Why do religious sects play a role in Mexico’s drug war?

Written by Victoria Dittmar

Religion has again gained plitical attention since the end of last nentury and the beginning of the present one (Petito and Hatzopoulos, 2003). A so-called ‘resurgence’ of religion is being discussed in the recent academic literature based on the appearance that a growing number of global issues are somehow influenced by religious elements, such as religiously inspired terrorism, inter-religious conflicts or the role of religious leaders in international affairs. This has called for an inclusion of religion in the study of international relations (Cochran Bech and Snyder, 2011). It is debatable whether religion has actually ‘resurged’ or not, but many scholars who assume it did, argue that a possible reason is the failure of secularism and the search for cultural authenticity (Thomas, 2003). Policy makers around the world are now increasingly taking the role of religion into account while dealing with issues like conflict, international development, peacebuilding and foreign policy (see Appleby et al., 2010; DFID, 2012).

Despite these developments, one of the topics that has not been linked enough with religion is organised crime. This is an activity that threatens the concept of the modern state because it undermines the integrity of national borders and jeopardises sovereignty (Hignett, 2015). The common assumption is that organised crime is economic, political at most, and is, therefore, a purely secular activity (González-Aréchiga et al., 2014; Allum and Gilmour, 2015). However, this supposition can be challenged by looking at the increasing presence of religious elements in the drug trade industry in Latin America, especially in Mexico, which has intensified since the outbreak of the war on drugs. It has been argued that the role of these religious practices, which are unrecognised and sometimes even prohibited sects and cults, are strengthening the illicit drug industry because they are facilitating the creation of a community with a collective identity, in which drug trade and its related violence can become socially and morally acceptable (Bunker et al., 2010; Fugate, 2012; Kail, 2015). Sullivan and Bunker (2013) have gone as far as to argue that if the presence of these religious elements continues to intensify, Mexico might experience a spiritual insurgency. This is a provoking statement because the Americas have been the only region in the world that has not experienced any religiously motivated war in the last 80 years (Duffy Toft, 2011).

Victoria Dittmar studied International Relations at the University of Sussex and is currently working with the investigative think tank InSight Crime. Her main research interests are violent non-state actors, normalisation of violence, non-state forms of governance and order, and criminal cultures.

But the question that is not being answered is, why are these religious sects and cults able to play a role and possibly have an impact on the Mexican drug traffic industry in the first place? Is this the case of a ‘resurgence of religion’?

This essay addresses these queries by rejecting the assumption that religion is to be understood as a fixed variable that modifies a situation (Barnett, 2011). Instead, through a rule-oriented constructivist perspective, it analyses the role of religion in relation to the social structures in which it has been constructed as a way to find out why religion can have a certain influence on a concept in a specific time and space. Therefore, focusing on Mexico, the main argument of the paper is that existing religious sects and cults are able to play a role in the illicit drug industry because both the Catholic and the secular social structures of the country have indirectly allowed it to occur.

In order to continue with the analysis it is necessary to define the key terms of it and set the parameters. First, the religious cults that will be considered are those practices and rituals, which are known to be a source of spiritual influence to drug cartels. These are the individualistic cults to unrecognised saints, like La Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde, as well as the ecclesiastical cults of extremist interpretations of Evangelical Christianity (Kail, 2015). Second, the role of these cults is going to be analysed in the period of the ongoing war on drugs in Mexico that started in 2006 (Cowden, 2011). However, in order to explain the construction of the social structures in the country and how they have attached a certain meaning to religion, it is also necessary to refer to historical analyses. The structures that will be considered are, firstly, the Catholic one because it has been the main religion in Mexico since the colonial period – and had maintained a monopoly until recently – and which sustains hegemony in the ideology of the systems of representation in Mexican society (De la Torre, 2014). Moreover, it is also relevant because many of the religious cults currently associated with the drug trade originate from a mixture of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, 2010). Secondly, the secular structure of the country will be analysed because Mexico was one of the first nations in the world where a legal secular status was adopted in order to privatise religious dominance, and it has, arguably, been prevailing in political praxis ever since (Escalante Gonzalbo, et. al., 2012; De La Torre, 2014).

It is acknowledged that both the drug trade and the religious cults associated with it do not have an impact only in Mexico as they have a transnational character. However, due to the scope of the paper, the analysis will be limited to Mexico since each country would require a separate analysis, as the experience regarding secular and religious structures might be different.

