ECATEPEC, Mexico — The visions appear so often these days that they cause little stir. The tall, wiry figure of the late Jonathan Legaría is still a regular at his temple, while his followers say he imparts wisdom as they dream.
It is 10 years since assailants gunned down the 26-year-old in a hail of some 250 bullets. But the murder of one of the most influential spiritual leaders in Mexico’s recent history has not diminished Santa Muerte, the skeleton folk saint he revered whose name in English would be Saint Death.
In fact, the movement he left behind has strengthened since his passing. The fallen preacher has assumed a saint-like status, while his bereaved mother, Enriqueta Vargas, skillfully guides his flock.
Known as Comandante Pantera (Commander Panther), Legaría founded Santa Muerte International — the loose group of devotees that has grown since his murder. He also built a 72-foot skeleton statue that still towers above its drab surroundings here in Ecatepec, just outside Mexico City.
Inaugurated in December 2007, the statue is among the two most famous Santa Muerte landmarks in the world — the other being the public shrine in the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.
“[Comandante Pantera] was crucial to the cult,” said Mariel Guerrero Díaz, a regular at the temple. “Thanks to him people began seeing more of Santa Muerte. She wasn’t so hidden and looked down upon.”
Every month, thousands stop by to make their petitions to the looming effigy. They leave offerings such as flowers, cigarettes or even bags of cocaine at the temple’s altars.
To these worshippers, Santa Muerte is a powerful miracle worker, capable of offering prosperity, protection or vengeance. Most consider themselves Catholic, although the Vatican has characterized the devotion as an infernal cult.
But the devotees connected directly to Santa Muerte International represent just a fraction of her global following. While the precise origins of the cult are up for debate, experts agree that public and private altars dedicated to the folk saint have multiplied in the past two decades.
There are currently an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees across the Americas, making Santa Muerte the fastest-growing new religious movement in the region, according to Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.
The vast majority of them are law-abiding citizens. But the media has often portrayed the devotion as a narco-cult and highlighted the discovery of Santa Muerte imagery in the raided homes of drug traffickers.
Mexican authorities have subscribed to this view and the army has routinely destroyed Santa Muerte shrines along the U.S. border.
Legaría himself faced a hostile local government, which instructed him to remove his giant statue because it broke building regulations — an order he refused to follow.
However, he did little to clean up the movement’s image.
His first self-published book, Santa Muerte: Revelations, outlines several spiritual rituals, including one for the extermination of enemies and another for criminals looking to avoid arrest.
But some law-abiding devotees are uncomfortable sharing their saint with criminals.
“I am embarrassed by the narco abuse of her imagery and power,” said Warren Robert Vine, a devotee from Texas who was visiting the shrine. “But I sincerely believe there is a new branch growing within the faith that focuses on people, the family and community.”
Vine credits Santa Muerte with healing a herniated disc in his back that stopped him working when he was uninsured. Since having a vivid dream in which his grandfather and Legaría visited him to offer support, Vine has also felt a special bond with the late preacher.
“I have no doubt that he lived a less than perfect life at certain points in time,” Vine said. “But he was drawn to [Santa Muerte] for a reason… Without question I consider Jonathan Legaría to be a saint.”
Many devotees have come to share this view. During his short life, Legaría convinced hundreds of people that he possessed healing powers and drew regular crowds with his preaching. A decade on, it’s clear that the accounts of his spiritual feats become more extraordinary and heroic with each passing year.
Some devotees say Legaría appeared in pictures they took of his personal altar, while his mother reports that he saved one follower by making him temporarily invisible from armed pursuers.
Legaría’s writings suggest he would have enjoyed watching this mythmaking unfold.
In his second book, The Son of Santa Muerte, Legaría describes his upbringing in Tepito, where he learned to fend for himself after his parents deserted him. He received little formal education, he writes, but became a noted boxer who was feared on the streets.
Except this was pure invention, as his mother explained after his death. Legaría was in fact born in the middle-class Mexico City suburb of Ciudad Satélite. He was raised in comfort, the son of Vargas, who owned a karaoke bar, and her husband—a politician who had worked with former Mexican president José López Portillo.
Always ambitious, as a child Legaría told his mother that he would one day be president.
He was also fascinated with the occult. After finishing high school, he took part in magical rituals on trips to Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nigeria and the United States.
Legaría had special respect for Abakuá and Palo—Afro-Cuban traditions that would have an unmistakable influence on his own branch of Santa Muerte. He also had a taste for fine clothes and jewelry. At the time of his death, he owned a limousine, five imported cars and a motorcycle collection.
