"Santa Muerte appeals to narcos because of her powers of protection, prosperity and vengeance," explains Dr. Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the foremost authority on Santa Muerte. "Since she's not a Catholic saint, she's open to all kinds of petitions, including ones that might violate Christian morality." In his book Devoted to Death—the only academic book on Santa Muerte in English—Dr. Chesnut describes how the saint arose as a fusion of Catholic doctrine and Pre-Columbian indigenous beliefs. When Spanish missionaries arrived in Latin America, they used the Spanish symbol of the Grim Reaperess—known as La Parca—as a way to represent the fear of death while preaching to locals. The indigenous people then interpreted that imagery through the death gods of their own cultures, such as the Aztec underworld god Mictecacihuatl. Santa Muerte has therefore existed for centuries, but the recent Cartel War has dragged her out of relative obscurity as the most recognizable "narco saint." "Narcos are in constant danger of being killed," says Dr. Chesnut, "so who better to ask for a few more months or years in her hourglass of life than death herself?" Beyond that, he says, Santa Muerte has gained a reputation as a quick and effective miracle-worker who often comes through when traditional Catholic saints, like St. Jude, fail. "Upon the recommendation of a friend or relative, the worshipper takes the request to Santa Muerte, who within a few days performs the requested miracle." Like the cartel head El Sueño in Wildlands, many Santa Muerte devotees incorporate tattoos into their worship. Tattoos are an act of sacrifice and devotion, often acquired as a form of thanksgiving after Santa Muerte performs a miracle on a worshipper's behalf. "The devotee has surrendered a precious part of their bodily real estate to the Bony Lady," he says. "The two most popular tattoos in Mexican prisons are Santa Muerte and the Virgin of Guadalupe."
The vastly profitable drug trade means that no matter how many gang leaders you kill or arrest, someone will always step into their place.
But Dr. Chesnut points out that while Santa Muerte is often labeled a narco saint, most of her worshippers aren't criminals—in fact, she has a large number of followers in the LGBT community and the poor, since Santa Muerte worship maintains a sort of egalitarianism. "In a Latin America plagued by socioeconomic inequality, Santa Muerte's leveling scythe—that reaps all souls eventually—resonates with those at the bottom of the steep pyramid of social class." The Mexican and American wings of the Catholic Church, for their part, denounce Santa Muerte worship as a satanic cult. Therefore, it wouldn't be unusual for a cartel to establish an unofficial religion for its members as the Santa Blanca Cartel does—and in fact, it's happened before. When Nazario Moreno—better known by his nickname of El Más Loco or "The Craziest One"—inherited control of La Familia Michoacana he reorganized the cartel along the lines of a quasi-religious organization that looked a lot like the Santa Blanca Cartel. In fact, once you start to look, there's little doubt that several real figures at least influenced or informed the characters in Wildlands.Madmen and Beauty Queens: The Real-Life Narcos Behind Wildlands ' Villains "While we were inspired through our research and collaboration with experts on the subject-matter, the characters and stories aren't based on specific people or events," cautions Sam Strachman, the game's narrative designer. However, he also says working with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno helped the team "establish a grounded storyline, a believable criminal organization … and assist in creating the in-depth backstories for key in-game characters, including the boss, El Sueño."
"Narcos are in constant danger of being killed," says Dr. Chesnut, "so who better to ask for a few more months or years in her hourglass of life than death herself?"
"If you think of all the factors that produce violence in Mexico, you've got drug money, you've got guns, you've got poverty, you've got the impunity of failed justice systems—so you've got these hardcore factors that really affect people and make someone go into violence. Maybe the culture gives some form to that violence, but is it really the cause of it?" Talking to Grillo, you get the sense of how often he's seen real violence—execution-style slayings, massacres, battles—run through newspaper presses, film cameras, and stereo speakers. He knows that one game more or less won't ultimately change this conflict, the best it can do is teach through osmosis. "I think any fiction's better if it's educational, it's better if you're not trying to glamorize, but I wouldn't criticize somebody for making a video game about this. Will people playing it be that educated about this stuff? Maybe, maybe not, it's their choice. It's really the same thing if you're making a video game about any conflict, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a wrong thing to do."'Ghost Recon Wildlands' is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on March 7th.Follow Robert on Twitter.
Fantasy can also inspire real criminals.