Taking this into account, the essay will proceed as follows: first,  the theoretical framework around rule-based constructivism will be explained, concentrating firstly on the work of Nicholas Onuf (1989; 2013) for general theoretical aspects and subsequently on the writings of Vendulka Kubalkova (2003), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (2011), and Michael Barnett (2011) for its application to the study of religion and secularism in politics. The second section will bring the case study of Mexico into the analysis by examining the way both Catholic and secular social structures have allowed the apparent ‘resurgence’ of the religious sects and cults into a new ‘narco-structure.’ Finally, the essay will conclude with the implications of this analysis for the general understanding of the role of religion in politics.

Rule-oriented constructivism

Constructivism, according to Nicholas Onuf (2013) is not a political theory per se, but a method that aims to study any kind of social relations. In this approach, social forces are what constitute the world, and not material forces, as argued by rationalist theories (Jackson and Sorensen, 2013). Thus, a constructivist perspective makes feasible the theorising of matters that could seem unrelated at first glance because the concepts and propositions normally used to discuss such matters are also unrelated (Onuf, 2013: 3). Therefore, constructivism allows to theorise about the matters of religion and politics, which have previously been seen in academia as fundamentally irrelevant to each other (Shah and Philpott, 2011).

Nicholas Onuf (1989) was the first scholar who introduced constructivism to the study of international relations. His perspective is different than other forms of constructivism in International Relations scholarship (see for example Wendt, 1992) because he does not take the state as the central object of his analysis. In his perspective, people shape society through their actions and in the same token, society shapes people through its institutions. In the middle of this reciprocal process are written and unwritten social rules, which facilitate the shaping of both ends (Onuf, 2013). Hence, social reality is not something objective outside of human consciousness that can be abstractly studied but is rather constantly shaped by it (Barnett, 2014).

These rules that Onuf discusses are used to both constitute society and people. People shape society by creating rules as agents, and these will dictate what is appropriate to do and what is not. The rules can be scripted in laws or be unwritten socially accepted norms. Agents have the choice to either follow them or break them and expect consequences that other rule will bring into effect (Onuf, 2013).  How people deal with these rules, either by complying with them or by disobeying them, creates practices. A stable pattern of rules and practices will form institutions (Onuf, 1989).

Institutions, along with social relations and interactions, form social structures. These are stable but never fixed, since their components can change depending on the consciousness of the agents (Onuf, 2013). Structures will also shape people’s ideas of reality because its norms will be seen as a taken-for-granted. Thus, the specific meanings that are given to particular material things and ideas depend on the rules and institutions of a particular structure in which they exist (Onuf, 1989). In other words, for constructivism, there is no permanent universal social reality that is insensitive to specific conditions. How material and non-material concepts are understood is always subject to a particular time and space. Hence, concepts, such as religion, are not something abstract that has a fixed meaning. Rather, its connotation becomes what agents and society construct it to be, and this will depend on the rules, practices, and institutions around them.

Vendulka Kubalkova (2003) argues that although Onuf’s methodology of analysis is generally secular, it leaves space for the appreciation of religious experiences. In this framework, religion can be understood as a system of rules and practices that aim to explain the significance of existence, and guide, to some extent, the behaviour of those who follow it (Kubalkova, 2003: 93). How religion is comprehended specifically and what it means for social life will depend, as argued above, on the specific social structure in which it exists. Therefore, it would be simplistic to just describe religion as a source of identity, as an imagined community or as a set variable, because that means it has been given a definite meaning (Nexon, 2011). Michael Barnett (2011) argues that if religious discourse happens to appear as having a fixed definition, then this is the result of a political agenda. Therefore, when studying religion, it is necessary to deconstruct its meaning in order to understand how a particular appearance of it was shaped (Barnett, 2011: 106). To understand this, it is required to take into account the interacting and competing frameworks that are embodied in the norms and identities of the agents in society, such as a secular structure or another dominant social structure (Kubalkova, 2003; Thomas, 2005).

Secularism, in this case, is necessary to be analysed, because as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (2011) argues, it should not be viewed as an antagonist to religion, since it is also a source of rules and behaviour that shapes individuals and societies. For this reason, the norms, practices, and institutions that are embedded in a secular structure also contribute to the meanings that societies attach to the concept of religion.

Therefore, in order to understand why the religious cults to La Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde, and fundamentalist interpretations of Evangelical Christianity are currently given the meaning of creating an identity that is strengthening the drug trade in Mexico and the organisations involved, the social structures of the country and their respective rules need to be analysed in constructivist terms. This will be carried out in the remaining part of the essay.

