The military and police cooperate actively in neighborhoods similar to the barrio she stayed in. Random checkpoints stop passing cars and search for gang members, guns and drugs. Off duty police and even on duty police, are reportedly involved in vigilante executions, which the barrios praise and call “a good thing.”
4. Santa Muerte is spreading and many she spoke to believe in the ancient lady of death. They enthusiastically reflected on her power and spoke convincingly to my consultant. “She gives us miracles and she protects us from violence.” Because of the popularity of this saint, people also feel they need to show others they believe with them, in order to remain in good standing. The ordinary person who follows this also believes in traditional Catholicism, while the hardened criminal opts for only the saint and divests himself from any form of Catholicism whatsoever.
Santisma Muerte is not in and of itself something to be overly concerned about when practiced by ordinary citizens. The cause of concern should be when versions of this faith are being used by criminal organizations, gangs and inmates in order to justify their actions and gain assistance in their pursuits. Such belief fuels criminal activity and emboldens those who feel they can actually get away with their crime because of supernatural aid. Radicalization is prevalent in many terrorist circles and Santisma Muerte is associated with Catholicism by many Mexican believers, in spite of the churches repudiation of the practice. In short, radicalization is a movement not based in any particular faith, it is an innate revolt based in the renunciation of loyalty or devotion to previous beliefs; it is a revolt against previous ideas, mores and customs. Criminals who have an unbridled lust for things will come up with more creative ways to radicalize themselves and their followers. Like termites, they will eat away at the foundations wherever they reside.
Hakim Hazim is the founder of Relevant Now a nationally recognized security consultancy.
Photo credit: Corrections.com