How International Gang MS-13 Combines Satanism And Death Into New Religion

MARK KARINAFOTOS is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Violent Gang Is One Of Many Worshipping “Santa Muerte”

President Trump uses the pan-South American gang, Mara Salvatrucha 13, as a favored boogeyman in his speeches about the dangers of illegal immigration. The gang is partly targeted because of their vicious nature. There have been several horrifying murders in the United States. A significant minority of the deaths were ritual sacrifices to both Satan and Saint Death (Santa Muerte).

The interest in Satanism for the gang began in the 1980s. MS-13 started as a group of long-haired stoners that formed together in Los Angeles for protection and to earn money from criminal activities. Many of the initial members were huge fans of bands such as Judas Priest. The satanic imagery used by the band prompted their use in MS-13’s rituals. Former members have explained that the intended effect was to create a scary reputation amongst other gangs.

As the gang evolved so too did the religious influence. One of the primary revenue sources for MS-13 is narcotics trafficking. This has put members into contact with Santa Muerte, the unofficial patron saint of the Drug War. Santa Muerte is worshipped by drug cartels and prisoners to grant them supernatural powers to survive the deadly trade. Drug dealers will give offerings to the saint, including drugs, food, and alcohol. Santa Muerte originated in working poor areas of Mexico. The saint represents both the loss of faith in other saints and dealing with the constant fatalism of living in terrible social conditions. By honoring death, it helps worshippers cope with their mortality.

This is not to say all members believe in either of these two systems. MS-13 is described less as a business organization and more of a criminal franchise, with each region having autonomy in decision making. This lack of structure makes the religious rituals more of the exception than the rule.

Because MS-13 members are heavily populated by members from Catholic-majority countries, the organization gives special status to Christianity. The only acceptable way a member can leave the gang is to become profoundly devout or a priest. In particular, Pentacostalism is the most popular religion members convert to, with churches claiming dozens of former MS-13 members. Over half of imprisoned gang associates surveyed in a recent study believed that churches should be leading gang rehabilitation programs.

However, the interest in Satanic rituals has increased, especially among younger members. Experts attribute this as the emphasizing religion as a recruitment tool. It is unclear how many members of MS-13 exist in the United States and what percentage are true believers.

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