The Vatican s culture minister called Mexico s Santa Muerte blasphemous, and said the so-called Saint of Death has no place in any religion. The comments were made during a visit by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi to Mexico City.
However, devotion to the figure celebrated in narco folk songs and honored at a shrine in a rough neighborhood in Mexico s capital city is spreading in regions plagued by drug violence.
Along the border, shops on both sides sell Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, figures in all sizes.
Me, I don t believe in it but other people do. They take that very seriously, said Alejandro Fernandez, a customer.
He was with his wife browsing in a botanical shop in El Paso that sells candles, good luck charms and offers limpias, or spiritual cleansings.
A medium-sized Santa Muerte statute in the corner of the store was covered in dollars left by customers seeking protection from the grim reaper figure.
One customer left a bottle of tequila at the foot of the figure of the folk saint.
Most customers were reluctant to talk about the Santa Muerte publically.
Those who did said they know very little about her.
Honestly, I thought it was like death coming for you, said Nancy Alvarez, a parishioner in El Paso who said Catholics should pay attention to the Vatican when it comes to Santa Muerte.
It s from the Vatican and that s where everything comes from. It s the next closest thing to God, said Alvarez.
While parishioners who attend church regularly shun Santa Muerte, some believers also consider themselves Catholic.
Santa Muerte figures have turned up in drug stash houses in Texas and fill the shelves of one popular shop in Laredo.
Sanctioned or not, devotion to the folk saint is growing along drug smuggling routes and in regions ravaged by violence.
In Matamoros, where the Catholic Diocese runs a migrant shelter, a priest recently found himself driving behind a car with a Santa Muerte figure painted in red on the back window.