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All rogues lead to Romo?

7 January 2011

01 de marzo de 2011: A small correction, after reading José Gil Olmos’ La Santa Muerte: La Virgen de los olvidados (2010: Debolsillo, Mexico), who says Romo was never ordained a Roman Catholic priest.

Nine people, including one 17 year old, were arrested as the supposed members of a kidnapping gang. The usual perp-walk was unusual:   The alleged gangsters (all but one, who is 17, and was turned over to juvenile authorites) paraded before the cameras were dressed in white, and “front and center” was the alleged leader, Bishop David Romo Guillén.

A bishop of the Iglesia Apostolica Catolica Tradicional, David Romo, is the leader of the Santuaria Nacional del Ángel de Santa Muerte  — de facto “Pope”, if you will, of what’s usually described in more sensationalist media coverage as the “death cult”, or a “narco-cult”.

I’m not privy to any information about Mexico City criminal investigations and can’t comment much on the merits of this particular case.  Whatever the merits, it remains a fact that David Romo, more than anyone else, is responsible for having turned an obscure sect that’s been around since the 18th century, into an organized religion with some political and social clout within Mexico.

If Romo is a gangster, he is something of the mirror image of that other Mexican clerical rogue of recent memory,  Marciel Maciel, the leader and guiding spirit behind another sinister cult (though one more acceptable and tolerated by  spiritual and temporal authorities) — the Legionnaires of Christ.

Romo, like Maciel, was a Roman Catholic priest who surrounded himself with a devoted following and built up a “cult of personality”.  Romo, perhaps to his credit, never sought to deny or hide human frailties, but embraced them.  Finding the strictures of the Vatican-headquartered Church too restrictive, he transferred his allegiance to the break-away Roman Ritual church, the Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos.  That sect, which is rooted in the folk beliefs of its adherents, was more willing to incorporate the cult of the “White Girl” (Santa Muerte) in their doctrine.

San Pasquilito Muerte

Although somewhat underground, Santa Muerte believers have been organized in some fashion since the 18th century.  As a folk-saint, Santa Muerte was not all that unique.  One thinks of San Pasquilito Muerte (“Dead Saint Pasqual”), a Chiapas and Guatemalan “sacred skeleton” which has been “doctrinalized” (if there is such a word) within the Mexican Apostolic National Church (a western-rite Orthodox communion).  Other than the band named for the saint, however, the San Pasquilito “cult” never has gone “mainstream” like Santa Muerte.  Both belief systems (sub-systems?) date from colonial times, both feature a death figure (San Paquilito’s wooden skeleton is venerated as a holy icon in at least one Chiapas church) which makes it a “death cult” — meaning not a worship of death, nor what is usually meant by “cult” in the United States (a small religious denomination we find distasteful).  All religions in Mexico are technically “cults” (culto being the legal term for any organized religious body), and the death symbol is both a Christian memento mori and a symbol of the interconnectedness of life and death.

And, as it is, most students of Santa Muerte accept that the better known of these two “death cults” was heavily influenced by the iconography of San Pasquilito.

David Romo Guillén (Reuters photo)

Had Santa Muerte remained, like San Pasquilito Muerte, a rural folk religion, we’d see it as a colorful, weird, but harmless custom.  Which, I believe, it is.  The small number of Santa Muerte followers in the United States are probably more typical of Santa Muerte believers here in Mexico, despite the Los Angeles Times’ odd contention that California sunshine (in Los Ageles?) turn it into a “new age” belief system:

“It’s sort of like the Virgin for people on the edge,” said Patrick A. Polk, a folklorist and curator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

Followers, many of whom call themselves Catholics, talk less about death than about cleansing the spirit and developing inner strength.

“Everything depends on oneself,” said Miguel Velasco, a former administrator and a “spiritual guide” at the 3-year-old Sanctuario Universal de la Santa Muerte on Alvarado Street. “You can believe in God, or a saint, or even a tree. But what really matters is the faith you have. Faith can move mountains.”

