The origins of a devil-worshipping cult which has seen cartels carry out human sacrifices can be traced to a small Mexican town – where locals stopped worshipping Jesus Christ.
Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is typically depicted as a skeletal grim reaper and has roots in Aztec and Mayan death gods.
Many devotees call themselves Catholic, but the church frowns about the cult – which is thought to have millions of followers across Latin America.
Its specific origins are unclear, but Santa Muerte gained traction in Mexico's slums and prisons.
Robert Almonte, cartel expert and former US federal marshal, believes the phenomenon began in the town of Tepatepec in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo several decades ago.
Mr Almonte has carried out research at narco-shrines across Mexico, and visited a Santa Muerte “cathedral” in the city of Pachuca back in 2007.
He told the Daily Star: “I went there and it’s just a beat-up old warehouse building with a lot of really dark stuff in there – statues of Santa Muerte, witches, and The Devil.”
Mr Almonte discovered an “antique looking” state of the Angel of Death, and was directed to Tepapetec after speaking to the cathedral’s caretaker.
He continued: “In visiting that church, I was told by the locals that about 70 years ago, the parishioners at a Catholic church wanted their priest to allow them to place a statue of Santa Muerte, representing the Angel of Death.
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“At first the priest refused, but eventually gave in and allowed it. After a while, the priest began noticing that the parishioners were praying only to the Angel of Death, and ignoring the other statues of the Catholic saints – and even ignoring the statue of Jesus Christ.
“This angered the priest and he ordered the statue to be removed, where it eventually ended up at a private shrine in the area.
“I was able to visit the shrine and I also spoke with the locals who basically told me the same story.”
Footage taken inside the shrine shows crowds of locals eager to pray to the statue.
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Though not everyone who worships Santa Muerte is tied to criminal activity, cartels across the country have latched on to the cult.
Last October, a Mexican gang created an altar to the saint using human skulls and other body parts .
Cops uncovered the horrifying site during a raid on five houses in the colonies of Peralvillo and Tepito in the municipality of Cuauhtemoc, Mexico City.
The 31 suspects, 26 men and five women, are all suspected of belonging to the La Union Tepito cartel.
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The altar was reportedly made up of satanic masks and contained human remains along with skulls covered with blood.
In 2017, 28 inmates were slayed in Acapulco prison in a Santa Muerte ritual with the complicity of guards,Reformareported.
Los Zetas, formed by corrupt members of an elite unit of Mexico’s special forces in 2010, have also come to embrace the cult.
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In 2012, they dumped the headless torsos of 43 men and six women on a highway between the US border and the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.
Some of the corpses were marked with Santa Muerte tattoos, theWashington Postreported.
Mr Almonte continued: “There’s fragments of them [the cartels] everywhere and they’re going to worship Santa Muerte wherever she is, or just on their own personal shrines.”
“A lot of these guys don’t actually go to these shrines every day…these cartels are too busy doing cartel business so they’ll have their own shrines inside their homes, they’ll wear Santa Muerte necklaces around their neck”, he added.
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