Crime

Dozens of Human Skulls Found at Narco Shrine in Mexico City

Borderland Beat: Appropriating Religious Traditions among ‘el Cártel de la Unión Tepito’: Dozens of Human Skulls Found at Narco Shrine in Mexico City

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Appropriating Religious Traditions among ‘el Cártel de la Unión Tepito’: Dozens of Human Skulls Found at Narco Shrine in Mexico City

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat From Small Wars Journal

On 22 October 2019 a
mass counterdrug operation was conducted involving the Secretariat of Citizen
Security of Mexico City (Secretaría de Seguridad Ciudadana de la Ciudad de
México – SSC CDMX) of Mexico City, the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría
General de Justicia de la Ciudad de México – PGJ-CDMX), and the Secretariat of
the Navy of Mexico (Secretaría de Marina – SEMAR) in the Bravo district of
Tepito, Mexico City. The operation focused on members of the ‘La Unión Tepito’
organization. Over 30 alleged members were arrested while the group’s leader
Oscar Flores aka ‘el Lunares’ (“The Moles”) escaped on a motorcycle with the
assistance of two accomplices.[1] Authorities discovered two laboratories used
to produce synthetic drugs along with 50 kilos of chemicals used in drug
production.[2]
1
La
Unión Tepito logo on chest of cartel member from June 2019 booking photo.

The raid
also revealed an extensive tunneling system under several residences in the
neighborhood using false walls, hidden latches, and custom created tunnels.[3]  Large amounts of narcotics including 2.5 tons of marijuana, 20 kilos of
cocaine and 4 kilos of methamphetamine were seized.[4] 31 suspects were
initially arrested, however, 27 of them were released 3 days later by a judge
that alleged the security forces fabricated evidence. Two days following the
raid authorities announced that there was evidence to suggest that 120 police
officers were connected to La Unión Tepito. Police discovered a tunnel that
connected one of the properties being searched to a warehouse on a nearby
street. Police believe the tunnels were used by the group’s leader Flores to
escape apprehension.  Half a million pesos, 5 grenades and over 13 weapons
were also discovered including the warhead from a rocket launcher.[5] In one of
the residences agents discovered numerous religious shrines and altars. Many of
these contained human remains and traces of blood. More than 55 skulls, dozens
of bones, and an unidentified fetus of human or animal origin were discovered.
The newspaper El Heraldo de Mexico reported that according to a statement by a
witness the members of La Unión performed quote ‘satanic’ rituals every third
day to have good fortune in their illegal activities in addition to being
immune to bullets.[6]  
The use of
magico-religious systems to promote the activities of drug trafficking
organizations is nothing new. In my book 
Narco Cults: Understand the Use of Afro-Caribbean
and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug War
s
,
I define a narco cult as “An individualistic, shamanistic, communal or
ecclesiastical cult that functions as a source of spiritual or psychological
empowerment for individuals or organizations connected to drug production or
trafficking.” Based on these early reports of the investigation and witness
testimonies it appears that several of the religious shrines discovered in the
raid were possibly used for spiritual protection.[7]
While the
media descriptions of these shrines include words such as ‘satanic’, ‘Santeria’
and ‘Palo Mayombe’ the aesthetics and artifacts found in the shrines reflect an
array of different religious cultures. Images from Regla de Ocha (Santeria),
Las Reglas de Kongo (Palo Mayombe and traditions), Espiritismo, Folk saint
worship and European esoteric traditions can be seen. Traditional followers of
these various religious cultures have frequently spoken against the ‘mixing’
and appropriation of these traditions. However among many of the Mexican
narco-cults there is a trend of combining cultural artifacts and rituals from a
diverse number of spiritual traditions.[8]
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Many of the
artifacts discovered in the Tepito operation are familiar to materials used in
the religious traditions of Las Reglas de Kongo, a group of magico-religious
practices from the BaKongo of central Africa that were established in Cuba in
the 16th to 19th century. The practices of Las Reglas de Kongo include
spiritual traditions such as Palo Monte (also known as Palo Mayombe), Briyumba
and Kimbisa. Each tradition has its own specific mythologies, rituals and
artifacts. ‘Palo’ is the colloquial term used among various magico-religious
communities to describe all three traditions. The Spanish word ‘palo’ comes
from the religion’s use of a stick or tree branch known as a ‘palo’ used in the
formation of the religion’s central artifact known as the ‘nganga’. The nganga
is a cauldron or urn packed with earth, sticks, animal and human remains.[9]
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The
addition of human bones specifically the skull (kiyumba) ‘infuse’ the spirits
of the dead with the physical materials in the cauldron. This concept
originated from the Bantu indigenous ritual of placing a spirit inside a vessel
usually in the form of an anthropomorphic statue or a sack in which became
known as ‘minkisi’. The religion of Palo focuses on the control of the spirits
of the dead (nfumbe) and the spirits of nature (mpungu) that are placed inside
the nganga.[10]
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2
Altar with Dozens of skulls
found at 22 October 2019 raid of La Unión Tepito.
Source: Mexico City
Secretariat of Citizen Security  (SSC CDMX) found at
3
 