Social structures and the meaning of religion

This section will analyse the social construction of the Catholic structure, the secular legal framework of Mexico (laicism), and the growing narco-structure. For each case, it is going to be analysed how rules in the specific setting are constructed and what meaning they attach to the idea of religion.  The significance of the drug-related activities in each circumstance is also going to be examined as a way of finding the connection between both concepts.

Catholicism and exclusion in Mexican society

After being considered an irrelevant concept during many years for Mexico’s nation-building history, academics are beginning to recognise that Catholicism is actually an indispensable topic to contemplate in order to understand the construction of the Mexican state and its social and cultural dimensions (De la Torre, 2014).

The legacy of three centuries of colonial experience is a society that has a strong sense of Catholic religiosity and identity (Pérez-Rayón Elizundia, 2006). Although the dominance of the Catholic Church has been declining in recent years and has allowed for new systems of beliefs to penetrate the society, – most notably Pentecostal religious practices – still over 80 per cent of the Mexican population identifies itself as practicing Catholics (INEGI, 2016)

During the years of religious monopoly, the Catholic Church was able to forge moral and social values that were institutionalised in society and, arguably, continue to heavily shape the perception of reality and representation in Mexico today (Pérez-Rayón Elizundia, 2006; De la Torre, 2014). This was possible due to the large social presence of religious leaders and figures, which engaged in communitarian work, education, social welfare, and moral awareness. As a prominent social mobiliser, the Catholic Church, along with other influences, contributed to the structuration, worldview and value definition of the Mexican society (Pérez-Rayón Elizundia, 2006). Thus, constant public and academic discourses refer to the post-colonial ‘Mexicanness’ as being essentially Catholic in terms of religion, although selectively including some pre-Hispanic indigenous traditions (Gervasi, 2014). The meaning that was given to Catholicism as a religion, in this case, was being a tool for social normalisation and nation-building (De la Torre, 2014).

From a constructivist perspective, this process of structuration was possible because of influential agents in society, such as figures from the Church, who were able to create a public discourse in which social rules were entrenched, telling the population through the teachings of religion, what was morally acceptable and what was not. Thus, constant practices and reproduction of these social rules over the years have allowed the Catholic morality and perception of reality to become a taken-for-granted for a large part of Mexico’s population, even if the presence of the Church in the public sphere has declined (De la Torre, 2002).

Nevertheless, along with this process of institutionalisation, the dominance of Catholicism fundamentally excluded other systems of beliefs. Since the Spanish conquest began, the Church, who at that time also had political power, has been attempting to eliminate indigenous beliefs (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, 2010). It was not since the implementation of a state based on laicism that an apparent equal treatment was given to all religions. However, Catholic leaders and organisations continued to promote social exclusion of religious beliefs that were considered as ‘blasphemous’ or ‘foreign,’ and it encouraged to avoid interaction between Catholic believers and these faiths (De la Torre, 2002).

The cult to la Santa Muerte is one of the religious elements that the Vatican has prohibited to worship, as it is declared by some figures of the Holy City that venerating la Santa Muerte threatens the unity of Catholicism and promotes immoral practices (Gervasi, 2014). As with many other pre-Hispanic beliefs, the cults to unrecognised saints like Jesús Malverde and La Santa Muerte are considered as ‘irrational’ beliefs by many agents in the society, since religions in the Abrahamic sense, especially Catholicism, are what has been constructed to become the ‘taken-for-granted’ understanding of the meaning of religion (Gervasi, 2014). Thus, many people who also have been considered ‘immoral’ by the Catholic Church and have been marginalised from its social structure – such as members of the LGBTQ community, sex workers, undocumented migrants, and criminals – have found themselves turning to these unrecognised cults (Fugate, 2012).

Non-Catholic Christian religions were also largely discriminated in Mexico for many years, as they were considered as foreign and threatening to the already socially constructed majoritarian Catholic-Mexican identity (Casillas, 1996; Gervasi, 2014). Although non-Catholic Christian beliefs are supposed to have an equal status in society, some anthropological studies suggest that they are still perceived by a large part of the Mexican society as an ‘Other’ (De la Torre, 2002; Gervasi, 2014).

By analysing this exclusion through a constructivist lens, it can be said that the stable structure that the rules of Catholicism as a nation-building process have constructed, still exists to some extent today and has fundamentally excluded some systems of beliefs from what is thought as socially accepted. Therefore, over the years, the meaning that has been given to the cults that are currently associated with drug trafficking – but have not always been considered as so – is understanding them as ‘irrational’ systems of belief or as ‘threatening’ to the socially constructed Catholic-Mexican identity.

