Narcos and bad guys venerate a saint called Death

A.M. Costa Rica graphic Sometimes Santa Muerte holds an hourglass.

There is a lot more to one of those fantasy statutes that are on sale in the malls and in specialty shops.

One type is generating some concern.

Wedged in among the dragons and skulls one frequently finds a statue that represents death. It’s all there, the scythe, the black or crimson robe and sometimes a rosary or a crystal ball.

The figure could have been sent up from central casting for a role in “The Seventh Seal.”  Despite the representation of death popularized by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the concept goes back further. Way back.

Academics trace what now seems to be a growing cult in Costa Rica to pre-Columbian religions in the Valley of México. The butchery and blood letting of the Aztecs and the self mutilation of the Mayan are well known. These religious traits submerged into Catholicism after the arrival of the conquistadors. They have resurfaced as part of an officially recognized institution in México, the Iglesia Católica Tradicional de México. There are about 2 million followers there, some experts estimate. There are at least enough to have put on a major demonstration in 2005 when leaders thought the Mexican government was going to cancel its official status.

But this is not your garden variety religious cult. This is where the drug traffickers go to church. The cult appears to have spread into Costa Rica along with other artifacts of the Mexican drug trade.

The death statutes are really those of a saint, according to this tradition. This saint, however, has not been declared by the papacy in Rome.

It is Santa Muerte, sometimes called Santísima Muerte or Niña Blanca.

Unlike traditional saints, Santa Muerte operates on the barter system. For a favor received or a curse removed or a love granted, a member of the faithful has to do something in return. Hired killers can easily work this requirement into their jobs. The next hit might be dedicated to Santa Muerte.

Some bad guys might honor their saint by having the figure tattooed on the back or chest. The saint also attracts those young Latin gang members from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who already are tattoo fans.

There have been some unsubstantiated hints of human sacrifice, but not in Costa Rica.

Several religious publications have said that the cult is moving into Costa Rica. There is aFacebook page, Santa Muerte Costa Rica, based in Heredia.

And there is a Web site where various curses can be found and copied. Another site simply contains a prayer for a painless death.

Clearly this Grim Reaper has many other dimensions. Drug traffickers and other bad guys like the saint because they pray for protection. Santa Muerte’s physical representation may be draped in a black, white or crimson cloak.  Red is for love. White is from luck and black is for protection. And the protection might be while committing a bloody crime.

Every statue has a scythe or guadaña, in Spanish. The crystal ball is there because Santa Muerte is said to predict the future for the faithful. Other representations have a model of the earth in her hand. This is to show death’s dominance.

Santa Muerte, although grammatically a woman, is known to accept gifts of tequila, cigars and even marijuana from the faithful. There are shrines in Mexico where anthropologists link Santa Muerte to the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli, who filled roughly the same role. There also is a similarity to the Greek Pluto who ruled the underworld.

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