MEXICO CITY - "I may be big but I'm very scared," Jorge says as we work our way through a series of narrow streets near the historic Zocalo plaza in Mexico City. Jorge Vasquez is a longtime friend, a successful lawyer in Mexico City and, most important, a huge and powerful looking man, exactly what I wanted in this allegedly dangerous area.
Our goal is to find either the sanctuary or the church of La Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death, and to see if this increasingly popular saint is, as many people believe, the protector of drug users and dealers. If so, this is another huge roadblock in Mexico's efforts to combat its brutal and virulent drug trade.
After all, if the people involved are not only in the drug business for its enormous profits but also believe that they have some sort of religious protection, then stopping them becomes much more difficult.
I first read about La Santa Muerte in a Nov. 10, 2008 article in the New Yorker, "Days of the Dead, the New Narcocultura," by Alma Guillermoprieto. She wrote, "The cult is known for the drug traffickers' devotion to it ..." Describing her visit to the sanctuary in Mexico City, she continues, "Along the edges of the packed street, young men took quick snorts of glue and sometimes wept. A thin tattooed and pierced man with terrible skin was the only one of many toughs who was willing to talk to me, and his amiability may have had something to do with the fact that he had just absent-mindedly assembled a joint about the size of a Robusto and was now wreathed in its smoke."
On April 26, 2009, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote about, "the government's campaigning against a saint who has become associated with drug dealers."
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What is the true story? Do drug dealers and users feel that they are protected by this saint? Are these places - the church and the sanctuary - hangouts for the drug business?
Now we're on the narrow Calle Bravo and there's the church. It's actually nothing more than several street-front rooms with a shrine to the rear. We stand nervously in the doorway until two young men wave us in. There is no evidence of drug use. A small parade of worshipers enter, bow to the Santa, ring a small bell, pray briefly, make an offering and leave. An older woman sells them candles.
Soon an officious-looking young priest appears. This is his church. We ask to speak to him but two reporters have arrived before us and have priority. I come back at 9 a.m. on another day, hoping to catch him before his 10 a.m. mass, but he doesn't show up until 10:45. Even then, there are only 15 people waiting for his service.
Outside a man named Alvaro and his son and daughter have a booth selling Santa Muerte souvenirs - plastic skulls, bracelets, even a booklet about La Santa Muerte by a writer named Juan Ambrosio. Alvaro tells us that La Santa Muerte has no particular connection to drug use.
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Early the following morning, I head out to find the sanctuary or "santuario" that was mentioned in the article by Alma Guillermoprieto. With me is long-time Coloradan Pat Fenton, who worked at the Colorado International Trade Office and now represents a water treatment company in Mexico. Our driver nervously asks for directions. We're back in the Tepito neighborhood, an area described by CNN as " one of the most infamous in the country, home to a flourishing black market, poverty and extensive crime." It seems peaceful, however, perhaps since it's only 8 a.m. (On a second visit, when we ask two police officers for directions, they insist on escorting us to the sanctuary and wait nervously while we visit. Our driver says that, although the police presence is enormous in central Mexico City, they stay on the major roads and rarely venture into areas like this.)
At the santuario, a middle-aged man named Raimundo asks us to wait while he washes the floor in front of the glass partition that contains the saint. His white dog sits quietly in a nearby doorway. Two young women, Jaqueline and Juana, come to pray. Soon Raimundo is setting up a display of souvenirs - pins, keychains, bracelets, statues of the Saint. Several thousand people visit every day, he says, so we presume the souvenir business is a booming one.
He makes a scoffing sound when I ask about a connection between La Santa Muerte and drug dealers. Then I notice a woman and girl in the back of his shop. His family, he says. He waves me into the shop and shows me a little bedroom where they all live. By the doorway, at the far end of the array of souvenirs, there is a small statue of a serious-looking man with dark hair and a mustache.
"Who is that? " I ask.
"Oh, that's Jesus Malverde," Raimundo says.
"Who is Jesus Malverde?" I ask.
"Don't you know? He's the saint." Raimundo answers as he hands me a magazine. It's a March 2009 issue of Ano Cero with Barack Obama on the cover. The first thing I see is an article about him that's titled "Obama, Angel or Demon?" Then I notice another article titled, "Malverde: The Saint of the Drug Traffickers."
"That's Jesus Malverde," Raimundo continues, holding the little statue in front of me.
"He's the real saint," he says.
"The real saint of the narcos?" I ask.
Raimundo nods. "Of course."