Regarding the relation between Catholicism and the drug industry, apart from some corruption scandals between figures from the Church and drug cartels, the Catholic Church has largely condemned drug trafficking and its related activities as immoral (Pérez-Rayón Elizundia, 2006). For instance, the current Pope has disapproved the actions carried out by drug cartels and described them as dangerous and sinful, since violence and criminality is, in theory, not accepted in the Catholic doctrine (CNN Mexico, 2015).

Taking this into account it can be noted that the adopted narco-cults belong to systems of beliefs that have been largely marginalised by the dominant constructed rules of the Catholic social structure in Mexico. Thus, as drug traffic is an activity that has been rejected as well, it can be suggested that this could be a possible cause of why these religious sects and cults have resulted more appealing to the criminal organisations than other forms of religiosity. It is not, however, suggested that Catholicism is the direct cause of why these cults influence the drug industry. The argument is rather that the structure has indirectly allowed for this connection to occur.

The project of laicism in Mexico

According to Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (2011), secularism refers to a series of political resolutions that define, control and administer religion in modern politics, including international politics. Secularism can present itself in many varieties, and these will reflect the shared interests, identities, and understandings about religion and politics of the society in which it is implemented (Shakman Hurd, 2011).  In other words, the understanding of secularism, like the understanding of religion, is shaped by the rules of agents and society. At the same time, secularism will shape the society’s understanding of reality and its behaviour (Shakman Hurd, 2011).

In the case of Mexico, secularism was applied in the form of laicism (Escalante Gonzalbo, et al., 2012). In this concept, religion is portrayed as an obstacle to modernisation and development and is therefore reserved to the private sphere. The state is not supposed to engage in religious activities, nor should any religion engage with the concerns of the state. Thus, officially, aspects like foreign policy, healthcare, education and the economy should not have any religious intervention or influence. Nevertheless, the state is expected to give equal status to all religions, and promote freedom of religion and belief (De la Torre, 2014). According to Shakman Hurd (2011), this is a method to normalise the degree of religiousness of the country.

These ideas about the privatisation of religion come from a general international movement that took place mainly among Western countries, where an intended secularisation of the world was promoted, as means to stimulate modernisation and avoid conflict, since the assumption that religion promoted political violence or conflict dominated modern thought (Scott, 2005).

Therefore, in a highly religious society like Mexico, the project of laicism was conceived as being one of the essential drivers of modernisation, and the rules and practices that it promoted started to shape the perception of political reality in Mexico (Perez-Rayon Elizundia, 2006). Thus, it is not surprising that even though the vast majority of the Mexican population considers itself religious, around 75 per cent of it does not believe that clerics should influence the state’s decisions in any way (De la Torre, 2014).

The political reality that has been constructed over the years is that the Church (or generally any kind of religion) is separate from the state and the state is independent of the Church (Gervasi, 2014). The process of this social structuration is, in a constructivist perspective, very similar to how the Catholic structure was institutionalised, only that in this case the rules have a more legal aspect.

Regarding equal recognition of religion, it can be argued that the Mexican state has not entirely fulfilled this aspect of laicism (De la Torre, 2002). Although the major religions are officially recognised, some systems of belief do not receive the same status as they are only considered as either sub-categories, sects or syncretic beliefs (Gervasi, 2014). Such is the case of the Evangelical beliefs employed by La Familia Michoacana, or the cults of saints that have been largely discussed in this paper (Cowden, 2011).

For instance, worship to La Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde has been prohibited in some northern states of the country, as they are beginning to be associated just with drug-related criminal activities (Fugate, 2012). Along the U.S. border, many shrines that venerate la Santa Muerte have been destroyed by local police forces under the argument that it promotes drug-related violence (Sullivan and Bunker, 2013). This calls into question how much freedom of religion and belief the state and the laicism project actually promote.

Nevertheless, even before being associated with the drug cartels, these type of cults had never received a status of ‘religion’ as such and have not been officially recognised by the state (Kail, 2015). Although not being necessarily prohibited, they have generally had a much larger presence in clandestine and marginalised areas, like shanty towns and very poor regions where the state as a lesser presence (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, 2010). Thus, there had commonly existed a certain taboo around these popular religious cults, and a derogatory meaning attached to them (Sullivan and Bunker, 2013). From a constructivist perspective, the attachment of negative meanings to these religious cults and sects allows them to be excluded from what is socially acceptable. Moreover, because of the context of the predominance of the ideas of modernisation, it can also be argued that this socially constructed meaning of the sects also depended on the general understanding of religion as an antagonist to modernity (Perez-Rayon Elizundia, 2006).

