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The Holy Death sect is gaining followers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s murder capital, where rival drug cartels have been battling for every inch of turf, according to Fox News’ Latino News.

Three Holy Death churches have opened in the past two years in the border city, drawing hundreds of people to pray and make offerings to the “White Girl,” a skeletal image dressed in women’s clothing. Her worship is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

She is called Santa Muerte or “Holy Death.” A federal marshal says shrines to the skeletal “Holy Death” are a growing presence, not just along the U.S.-Mexico border but throughout the United States.

“Based on my experience, it appears she is the most popular icon being used by the drug traffickers, criminals not just in Mexico and not just along the Southwest border area but throughout the entire United States,” U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte of El Paso told the Laredo Morning Times for a story in Sunday’s editions.

She is also called “La Flaquita” or “the skinny little girl”  and has become increasingly visible in Laredo, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

In the past three years, drug trafficking suspects arrested have been found to have Santisima Muerte shrines in their homes or backyards, complete with offerings such as food, liquor or photographs of family members, said Investigator Joe Baeza, Laredo police spokesman. Once, officers found statues inside a doghouse in a living room, he said.

“Some people believe she began in the slums and prisons in Mexico some 30 or 40 years ago. Others believe, and I agree with this, that Santa Muerte can be traced back to pre-Christian beliefs of the Aztec God of Death,” he said.

The sect’s roots can be traced to 1795, according to different researchers, when Indians began worshipping a skeleton they called the Holy Death in a town in central Mexico, and there are accounts that say the religion remained underground for two centuries.

Experts, however, agree that the sect has experienced explosive growth since the economic meltdown of 1995, when worship of the Holy Death moved from home altars into the streets, with the deity gaining a presence in processions and festivals that draw hundreds of people.

Drug traffickers and even residents of some sections of the border city battered by drug-related violence ask the Holy Death for protection, sometimes putting up chapels where alms, tequila, cigars, candy and other offerings can be left.

Almonte said he has heard reports from Mexico of people killing their victims as an offering to Santa Muerte, as the Aztecs did.

Although Santa Muerte imagery can be a hint of criminal activity, it is not evidence, he said. He notes that some followers are not involved in criminal activity.

One such follower, Mary Trejo, 62, said she is frequently stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers when she drives out of Laredo because of the Santa Muerte stickers on her truck windows.

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