CNN’s Sonora satanists scare

Maaro maaro sooar ko… (“Kill, kill, kill the pig…”): Mola Ram.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

Black and white — that is the way Hollywood likes its movies. By this I do not mean film stock but story line. Nazis are cinema gold. They will always be with us on the silver screen as they represent unrepentant evil. Steven Spielberg has been able to work Nazis into two of his Indiana Jones films, while the third saw a less well known, but equally unambiguous evil — the Thuggees and their high priest Mola Ram.

Spielberg took the story of the thugees, an Indian cult who worshiped the goddess of death — Kali — by murdering travelers and other unsuspecting victims, and mixed in a good helping of Aztec human sacrifice and devil worship to come up with a wonderful hiss-worthy villain.

Reading an article in CNN International this week on the murders of three people by members of the Santa Muerte cult brought this film to mind. The CNN presentation of Santa Muerte I found to be as flat and over the top as Spielberg’s thuggees. But what is praise worthy in a children’s movie is not always so in reporting.

The CNN story entitled “Officials: 3 killed as human sacrifices in Mexico” opens with:

Authorities in the northern Mexican state of Sonora have arrested eight people accused of killing two boys and one woman as human sacrifices for Santa Muerte — the saint of death — officials said Friday.

The victims, two of whom were age 10, were killed and their blood was offered at an altar to the saint, according to Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for state prosecutors. The accused were asking the saint, who is generally portrayed as a skeleton dressed in a long robe and carrying a scythe, for protection, he said.

Santa Muerte is a favorite among criminals and the country’s drug traffickers. The saint, though not recognized by the Catholic Church, has taken off in popularity in recent years.

Details of the case were laid out in a statement from the Sonora State Investigative Police (PEI), which described the cult as a “Satanic sect.”

The CNN story gives a surface description of what images of the saint look like, but does not anchor it to any bottom in the Mexican religious and cultural sea. For an American reader the language, the nouns and adjectives used in this story are Christian — saint, Satanic, Catholic Church, altar. Yet, CNN also says the “saint” is “not recognized by the Catholic Church.” Which means what, exactly? Is this another St Christopher or St George — popular saints removed from the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in 1969 because their historicity was doubtful?

What I find more troubling, however, is the assumption in the CNN story that ritual murder is normative in Santa Muerte. Are all devotees of Santa Muerte bloodthirsty killers?

A confusion of language in the CNN story dulls this story’s impact. Compare it to the work of Adriana Gomez Licon and Felipe Larios of the Associated Press. They have done an outstanding job in reporting the facts, motives and police theories surrounding the ritual murders of two young boys and a middle-aged woman near the town of Nacozari.  It avoids the sensationalism of the CNN lede by beginning its story with a look at the suspected murderers and then brings in Santa Muerte.

It was a family people took pity on, one the government and church helped with free food, used clothes, and farm animals. The men were known as trash pickers. Some of the women were suspected of prostitution.

Mexican prosecutors are investigating the poor family living in shacks outside a small town near the U.S. border as alleged members of a cult that sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure adored mostly by outlaws but whose popularity is growing across Mexico and among Hispanics in the United States.

The killings have shocked the copper mining village of Nacozari, on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Known as “flaquita,” or “the skinny one,” the figure known as Saint Death is portrayed as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and holding a scythe, much like the Grim Reaper.

In addition to developing the crime angle, the AP story, entitled “Mexican agents probe family in 3 ritual murders” in the version run in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, also brings in expert voices to speak about Santa Muerte.

Before last week, there have only been unconfirmed reports of human sacrifices related to the figure in Mexico in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

Chesnut said the 2007 shooting deaths of three men appeared to be related to Santa Muerte because the bodies were abandoned at a shrine to the figure outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But they showed no signs of being sacrificial killings.

He said that although most Santa Muerte devotees consider killing a “Satanic aberration of devotion,” and that books about the Santa Muerte don’t mention human sacrifice, some followers are extreme.

“With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals,” Chesnut said.