Therefore, as with the Catholic social structure, it can be noted that the framework of secularism in Mexico has also excluded the popular religious cults that are currently associated with the drug-related conflict, as the state has never offered them official recognition and has in some cases even directly attacked them. Thus, this exclusion from the new ‘modern structure’ could be considered a reason of why these cults appeal to drug cartels, as they also exist in the ‘clandestine’ domain. So, it can be argued that the secular structure in Mexico has indirectly allowed for these specific religious sects and cults to become a component in the drug-related industry.

A resurgence of religion in the narco-structure?

Various anthropological studies have shown that the degree of religiosity among individuals involved in the drug trade is relatively strong. Many of the drug lords are known to actively celebrate and participate in Catholic festivities and practices. However, the religious symbols and expressions employed in the crime scenes are not generally representing mainstream Catholicism, but the syncretic religious sects and cults that have been discussed in the paper. This suggests that when it comes to criminal activities, drug cartels prefer to turn to these ‘unrecognised’ spiritual beliefs, rather than to Catholicism (Perez-Rayon Elizundia, 2006).

Taking into consideration the past two arguments, it can be suggested that the reason drug trade organisations resort to these type of religions during illicit activities, is because the religious cults themselves, like the criminal activities, are excluded from the margins of society and remain in the ‘clandestine’ domain,

As argued extensively along the paper, the currently denominated ‘narco-cults’ have existed long before they were associated with the industry of illicit narcotics, but have nevertheless generally been appealing to those who have been rejected from society and cannot confront their problems through modern civil institutions or other established religions. Thus, these popular religious cults have been constructed into being a sort of ‘protector’ of the excluded masses (Huffschmidt, 2012).

However, these religious cults have gained more political attention since they were adopted by the drug trade organisations and began to have a presence in crime scenes and war-like acts, many of them being very violent (Bunker and Bunker, 2010). Also, since the war on drugs erupted, the number of devotees to these religious sects, especially to la Santa Muerte, grew at a parallel pace as the intensification of drug-related activities (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, 2010).

At this stage, this essay can link back to the analyses discussed in the literature review, which argued that the meaning of these religious sects and cults is being a factor that creates an identity and a community where the drug-related activities become socially and morally acceptable (Fugate, 2012). Nevertheless, after carrying out the analysis along the paper, it can now be explained why this influence is able to happen because the rules, practices, and institutions of other competing structures existing in the country were examined. Thus, religious sects and cults facilitate the creation of social rules that accept the drug trade, because other existing structures exclude these activities, as well as they,  exclude the already discussed unrecognised faiths (Huffschmidt, 2012).

From a constructivist perspective, again, it can be suggested that a new social structure is being formed, in which reality is constructed, that is also attaching a new meaning to religion. As Oleszkiewicz-Peralba (2010) argues, in this new structure, the syncretic religions in Mexico have become even more fluid when touching the world of the ‘narco’ and its related criminal and violent activities. The population who is reproached and abandoned by the Church or by the state because they carry out activities outside the margin of the law, find identification and protection in the worship of these saints, who have been constructed to be much more inclusive than other established religions. Thus, new religious structures are being shaped, corresponding to the necessities of the changing Mexican society.

Therefore, the apparent resurgence of the cults to La Santa Muerte, or Jesus Malverde, or radical Evangelical sects in the ‘narco-structure’ could be understood by looking at how the rules, practices, and institutions from the competing social structures have indirectly allowed this to occur.


This essay has offered a case-based study of the relation between religion and political affairs by addressing the question of why religious sects are able to play a role in the drug trafficking industry in Mexico. It has argued that this is possible because the social structures of the country have excluded these systems of beliefs through their institutionalised rules, and this might have indirectly influenced the reason of why these cults were more appealing to drug trafficking organisations, who are also excluded from these social systems. This analysis was carried out through a rule-oriented constructivist perspective.

Taking this into account, the essay will end with three implications for the general study of religion and politics. Firstly, this analysis has suggested that religion, as much as secularism, should indeed be taken into account while analysing international affairs, as both concepts can be embedded in the process of the construction of reality along different societies. Secondly, nevertheless, these concepts should be analysed along with the frameworks or social structures in which they are constructed, as this will allow understanding why religion (or why secularism) may have a particular influence on a specific issue in a given time and space. If secularism and religion are not studied in this framework, and they are rather understood as set variables that inevitably modify a situation, scholars would fall into the danger of generalising the role of these concepts in politics. Thirdly, it has been suggested along the analysis that it is not possible to give religion a fixed definition, as this will depend on the constructed  meaning that societies have attached to it in a very specific context.


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