Santa Muerte redux

You don't need to turn to the majors for examples of fine religion reporting. There are talented folk among the editors and writers in America's small town newspapers doing great work, and Jason Pitzl-Waters, who blogs at The Wild Hunt, has drawn my attention to one such story.

Take a look at a story in the McAllen, Texas newspaper The Monitor entitled "Stash-house Faith: Local authorities note rise in signs of drug traffickers' mysticism."

General Assignment reporter Ildefonso Ortiz has done a great job developing the religion angle of a story about the Santa Muerte cult and Mexican drug gangs. His work stands in sharp contrast to an item in the Daily Telegraph I wrote about last week in Get Religion.

Thus, having written how not to do something at the expense of the Telegraph, let me point to the merits of The Monitor piece.

Ortiz opens by reporting that police are "finding more and more items related to the Santa Muerte -- and to other forms of witchcraft -- as they work narcotics operations."

He develops the story, quoting Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño as saying: “Drug smugglers erect these altars to some kind of saint or deity, typically to the Santa Muerte or to Malverde, for protection from police or from rival groups.”

The article then gives an explanation of the cult, offering the views of an expert in the field.

The belief in magical or supernatural entities that provide protection is deeply rooted in the Latino culture, said Antonio Zavaleta, an anthropologist who has published various books on belief systems and the occult.

The Latino culture has a deeply rooted belief in saints who are believed to have certain powers over certain situations, Zavaleta said. The belief in witchcraft also has been present in the Mexican culture for generations, and that belief is passed down from parent to child.

Belief in the Santa Muerte -- though different from witchcraft -- is passed down similarly, Zavaleta said.

“Witchcraft is a practice where someone goes to a practitioner or a witch to cast a spell in favor of something or against something else, such as law enforcement, in this case,” he said.

Believers will call on a saint when they need help for a specific situation, Zavaleta said. St. Jude, for example, is believed to offer assistance in difficult causes.

The Santa Muerte falls into the category of Folk Saints, which -- despite a devout following -- are not accepted by the Catholic Church.

“The belief in the Santa Muerte is pretty recent,” Zavaleta said. “It began about 30 years or so” ago before moving north to the border.

Ortiz then ties Santa Muerte back into the Mexican drug cartels stating that in the late '80s one gang began dabbling in the occult, seeking mystical protection from the police and other gangs. The Monitor also addresses sociological questions with references to expert opinion, rather than assumptions.

Although local authorities are finding more altars and other witchcraft paraphernalia, Zavaleta’s research points less to an increase in believers and more to a relocation of them.

As more and more immigrants move to the Rio Grande Valley and further north, they bring their beliefs along with them. Drug smugglers likewise bring their practices along as they move north to further their business, Zavaleta said.

The story closes by returning to the local scene, ending with a colorful quote from the sheriff.

While the belief in the supernatural smugglers has taken various forms in the Valley -- whether witchcraft, Santa Muerte or Palo Mayombe -- authorities have one message for believers.

“Obviously it doesn’t’ work,” Treviño said.

Now I understand that the Telegraph story was published in the news blog section. It wasn't quite a news article nor was it an opinion piece, and it perhaps is unfair of me to compare that story to this.Nevertheless (a nice word I like to use when clearing my throat before going for the kill) here is the bottom line: This is a nicely polished gem that neatly melds a religion story with a crime story.

Straight forward solid reporting.

So, kudos to The Monitor and Ildefonso Ortiz.

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