In the last decade, Mexico’s image as a heavenly tourist destination has been severely stained by the increase in violence. This has been expounded by several gruesome Netflix series, and the international media who advise travelers to avoid visiting the country. And while many tourists tend to ignore this warning or take it lightly, the truth is Mexico has been dealing with the devastating effects of drug dealing cartels since the late 1990s.

This is when neoliberal economic reforms implemented by former President Salinas de Gortari such as NAFTA,[1] allowed cartels to buy bankrupted farms and increase the cultivation of marihuana and poppy, which were then transported to the US border. The violence grew exponentially in 2006, when an internal war “against”[2] the cartels was declared by the government.

Today, the Mexican population continues to suffer the consequences. The U.N estimates there have been more than 360,000 homicides since the war was declared. However, with the recent discoveries of clandestine mass graves and a registry of around 100,000 disappeared Mexicans, the number of dead and missing might be much higher.

Influenced directly by this war, specifically those who continue to profit from it, Mexico’s death landscape has radically changed. From its death rituals to the short-term goals set by cartel members, the general outlook on life and death has taken a new stance that is terrifying to witness.

The ever-growing narcoculture, a subculture composed of normalized violence and drug consumption is present in most poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

From an early age, younger generations acknowledge they would rather live fast and die young.

Drug Cartels and their Impact on the Mexican Death Landscape

Image via Thomas H/2018.

Mexico’s new religious icons

Mexico has approximately 97 million Catholic followers, making it one of the most devout countries in the world. The death rituals carried out by a great of number of families, stick to traditional ceremonies composed of wakes and masses led by priests. Despite the dominance of Catholicism, non-traditional Saints have gained popularity among drug cartels such as Jesus Malverde and la Santa Muerte,[3] both considered taboos in much of Mexican society.

The origins of Jesus Malverde date back to 19th century Sinaloa, where he is believed to have lived in poverty and acted as a Mexican Robin Hood. Before Malverde was executed by Sinaloa’s governor around 1909, he was worshiped by the working class. In recent years, Malverde transformed into a Narco saint[4] who is watches over members of drug cartels and their families, offering them protection despite the terrible crimes they commit.

 Many involved in the drug business have also devoted themselves to la Santa Muerte, building… private altars where they ask her to seek revenge on their enemies. 

Today in Mexico and the US, there are various shrines dedicated to Malverde, where handwritten notes, marijuana, tequila, and other offerings are left by his followers.

The authors of A Post-Neoliberal Era in Latin America explain the following: “People of Sinaloa share with Malverde the fate of living outside the law and staying in the margins of Mexican society… They strategically grant Malverde patron-sainthood, the role of mediator between the heaven and earth.”

Malverde Shrine. Photo via David Agren/2007.

Like Malverde, La Santa Muerte or Niña Blanca[i] has gained a devout following in recent years throughout Mexico and Central America. Her glum attire, a mix between a reaper and a Mexican Catrina, doesn’t scare her followers. She’s described by followers as a caring and benevolent saint who fulfills wishes and accepts them for who they truly are.

La Santa Muerte’s devotees are mainly composed of vulnerable people who’ve been turned away by the Catholic Church, including prisoners and members of the LGBT+ community. In recent years, many involved in the drug business have also devoted themselves to la Santa Muerte, building public shrines and private altars where they ask her to seek revenge on their enemies (commonly other drug cartels or government representatives).

Rituals performed in la Santa Muerte’s Sanctuaries are similar to those performed in Catholic shrines, where wakes and masses take place in front of the saint and her devotees. The shrines typically have five to ten colored candles which each grant a special wish or power. Red is for those who seek help with love while black is for those seek protection after receiving death threats.

In addition to these candles, devotees usually offer her cigars, alcohol, marijuana, and flowers. Such offerings are found on altars during Mexico’s annual Dias de los Muertos celebrations. Unlike these celebrations that venerate the dead and welcome them back to the world of the living, La Santa Muerte is perceived as an evil entity by a great part of Mexican society.

Burial and funerary practices have also transformed under the auspices of the drug cartels. Since 2008, funeral homes in Mexico have reported a rise in demand for expensive caskets with gold and silver decorations. These caskets, which can cost up to 25,000 dollars, are ostentatious vessels for leaders and members of cartels to be taken to their final resting place.

In the State of Sinaloa, a state with one of the most prominent cartels, luxurious mausoleums have been built for deceased cartel members in the cemetery of Jardines del Humaya. Most of these mausoleums resemble houses, including luxuries like internet, sound systems, bullet-proof windows, and air conditioning.

Burying drug cartel members in these mausoleums is a way of honoring their memory, as well as providing a comfortable place for the families to be with the deceased.

The cemetery’s surreal landscape is accompanied by narcocorridos, a Mexican musical subgenre with lyrics that focus on drug dealing, shootings, and violence.

Narcoculture in the Media

“Killing me does not end this lost war. It keeps growing just to avenge my son. Fame burns me but I don’t regret it”. Lyrics of Leyenda M1 by el Komander, one of the most notorious narcocorridos singer.

Narco Cemetery. Image via Flickr.

These songs are also commonly played during the burials by the same artists, who are well paid by family members to grant their loved ones a lavish goodbye. Even in this final goodbye, families tend to be targets of violence as a form of revenge from the deceased’s previous enemies.

 The cartels offer teenagers a great sum of money, luxurious houses, and cars in a short period of time. However, they are aware that this lifestyle comes with a price. 

This year, in the state of Michoacan, seventeen people were murdered at the funeral of an alleged drug trafficker relative[5], a common practice of revenge between cartels. In a harrowing context where death seems inevitable, young adults and children from poorer backgrounds are constantly being exposed to Narcoculture[6]: from radio stations playing narcocorridos to streaming services showcasing narcoseries, such as Netflix’s Narcos and El Señor de los Cielos.

Vulnerable to these influences, they grow up facing two bleak options: migrate illegally to the US or become part of the drug dealing business. The cartels offer teenagers a great sum of money, luxurious houses, and cars in a short period of time. However, they are aware that this lifestyle comes with a price. Premature death isn’t a deterrent, as it has been constantly normalized by narcoculture and the hundreds of homicides happening around the country.

“When I ask my students what they want to be when they grow up, they respond: Narcos”. – Professor Lopez from a public high school in the state of Guanajuato[3].

This Memento Mori[i] attitude has expanded throughout the country, where short term planning is the standard: mortgages, bank loans and unhealthy habits are part of the everyday life.

If the cartels and narcoculture continue to be worshiped, what can we expect to happen to future generations? As media continues to hound us with infinite news and content, we must keep a critical eye to analyze the harsh effects that society is enduring.

References & Footnotes

[1] The North American Free Trade Agreement enacted in 1994 to create a free trade zone between Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

[2] Former Federal Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna favored Cartel Sinaloa during Felipe Calderon’s Presidency and was responsible for many homicides according to Brooklyn Trial (2022).

[3] English Translation: Saint Death

[4] A term used to describe a saint whose followers are involved in drug cartels.

[5] BBC News, Mexico: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-60565920

[6] Interview with professor G. Lopez from Secundaria N.9 in the state of Guanajuato (2022).

[i] Remember that you will die.


Marlene Davila
Born in the state of Guanajuato, Marlene Melissa Davila is a communications specialist that writes in her free time in different blogs about death and social inequality in Mexico. She also directed a local documentary titled Post Mortem where funerary homes from the city of Leon, Guanajuato share their relationship with death.


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