National Geographic : 2010 May
• around them in elaborate patterns to frame cutout images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, and La Santa Muerte. He rst learned of Holy Death through television, which might seem a strange source for such a spiritual revela- tion, but it was the path open to him behind his wire enclosure. Now nothing can break his faith in his new protector. We talk in the shade of a leafy tree in the prison yard, several of us sitting around a rick- ety table a couple of prisoners have brought out and carefully rubbed clean. A host of other inmates who initially had closed loomingly around us eventually stand quietly, nodding in agreement as Antonio explains what gives La Santa Muerte her powerful attraction: "La Muerte is always beside you---even if it's just a little postage stamp that you put up above your cot, you know that she's not going to move, that she'll never leave." El Niño's grandmother has told him that if he ever gets out of jail, she doesn't want to see him, and she doesn't want his daughter to see him again, ever. But unlike his esh and blood, La Muerte needs him: "If you promise her a white ower, and you don't bring it to her, you feel bad," he says. "She weeps, and so you feel bad." And therefore he makes promises to her that he keeps. Midday approaches, and the heat is rising fast. e men nudge each other, and one goes o to fetch a cracked plastic jug of water, which he serves with unexpected courtesy to the unusual guest. I ask about rumors ying around that the rituals for La Santa---the Santísima, the Little Skinny One, the White Child---involve human blood and even human sacri ce. A prisoner in another facility, where conditions were in nitely worse, had told me that this was true. El Niño and Antonio say just that La Santa Muerte will grant your prayers---but only in exchange for payment, and that payment must be proportional to the size of the miracle requested, and the punishment for not meeting one's debt to her is terrible. e men and I have been in conversation for a while, and despite temperatures that must be turning their cell blocks into furnaces, there is something about the openness of the prison, the grass, the trees, even the comradely way the inmates treat the lone guard on duty, that makes the place seem almost pleasant. ("He spends 12 hours a day here," Antonio says. "He's as much a prisoner as we are.") She is there after all the friends you thought you had have forgotten your very name. This guard- ian of the worst of sinners is La Santa Muerte, Holy Death.