Mexican investigators are looking into members of a family accused of belonging to a cult that allegedly sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), a figure associated with criminals and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.
The murders took place in a copper mining village in Nacozari, Mexico, The Associated Press reported, although it was not immediately clear when they occurred. The victims, the two young children and the woman, were found last week with their throats and wrists cut by knives and axes, and their blood spread on a Santa Muerte altar. They had been buried near the shacks where the alleged killers lived.
The victims were unrelated, but reports of the first boy's disappearance appeared as long ago as July 2010. The boy's family claimed they had seen him begging in the streets in a nearby town, but he was never found. The second boy disappeared in March of 2012, and was reportedly the son of the ex-girlfriend of one of the cult members.
Local residents reacted with shock to the news, and could not believe that members from the poor family, who often received donations from the church and government, could have committed such crimes.
"We never knew they were part of a Santa Muerte cult," shared Jorge Sanchez Castillo, a hotel owner who looks after a corn field located next to the house of a woman believed to have been the Santa Muerte cult leader. "This has been a tragic thing for all of us."
Although formal charges are yet to be filed in the case, Jose Larrinaga, a spokesman for the Sonora Attorney General's Office, said a number of people from the family were detained, including the suspected cult leader, 44-year-old Silvia Meraz, her boyfriend Eduardo Sanchez, her father, son, three daughters and a daughter-in-law.
"They thought that by offering the blood, they would be protected for some time," Larrinaga said. "According to them, Santa Muerte was going to tell them where the money was. They all identify themselves as fanatic followers of Santa Muerte."
Santa Muerte, often depicted in statues as a skeleton wearing a robe and holding a scythe, much like the Western version of the Grim Reaper, is often celebrated on Day of the Dead gatherings, where families remember loved ones who have passed away. Besides Mexico, it also widely celebrated in Hispanic communities across the United States.
According to Nacozari police chief Jose Miguel Espinoza, the town has largely been a peaceful one before this incident.
"We'd never seen such violence," Espinoza remarked.
Reports of actual human sacrifices to Santa Muerte have been rare and unconfirmed in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who wrote the book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.
Chesnut explained that although most devotees of Santa Muerte consider killings a "Satanic aberration of devotion," and that books written about Saint Death make no reference to human sacrifice, some followers participate in extreme rituals.
"With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals," he said.