Legaría paid for these luxuries with the income from various businesses, including an auto repair shop. He also made money selling rituals and Santa Muerte icons.
As his influence grew, Legaría made enemies in the local church and government.
His most publicized rivalry was with David Romo, a Santa Muerte leader he had slammed for replacing the skeleton statue in his Mexico City church with a new icon of a pale lady called the “Angel of Death.”
A threatening and unpredictable individual, Romo told the Spanish news agency EFE shortly after Legaría’s death that Legaría was a “charlatan.” Four years later, Romo’s spiritual career came to an end when he was sentenced to 66 years in prison for his role in a kidnapping ring.
Given the length of Legaría’s list of enemies, it is not surprising that he had premonitions of an early death. According to Vargas, he would often upset her by bringing up the topic.
Legaría’s prediction was fulfilled in the early hours of July 31, 2008, as he left the radio station where he presented a regular slot devoted to Santa Muerte. A group of assassins with assault rifles fired round after round into his Cadillac Escalade, killing him on the spot. His two female passengers survived, although his pregnant friend lost her baby as a result of her wounds.
The murder devastated Legaría’s followers, who also faced the spiritual dilemma of why their saint had failed to protect their beloved leader.
“The devotees reacted with incredible sadness and anguish,” said María Elena Rodríguez, a Santa Muerte disciple and witch from the coastal state of Veracruz. “Many of us asked the same question. ‘Why, Mother? Why him?’”
Vargas published her son’s cellphone number and offered a reward of 200,000 pesos ($20,000 at the time) for information leading to the killers.
The calls flooded in day and night, with an infinity of different versions. Some blamed the police or drug cartels, while others accused local priests. One caller even claimed Legaría was alive and living in Peru.
Although Vargas was a devout Catholic who had long viewed her son’s spiritual pursuits with suspicion, she finally turned to the skeletal saint he had venerated.
“I made a promise to Santa Muerte that if she delivered my son’s killers, I would raise her name up and strengthen the cult,” she told The Daily Beast.
Vargas publicly accused various people of her son’s murder. She cast doubt on the Catholic bishop, Onésimo Cepeda, who mockingly told media outlets that Legaría had “loved death so much she had come for him.”
But her own investigations led her to conclude that a federal agent called Emilio Gómez, alias ‘The Knife,’ was behind the killing. According to Vargas, Gómez wanted revenge after the murder of his own son the previous year. She believes he mistakenly identified Legaría as the killer.
When Gómez was himself gunned down by unknown assailants in 2009, Vargas saw the event as the fulfillment of Santa Muerte’s promise.
“I won’t tell you I had forgiven him,” she said. “I am going to hate him until the end of my life.”
By this point, Vargas had already taken control of the temple, despite the hostility of other would-be leaders angling for the role. One told her that devotees would never accept a woman in charge. Another man, already in his 20s, claimed he was Legaría’s son and rightful heir. But the succession doubts were swept away by the force of Vargas’ personality.
She immediately saw that inclusivity was the devotion’s most appealing and distinctive feature. Unlike the Catholic Church, she has always warmly welcomed divorced or LGBT devotees.
“I have tried to show how beautiful it is to respect everybody’s sexual orientation. Neither skin color nor social status matter. Everyone here is brother and sister.”
Vargas also tended to her practical duties. After years of legal wrangling and threats of eviction, she finally won an appeals court ruling that allowed the cult to keep the temple. Her current goal is to gain official recognition of the church.
While devotees see Legaría as a powerful spiritual intermediary, they also benefit from having his mother, a gifted organizer, at the helm.
“Let’s not forget that Vargas was a manager,” said Stefano Bigliardi, an assistant professor at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University who studied Santa Muerte in Mexico. “She has successfully applied her entrepreneurial skills to a new situation and salvaged the temple during a critical time.”
Many devotees also identify with her story of personal loss since she has firsthand experience of Mexico’s staggering violence and impunity.
More than 200,000 murders (PDF) have been recorded in the country since 2006, and Santa Muerte has taken hold in regions such as Ecatepec that are plagued by violent crime.
Vargas has herself defied many death threats since becoming leader and pursuing her son’s killers. When a masked man sent her a warning via an employee who he threatened with a pistol, she publicly vowed to continue her search for justice.
This fearlessness, and the rage behind it, resonates deeply with her followers.
“There would be no point shooting my heart, because that is already destroyed,” Vargas said. “Shoot me in the forehead while staring in my eyes. That way, my look of contempt will stay etched on your memory.”