Part of the Arsenal of
Weapons Seized (Including LAW Rocket Launcher).
Ceremonial magic rituals are performed in which the spirits are
commanded to carry out the bidding of the practitioner.  Healing and
sorcery are performed through the use of roots, herbs, and the creation of
charms derived from African indigenous practices.
While the majority of practitioners of Palo around the world are
not involved in these type of activities, the religion has a reputation among
some communities as being ‘dark’ and ‘aggressive’ which makes it certainly
attractive to traffickers. It is frequently misidentified as the ‘darkside of
Santeria’. The 1989 incident in Matamoros Mexico involving the appropriation of
Palo by drug dealer and killer Aldofo Constanzo utilized the practice of
offering human remains from homicide victims to the spirits.[11] This is not
the norm for practitioners of the religion. What is fascinating about the
Tepito scene is that some reports have mentioned that the skulls found in some
of the ngangas were victims of murder by the gang. If this turns out to be the
case this would be a rare instance in which practitioners performed a very
foolish act in the eyes of normative practitioners. The thought of using the
spirit of someone that you have killed flies against cultural norms in the
religion.
There are some elements in the scene that appear to have some
loose affiliation with Regla de Ocha (Santeria) including artifacts like the
‘Achibiriki’ staff representing Ogun, the deity of iron and Ochosi, the deity
of the hunt. One media source reported that Ochosi was being appropriated to
protect members of the gang from police. American law enforcement has
documented cases where the deity has been appropriated as a form of protection
from police and rivals at clandestine drug labs and stash houses. One video of
the Tepito scene shows a courtyard area with a table covered in a white cloth
containing glasses of water. This is the ‘boveda’ or shrine to the ancestors
found in the practices of Espiritismo.[12]
Another shrine at the scene features numerous images of folk
saints frequently found among traffickers including Santa Muerte and Jesus
Malverde. However, there is also a lesser known figure known as ‘Ekeko’ that
can be seen in the shrine. Ekeko is a Peruvian spirit of abundance. This is the
second scene involving drug traffickers where I have witnessed the spirit being
appropriated. Some media sources claim this altar was dedicated to the group’s
leader and fallen narcos.[13]
4
Narcocultura Altar with
an Array of Narco Saints Found in la Unión Tepito Safehouse.

