La Madrina Enriqueta Vargas Ortiz (b. 1959 – d. 2018), the charismatic leader of Santa Muerte Internacional, has died after a prolonged battle with cancer.

The SMI temple in Tultitlan will hold a viewing on December 19th at noon, beneath the feet of the largest statue of Santa Muerte in the world. On December 20th she will be laid to rest alongside her son, Jonathan, in Jardin de Recurdos cemetery.


“Sin dolor, sin temor y con fe.” – “Without pain, without fear and with faith.”

In the spring of 2014 Jonathan Legaria Vargas became the first canonized figure in the decentralized cult of Santa Muerte, and perhaps one of the first folks saints to develop out of the tradition of another one. This surprising event marked a major milestone in the spiritual career of la Madrina Vargas, whose rise to public leadership at Santa Muerte Internacional came through a promise she made to avenge her son’s death:


“Entonces le hice una promesa a la Santa: tú me entregas a los asesinos, y yo voy a tratar de llevarte a lo más alto que pueda.”

Vargas made a promise to Saint (Death), “You turn over his killers to me, and I’ll try to to take you the greatest heights.” The once devout Catholic, who had up to this point been uncomfortable with her son’s fervor, pledged she would devote herself to tending Santa Muerte’s tradition if the Powerful Lady would bring justice to the murderers that took her son’s life. Events over the coming months transpired such that Vargas felt Saint Death had fulfilled Her end of the bargain, and since then La Madrina Vagas began tending to the Tutilan shrine with vigor.

Through her innovative use of social media platforms and digital communication tools, along with her charismatic Evangelical-style leadership, the organization has become a popular source for information on Santa Muerte, built upon a strong global community of devotees connected through live video coverage of regular worship services at the shrine and digital outreach on Facebook.
Along with her ministry for Saint Death, Vargas reported a series of visions of her son acting as an intercessor and intermediary for Santa Muerte, building the public narrative of his empowerment. Other devotees associated with the temple, and some devotees outside SMI, have reported similar experiences and miraculous events surrounding him as well. The ritual necklaces that he wore have become a symbol of faith and spiritual power of SMI. They were with him at the time of his murder in 2008, and since receiving them, Vargas continued to wear them at every service she oversaw.


Devotees around the world are reflecting on la Madrina’s passing. Arley Vasquez, an SMI leader in Queens and devotional pioneer in New York City says:

“Enriqueta Vargas fue y seguirá siendo la que abrió caminos para dar a conocer el culto formando líderes que hoy conforman Santa Muerte internacional en Mexico y en el extranjero una persona que nunca perdió el piso su carisma sobre todo su humildad fue lo que hizo que miles de personas la quisiéramos como una madre yo tengo tantos hermosos momentos compartidos  de hecho fui la que en tan poco tiempo compartiera mas a su lado cada vez q venía a New York me siento muy triste lloro desconsolada por su partida pero también se q descansa y estará al lado de su querido hijo Jhonatan Legaria Vargas “el comandante pantera “ como ella lo quería descansa en Paz mi querida madre mi hermosa Enriqueta Vargas.”


“Enriqueta Vargas was and will continue being the one who blazed trails in spreading the faith and training leaders who today compose Santa Muerte Internacional in Mexico and abroad. She was a very anchored and charismatic person and above all it was her humbleness that made thousands of people love her as a mother. And I have so many treasured moments with her. In fact, I was the one who most at her side during her visits to New York. I feel very sad and am crying inconsolably over her departure, but I also know that she’s at rest and will be at the side of her beloved son Jhonatan Legaria Vargas “Commander Panther” just as she wished. Rest in peace my dear mother, my beautiful Enriqueta Vargas.”

While Enriqueta Romero Romero was the pioneer in transforming what used to be an occult practice known to very few Mexicans into the burgeoning public devotion that it is today, Enriqueta Vargas quickly became both the public spokesperson in Mexico and a dynamic agent of evangelization and institutionalization uniting shrines and temples across Mexico, the U.S., Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala under the command of SMI. More than any other devotional leader it was Vargas who played the biggest role in making Santa Muerte the fastest growing new religious movement in the West, with some 12 million devotees across the globe.


Andrew: On a personal note, I will miss her beaming smile and unmatched hospitality. She opened the temple doors of SMI to me on numerous occasions allowing me to interview devotees for my book, “Devoted to Death.” Descansa en paz, Enriqueta.

David: Enriqueta was a true pioneer, an astoundingly adept leader whose community ministry in Mexico City was able to expand to a global scale, all under the unlikely banner of Santa Muerte – la Dama Poderosa – who Enriqueta saw as a figure of faith, charity and inclusion, while at the same time being open about her own struggle to come to human terms with the pain and suffering she experienced surrounding the death of her son.

Her dedication and openness turned SMI into a world wide truly ecumenical effort to life up the marginalized and dispossessed. She will be missed, but her spirit lives on.
Co-authored by David and Andrew

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