MEXICO CITY – The leader of Mexico's Death Saint cult has been detained on suspicion of participating in a kidnapping ring, prosecutors said Tuesday.
The "Santa Muerte" cult has become popular among drug traffickers in Mexico, in part because followers believe the skeletal figure of the female "saint" may protect them from death or arrest.
David Romo, the self-styled archbishop of the church, was one of nine suspects placed under a form of house arrest for 30 days pending investigation.
Romo told reporters at a news conference called by prosecutors to announce the detentions that he is the victim of political persecution and claimed he was tortured.
"In this pre-election time, they are moving (against) a lot of innocent people, to fill their quotas," Romo said. He said he didn't even known some of the other eight suspects.
He also charged that he had been "severely tortured" with electric shocks and beatings.
Romo's church stood behind him, saying in a statement that he had been "tortured in a bestial way," and called on followers to demonstrate outside the government detention center where he is being held.
A spokeswoman for the Mexico City prosecutors office, Esperanza Velarde, denied the accusations of torture. She said Romo "knows he is lying" and "is trying to defend himself."
The prosecutors office alleged Romo participated in a kidnap gang known as "El Aztlan," a name that refers to the mythical homeland of the Aztecs.
The office said he recruited people to launder ransom payments through their bank accounts, and then transfer the money back to Romo or one of his aliases. Romo would then hand over the money to the kidnappers at the church's main shrine in a ramshackle but gaudily decorated building in one of Mexico City's toughest neighborhoods, it said.
Prosecutors claimed Romo got a cut of 25,000 pesos ($2,040) for each payment transferred.
The church's followers have long protested what they say is an undeserved reputation as criminals. They say people from all backgrounds worship the Death Saint, at ceremonies that include an altered version of the Roman Catholic Mass. They place offerings of candy and cigarettes before images of the saint, usually depicted as a robed skeleton. At Romo's church, chains are hung on walls as examples of favors granted by the saint, often including getting out of jail.
The church's website features ceremonies to help prisoners get out of legal problems.
It is not the first time the church has come into conflict with officialdom. In March 2009, city workers accompanied by army troops toppled and crushed more 30 Death Saint shrines on a road in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas.
City authorities said the roadside shrines were built without permission on public land, and argued the shrines gave Nuevo Laredo a bad image. Followers of the church protested what they called religious persecution.
In 2005, the government canceled the church's official recognition as a religious group, arguing it had violated its own statutes. Only officially recognized churches are allowed to raise money and own property in Mexico.
When the group registered with the Interior Department in 2003, it declared its purpose was to "conserve the Holy Tridentine Mass" of the Roman Catholic Church. A dissident priest from the group said it had violated that precept.
The group did not mention in its registry application that its main activity is to pray for the intercession of Saint Death. The saint is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, but followers use elements of Catholic rites.