One of the primary images at the scene that appears to be
culturally inconsistent with the Afro-Latin religions is a large mural
featuring a goat’s head superimposed upon a pyramid. Upon the forehead of the
goat is an image of the unicursal hexagram. The symbol is frequently used by
esoteric practitioners of European ceremonial magic.[14] Above the goat’s head
is the alchemical symbol for sulfur and the symbol of Ouroboros, the alchemical
symbol of the serpent devouring its tail.  The symbol for sulfur has been
popularized by the American Church of Satan in the organization’s literature
and sacred texts and is frequently appropriated by non-members of the Church in
artwork, literature, and tattoos.[15]
Leaders in La Unión Tepito have a history of using
magico-religious practices. Some media sources have reported that ‘El Lunares’
has a personal Santeria priest (Santero) that provides spiritual guidance for
the organization and is involved in transporting bribes and to the trafficking
of firearms. Known as ‘Niño Problema’ or ‘Problem Child’, the Santero was
caught on surveillance by the Ministry of Public Safety (SSC) interacting with
the commander of the General Director of the PDI and several police officers
before the raid.[16]
Former leader of La Unión Tepito Pedro Ramírez Pérez, aka ‘El
Jamón’ (“the Ham”) was an avid practitioner of Santeria and Venezuelan
spiritualism.[17] When Pérez was arrested by authorities in May 2019 in in
Atizapán, State of Mexico he was wearing the traditional white garments of a
Santeria priest. Authorities claim that the leader frequently held meetings
with Santeros and was in the process of becoming a high priest known as the
‘Babalawo’. Police discovered a number of traditional cultural artifacts
including dolls representing spirit guides, ceramic vessels containing sacred
stones known as ‘soperas’, decorative beaded sashes known as ‘mazos’ as well as
several artifacts representing the spirits (Orishas) known as the ‘warriors’.
 Pérez also maintained a shrine dedicated to the Venezuelan spirit Maria
Lionza.
One month before the operation at Tepito, Mexican police in
Industrial Colony raided a residence where they arrested three individuals with
guns, a possible fetus, and artifacts related to Palo Mayombe. An iron crossbow
can be seen on the front of one of the residence’s representing Ochosi as a
means of protection.[18]
Unconventional practices and possible ties to deviant forms of
Palo were also discovered in 2018 some 30km away from Tepito in nearby
Ecatepec. Serial killers Juan Carlos Hernandez and wife Patricia Martinez
Bernal admitted to killing and dismembering over 20 women and afterwards
consuming some of their flesh. Hernandez posted photos of a Palo nganga as his Facebook
profile and testified that he sold some victim’s bones to a local Santero” as
well as offering internal organs to Santa Muerte.[19]
5
Juan Carlos Hernandez,
Facebook (Social Media). Source:
The findings at Tepito are confirmation of what we have been
observing among the narco landscape for several years. Drug traffickers with
ties to transnational criminal organizations have embraced forms of esoteric
spiritual cultures as a means of protection and guidance in both a casual and
sophisticated level of dedication.[20] While some traffickers may simply wear
amulets and jewelry for protection, some organizations employ full-time ritual
specialists to provide psychological empowerment and magical protection. The
site at Tepito may have also revealed a sinister plot reminiscent of the 1989
Matamoros tragedy mentioned earlier in this article.[21] Ritual homicides have
been documented in the U.S. and Mexico involving the torture and sacrifice of
victims to Santa Muerte.[22] Law enforcement and military personnel should
continue to be vigilant and be aware of the dangers involving narcocults and
the potential for ritualized violence.
[7] Tony M. Kail, Narco Cults: Understanding the Use of
Afro-Caribbean and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug Wars
. Boca Raton:
CRC Press, 2016.
[8] See the relevant sections on Mexican cartel and narco
spirituality in Robert J. Bunker, Ed., Blood Sacrifices: Violent
Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities—A Terrorism Research
Center Book
. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2016.
[9] Lydia Cabrera, Reglas De Congo/Palo Monte Mayombe.
Miami: Ediciones Universal, 2005.
[10] Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African
and Afro-American Art and Philosophy
. New York: Random House, 1984.
[11] “Matamoros Rancho Diablo: Narcosatanico, Black Magic and
Organized Crime.” Borderland Beat. 30 September 2017, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2017/09/matamaros-rancho-diablo-narcosatanico.html.
Translated from “NARCOSATANICOS. PENSAMIENTO MAGICO, NARCOTRÁFICO, TERRORISMO Y
CRIMEN ORGANIZADO.” El Ojo Crítico. 9 July 2016, http://elojocritico.info/narcosatanicos-pensamiento-magico-narcotrafico-terrorismo-y-crimen-organizado/.
For background on the Matamoros incident see Gary Provost, Across the
Border: True Story of Satanic Cult Killings in Matamoros, Mexico
. New York:
Pocket Books, 1989 and Jim Kilroy and Bob Stewart, Sacrifice: The
Tragic Cult Murder of Mark Kilroy in Matamoros: A Fathers Determination to Turn
Evil into Good
. Dallas: World Publishing, 1990.
[14] Israel Regardie, Ceremonial Magic: A Guide to the
Mechanisms of Ritual
. Great Britain: Aeon Books, 2007.
[19] Elena Reina, “En la guarida del Monstruo de Ecatepec.” El
País
. 13 October 2018,
[20] Tony M. Kail, “Stealing the Dead: Cultural Appropriation of
Las Reglas de Kongo among Narco Traffickers,“ in Robert J. Bunker, Ed., Blood
Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities—A
Terrorism Research Center Book
. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2016.
[21] Edward Humes, Buried Secrets: A True Story of Drug
Running, Black Magic and Human Sacrifice.
 New York: Diversion Books,
1991.

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