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An altar laden with human skulls and bones was used by a powerful Mexico City gang in the worship of Santa Muerte, a death cult that has drug trade devotees.

The macabre scene was encountered during an October 22 police raid on properties belonging to members of the La Unión Tepito gang. Guns and drugs were also seized in the raid and 31 people were arrested.

The skeletal remains on the altar included arm, leg, and jaw bones and about 40 adult skulls, some of which showed signs of gunshots, according to authorities. Police officials said that DNA tests will be conducted on the remains and compared against results in Mexico’s missing persons database, El Universal reported.

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Mexico City Security Secretary Omar García Harfuch said neighbors told police that the altar was used in satanic rituals. In addition to the remains, police found a fetus in a jar, religious images, and knives, he said. A separate altar held 15 busts of Jesus Malvede, a saint-like figure among narcos, surrounded by photos of dead gang members.

The altars were meant “to open the way for the group” in all their actions, Garcia Harfuch said.

Meanwhile in Colombia, a handwritten book of spells to protect members of the Urabeños crime group was discovered during a September military operation against the gang in the northwestern Chocó department, El Colombiano reported.  Scrawled in its thirteen pages were spells divided into 11 categories, including incantations for the jailed, which invoked higher powers to open doors, chains, bars and handcuffs.

There were also spells to heal snake bites, stop hemorrhages and cure pains. A passage called the “secret of Samson” was meant to invoke the famous Biblical strongman to fight enemies, wildcats and evil men.

While it is not uncommon for drug gangs to appeal to saints or saint-like figures and perform rituals, these recent discoveries show that beliefs and practices combining the black magic with Catholicism are still deep seated in Latin American narco-culture.

In Mexico, for example, drug lords have long adhered to the cult of Santa Muerte. Unrecognized by the Vatican, the figure of the saint is often seen shrouded in white with a grinning skull. For believers, she heals, enriches, and acts as an agent of vengeance.

Meanwhile, Jesus Malverde, a folk saint who may have been a bandit in 19th century Mexico, is known as the patron of drug dealers. Malverde — mustachioed and dressed in black trousers and a traditional cream-colored collared shirt — is seen as a Robin Hood figure, a beaten-down thief who steals to give to the poor.  According to legend, when was fatally shot and knew he he was to die, he told his accomplices to turn him in to authorities and collect the bounty, then share it with the poor.

Malverde has a chapel dedicated to him in Culiacán, a city in the state of Sinaloa, also the eponymous cartel’s home. Kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo,” is said to have visited, and other famous traffickers like Rafael Caro Quintero have also allegedly passed through to ask for protection.

In Colombia, the Urabeños crime group has been linked to occult practices. Its second-in-command, Roberto Vargas, alias “Gavilán,” was shot dead in a police operation in 2014. He carried two dried hawk’s claws — prepared by a witch to turn him invisible.

Temple to the Patron Saint of narco-cartel members, Jesus Malverde

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