When he will leave prison is anyone's guess, but El Niño has reason to feel hopeful: He relies on a protector who, he believes, prevented jail wardens from discovering a couple of strictly forbidden objects in his possession that could have increased his punishment by decades. "The guards didn't see a thing, even though they were right there," he says. This supernatural being watches over him when his enemies circle around—and she is there, as Antonio says in support of his buddy's faith, after all the friends you thought you had have forgotten your very name, and you're left, as the Mexican saying goes, without even a dog to bark at you. This miracle worker, this guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners, is La Santa Muerte, Holy Death.
She is only one among several otherworldly figures Mexicans have been turning to as their country has been overwhelmed by every possible difficulty—drought, an outbreak of swine flu followed closely by the collapse of tourism, the depletion of the reserves of oil that are the main export, an economic meltdown, and above all, the wretched gift of the drug trade and its highly publicized and gruesome violence. Although the total number of homicides in Mexico has actually decreased steadily over the past two decades, the crimes committed by the drug traders are insistently hideous and have so disrupted the rule of law that ordinary Mexicans regularly wonder aloud whether las mafias have already won their war against the Mexican state.
"The emotional pressures, the tensions of living in a time of crisis lead people to look for symbolic figures that can help them face danger," says José Luis González, a professor at Mexico's National School of Anthropology and History who specializes in popular religions. Among the helper figures are Afro-Cuban deities that have recently found their way to new shores and outlaws that have been transformed into miracle workers, like a mythical bandit from northern Mexico called Jesús Malverde. There are even saints from the New Testament repurposed for achieving not salvation but success. In this expanding spiritual universe, the worship of a skeleton dressed in long robes and carrying a scythe—La Santa Muerte—is possibly the fastest growing and, at first glance at least, the most extravagant of the new cults. "If you look at it from the point of view of a country that over the last ten years has become dangerously familiar with death," González says, "you can see that this skeleton is a very concrete and clear symbolic reference to the current situation."
Unknown to most Mexicans until recently, this death figure resembles medieval representations of the grim reaper but is fundamentally different from the playful skeletons displayed on Day of the Dead—the day when Mexicans' departed loved ones return to share with the living a few hours of feasting and remembrance. Her altars can now be found all over Mexico, on street corners and in the homes of the poor. Women and men alike are her followers. In the heart of Mexico City, in a neighborhood that has always been raucous and defiant, Enriqueta Romero leads a prayer session in honor of the skeleton every first of the month. Simultaneously flinty, foulmouthed, and motherly, Romero was among the first and the most effective propagandizers of a cult that some believe got its start in towns along the Gulf of Mexico but now covers a wide territory up and down the country. In California and Central America as well, young people light candles in La Santa Muerte's honor and tattoo her image on their skin in sizes small to extra large. A few years ago the Interior Ministry revoked its registration of La Santa Muerte as a legitimate religion, to no effect. Newsstands sell instructional videos showing how to pray to the saint, and even chic intellectuals are beginning to say that the cult is muy auténtico.