More than 80 percent of the world's population practices some form of religion, according to the Pew Research Center. Most religious people identify as either Christian, Muslim or Hindu. But behind these traditional faiths are folk religions.
The Pew Research Center estimates about six percent of the world's population - approximately 405 million people - follow folk religions. Most of these non-traditional faiths are usually tied to African, Chinese, Australian, or Native American tribes.
At least one, being practiced in Austin, raises concerns for law enforcement.
Saint of Death:
Santa Muerte, which translates to “Holy Death” and "Saint Death" is among those folk religions growing in popularity in Central Texas that has law enforcement warning the public.
The folk saint’s image is that of a robed skeleton, carrying a scythe and either a globe or scales.
Santa Muerte is a dark, mysterious folk saint in Latin American cultures, and gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Catholic Church denounces the skeleton saint and warns the worship is spiritually dangerous.
“This rise in deviant spirituality has not come as a surprise. Mexico still contains a significant population of persons living in poverty and feeling disenfranchised by a government system perceived as being based on patron-client relationships and the influence of wealthy ruling families,” said Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D. in an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
A Saint for All?:
Now, everyday people are beginning to look to the so-called folk saint for help in their daily lives.
Manuel Garduono has statues of Santa Muerte throughout his home. He also wears a necklace of her around his neck and a tattoo of her on his arm.
“She’s always with me,” said Garduono, who believes his faith in Santa Muerte has changed his life.
After losing his job four years ago, a friend told him the folk saint would change his life.
“I started believing in her that day and a lot of things did change," Garduono claims. "Now I have three jobs."
Despite the Catholic Church and others condemning Santa Muerte, she has Catholic followers like Garduono, and her image can be seen throughout Austin and Central Texas.
But Garduono’s belief in the folk saint has also led to problems with police. He said the statue and image he bears makes his truck a target.
"They bring their dogs who smell if I have drugs. I was like I’m not a drug dealer,” said Garduono.
He stresses worshipping Santa Muerte, doesn't mean someone is breaking the law.
"You ask her for the bad thing - she will help you. You ask her for good things - she will help you," he said.
Santa Muerte is becoming a prominent source of faith among drug traffickers and violent criminals, which is why many narcotics officers feel the public and law enforcement alike should beware.
"We're seeing more and more criminals that are praying to Santa Muerte,” says Robert Almonte, who was an El Paso narcotics detective.
Almonte now gives seminars across the country educating law enforcement officers on the signs of Santa Muerte they encounter on the job.
"Officers are entering homes on drug search warrants and they're encountering elaborate Santa Muerte shrines,” Almonte says.
The Deadly Rituals:
"They believe that the more sacrifice, the more gorier [sic] or intense the sacrifice - the better off they'll be with the Santa Muerte," said the undercover officer.
The Mexican government reports La Familia/Knights Templar has sacrificed humans in their rituals.
In 2008, Gulf Cartel members kidnapped rival Sinaloa Cartel members in Nuevo Laredo, less than five hours away from Austin, Texas. The Gulf Cartel took the Sinaloa members to public Santa Muerte shrines and executed the captors. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin released in 2014 suggests it was an offering to Santa Muerte.
In July 2011, near El Paso, Texas, in the city of Juarez, Mexican police found remains dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte alter. The house in which that alter was placed was used to hold kidnapping victims. The alter contained two other skulls and cigarette packs as offerings. Police still do not know the circumstances surrounding the remains.
Dr. Bunker warns, “For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the rise of a criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take place in the United States.”
It has, according to these government reports. Three confirmed deaths in the United States involve sacrifices to Santa Muerte.
“In September 2011 a man in Sullivan City, Texas, was found stabbed and burned to death in the remains of his trailer. Next to the rubble stood a small shed containing a Santa Muerte shrine with still-lit candles,” said Dr. Bunker.
We asked Austin police if they’ve seen any ritualistic killings.
“Not yet,” said an undercover Austin police officer.
In two separate incidents here in Austin, the names of a judge and probation officer were found written on a piece of paper.
"Their hope is to actually have the officer or detective or what not - something bad happen to them and they might be able to go free from their cases," the officer explained.
Local police here in Central Texas confirm the growing presence of Santa Muerte.
"Yes, we've encountered them from a task force perspective many, many times in the Austin area. It's not uncommon," said Hector Gomez, with the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. Gomez said shrines he’s seen during fugitive operations are filled with various gifts in exchange for protection from law enforcement.
The undercover Austin police officer KVUE spoke with says they come across the shrines during investigations involving Mexican drug cartels, in particular, La Familia, also known as Knights Templar.
In a KVUE Defenders Special Report report, we tracked how the Cartel flows into Austin through the Laredo.
Knights Templar originate from the mountains in Michoacan. The cartel is known for its gruesome ritualistic killings.
Dr. Bunker suggests looking at the gifts offered for insight on the types of prayers.
"...an altar containing blood, bones, burned plastic police figurines, and black statuettes and candles will determine different worshiper intent than one containing a rainbow statuette, blue and bone candles, and offerings of various types of fruit,” he said.
Almonte said it's important for authorities to understand how people, especially criminals are worshipping Santa Muerte. He tells them to “use extra caution and keep your guard up."