Leaders here characterize the practice as benign, and devotees appear to draw from a broad cross section of people in immigrant neighborhoods — manual laborers, public employees, couples with children, laid-off factory workers.
Santa Muerte had a presence in Mexico City going back to the 1880s, but beginning in the late 1960s  people much like the Los Angeles congregants  — immigrants, though internal immigrants from rural Mexico — brought Santa Muerte believers in appreciable numbers to Mexico City.  As a belief system that gave hope and comfort to the outsider, it was popular among convicts (much was Islam is in the United States among minority convicts) and the number of Santa Muerte believers grew exponentially in the 1990s, in good part due to the activities of David Romo, and  as a 2004 Copley News Service feature by Lynn Walker notes, the inactivity of both the Roman Catholic Church and the government:

“People are disillusioned,” said Romo, …”Here, people call out to death because they feel abandoned when they have problems. They want an answer to their needs.”

Many poor Mexicans say they feel ignored by the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, two powerful institutions that are supposed to help them.

“The doors of the Catholic Church are open, but people don’t find what they are looking for there,” said Enriqueta Romero, 58, a housewife who runs a widely attended Santa Muerte ceremony in Tepito. “Their priests are not the priests we want. We don’t believe anymore.”

While the Catholic Church staunchly opposes this burgeoning adoration of Santa Muerte, some priests acknowledge the church has failed to meet the spiritual needs of the poor.

“People are looking for comfort, but sometimes we don’t seem to have the time or interest to go out and attend to these people,” said Father Candido Hernández, a priest at San Francisco Catholic Church in Tepito…

Politically, the 90s also saw the growth of another “populist” movement in Mexico City fueled by disillusionment with the status quo, cumulating in Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidential bid.  López Obrador, like David Romo, were (and are) masters of the unlikely coalition.  Romo, having to fight both the rumors that his church was for gangsters (which may turn out to be true in some sense) AND the perceived “special rights” for the Roman Catholic Church, made common cause with Protestants, Orthodox, Mormon and Jewish congregations to fight discrimination and hold the government to its strict neutrality in religious matters.  López Obrador, whose political success was a result of bringing “outsiders” into the political system (under PRD patronage — George Grayson’s Tropical Messiah goes into great detail on this, while, coincidentally — and unconvincingly — trying to present AMLO as a “cult leader” á la Romo… or Marciel Maciel).

Both political and religious populism are threatening to the establishment.  The attacks the political elites launched on AMLO are, in some ways, similar to those by both political and religious elites launched against Santa Muerte and David Romo.  There was considerable controvery in 2005, when the Roman Catholic hierarchy was able to convince then Secretarío de Gobernacíon Santiago Creel to “deregister” the Santa Muerte Church on the dubious grounds that the Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos had changed its doctrine.

Romo, and Santa Muerte believers took to the streets in protest, but the Federal Government has been able so far to continue to harass the Santa Muerte church.  Both Mexican and foreign press reports talk of it as the “death church” or a “narco church”, going so far as to destroy Santa Muerte shrines (while ignoring those of other “narco saints” like Jesus Malverde)

With Santa Muerte possibly the largest single belief system within Tepito, and Tepito the supposed “crime center” of Mexico City, naturally, criminals from Tepito are likely to be Santa Muerte devotees.  Which is a very different thing than saying all Santa Muerte believers are criminals.

Whether Bishop Romo is involved in kidnapping (it’s very possible, and he seems to have been involved, like some of his Roman Catholic brethern, in money laundering and other criminal activities), what is interesting is the great care the authorities are taking to claim this is not religious persecution.  Of course, Marcelo Ebrard’s administration and the controlling PRD are seeking a more middle-of-the-road respectability and playing down the “coalition of the downtrodden” and populist image of the past, but I’ll take it on faith that Romo’s arrest is not related to his religious activities… or was an alternative fund raising technique to build HIS cathedral (a little cruder than  Onesimo Cepeda’s scams) but I’d be a lot more credulous if I say other clerical criminals paraded before the cameras.

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