Santa Muerte devotional material used as part of U.S. Marshal law enforcement training program. (Image courtesy of KWES Newswest 9)

A recent “Special Report” from KWES NewsWest 9 in Texas (Click Here for the report) provides a clear picture of the drivers involved in creating the official confusion surrounding Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition.

The following statement from U.S. Marshal, Robert Almonte is telling of the information being considered by law enforcement officials and academics attempting to understand Santa Muerte:

You have two different kinds of people that are praying to her. Not just praying to her, but worshiping her. Those two sets of people include people that are not involved in criminal activity and then those that are involved in criminal activity.

This statement is from a man who has been studying Santa Muerte for a decade and presenting classes around the country to other law enforcement officials. With such a complex situation, the necessity of legal black and white does very little to really explain what is going on. Some are criminals, some aren’t, in terms of law enforcement this makes sense, in terms of gaining a deeper sense of Santa Muerte’s devotees this binary statement contains nothing to aid in understanding. Thankfully, while the media in this instance has used Almonte’s insights to court controversy, if you listen to him speak, and read what he is saying in context, he in no way endorses a blanket condemnation of Santa Muerte, Saint Jude, or any of the folk saints that have become in some way associated with criminality.

Almonte provides a very neutral image of the petitionary color associations that goes against some of the fear mongering present in the media. “Most of the time, white is for good luck. Black is for protection and red is for love…Not everyone who follows and prays to Santa Muerte is involved in criminal activity.  These are just warning signs or red flags for law enforcement.” Unlike many reports on the topic, the use of the black candle for protection is highlighted here, rather than it’s potential for use in harmful petitions. This is a good sign that within the U.S. justice system officials are not being completely lax in their attempt to get a more accurate picture of Santa Muerte’s devotees.

Unfortunately, the media takes a different track, and by combining decontextualized statements from law enforcement officials with the misinformation provided by academics like Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who sees witches around every corner,  you have the basis for a very skewed vision of Santa Muerte built on the emotional, cognitive and sociological immaturity of mass media.

Which, ironically, is why Santa Muerte has been gaining popularity in the first place. When the official image being presented to the public does not fit the reality people face every day, people turn to something that is closer to what they experience. Today, with the level of violence, corruption and confusion in society sometimes the only thing that people feel they can trust can trust is death itself.

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