The bottom line for this expert is that mainstream Santa Muerte believers would consider ritual murder to be an aberration.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released in 1984 it was briefly banned in India for what was perceived to be a “racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies.” The CNN story does not rise to this level, but I am nonetheless troubled by its failure to distinguish between aberrant forms of Santa Muerte and the wider religious movement.

Would a story whose main characters professed a mainstream faith be treated the same way as this Santa Muerte story? When all Muslims are tarred with a broad-brush of being Islamist terrorists, or all Christians as intolerant fanatics by the antics of Fred Phelps — intelligent readers rightly complain that this is ludicrous. Yet CNN appears to be able to get away with this sort of hasty generalization about an unpalatable and somewhat far away religious movement.

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  • Maureen

    Nacozari is better known in Mexico, apparently, as the town where a heroic locomotive engineer gave his life to drive a train full of burning dynamite out of range of people.

    The family’s name is “Barron Meraz”, not “Meraz”, according to the Mexican newspapers; and the police chief’s name is “Espinoza Osuna”. Seems kinda shoddy reporting….

  • Dave

    A mainstream religion would get different treatment because the reporter wouldn’t have to explain what it is.

    Obviously this Pagan is glad to see the AP’s informed treatment of the topic, but I draw attention and praise to the expert they interviewed: An established academic, not some fly-by-night who makes a living alarming policemen in lectures your dime pays for.

  • Maureen

    The Mexican version of the story also says that Cleotilde and her husband sold paletas (those fruit ice cream bars) from a cart they pushed through the neighborhood, and that it was allegedly her friend Silvia who chopped off her head. Also, that people in Nacozari are pretty freaked out by all this ( and no wonder).

  • Maureen

    The town had a silent candlelight procession through the streets of the neighborhood, followed by a Requiem Mass for the dead in the parish church. Simple and decent.

  • Maureen

    La Prensa found a Sta. Muerte religious leader who claimed that the group doesn’t believe in human sacrifices. Her outfit is very purple.

  • Julia

    Nitpicking time.

    Santa Muerte is a favorite among criminals and the country’s drug traffickers. The saint, though not recognized by the Catholic Church

    There is a town in New Mexico known by the name of Santa Fe; in English that means Holy Faith, not Saint Faith.

    Saints are people. Neither faith nor death are people.
    Santa Muerte would be better translated as Holy Death.

    Spanish uses the same word; in English we use different words. We have Catholic churches in the US with names such as Holy Childhood, not Saint Childhood.

  • Maureen

    “Explained”, I meant. And yes, this is what newspapers should do — find spokespeople to give an opposing view or an enrichment.

  • Jerry

    … thugees, an Indian cult who worshiped the goddess of death — Kali

    Yes, the thugees did murder to honor Kali, but to call Kali the “goddess of death” is misleading at best. See, for example

    Kali: The Dark Mother
    Fearful goddess with a heart of a mother
    …Kali’s fierce form is strewed with awesome symbols. Her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature…Her nudity is primeval, fundamental, and transparent like Nature — the earth, sea, and sky. Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond the all maya or “false consciousness.” Kali’s garland of fifty human heads that stands for the fifty letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes infinite knowledge.

    Her girdle of severed human hands signifies work and liberation from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth show her inner purity, and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature — “her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s ‘flavors’.” Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and the eight bonds that bind us.

    Her three eyes represent past, present, and future…


    In the cycle of manifestation,
    Mother Kali is all in one;
    To the virtuous, a kind Mother,
    And to the offenders, a terror.

    As the Universal Mother
    She has all the powers
    Of creation, protection,
    And also destruction…

  • Jerry N

    BTW, I don’t think the Roman Church suppressed the Feast of St. George.

  • Ali

    It breaks my heart to hear that there are still religions using human sacrifice. This makes me so grateful for our savior and what he did so we did not have to have even an animal sacrifice for our religion any more!!

  • Laura Roush

    Awful reporting.

  • Chris Bolinger

    This is a nit, but Temple of Doom was not a “children’s movie”. It, Poltergeist, and Gremlins are credited with the MPAA’s decision to create a PG-13 rating.