NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico – About 200 worshippers marched Sunday to protest the government's destruction of "Death Saint" shrines, saying Mexico's fight against drug cartels has veered into religious persecution.
"We are believers, not criminals!" the protesters chanted as they marched from a gritty Mexico City neighborhood to the Metropolitan Cathedral downtown.
At shrines, chapels and small churches across the country, tens of thousands of people worship the Death Saint, which is often depicted as a robe-covered skeleton resembling the Grim Reaper.
It is popular with drug traffickers, and soldiers often find shrines to the saint during raids on cartel safe houses. But in crime-ridden neighborhoods, people of all walks of life believe the "Santa Muerte" protects against violent or untimely deaths. Devotees often use elements of Catholic rites, leaving offerings of candles or praying to the folk saint for protection.
Mexican law enforcement won't say it is targeting the "Santa Muerte." But last month, army troops accompanied workers who used back hoes to topple and crush more 30 shrines on a roadway in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas. Many were elaborate, one-story, marble-clad constructions with electric lighting and statues of the skeletal Death Saint.
The sect's archbishop, David Romo, denounced the destruction as religious persecution and demanded a meeting with President Felipe Calderon.
Protesters carried statues and pushed makeshift shrines to the saint. Some brought their children, and one marcher carried a white puppy.
"Sometimes people look down on us because we believe in her, but my faith is bigger than somebody looking down on me," said America Melendez, a 24-year-old street vendor marching with a red-robed statue of the saint.
Roberto Sanchez, a 28-year-old carpenter, said he became a believer after praying to the Death Saint for the recovery of a sick nephew. He carried a sign reading "I believe in you Santa Muerte and I am not a narco."
"If we are not doing anything to them, they shouldn't be doing this," he said of the shrines' destruction.