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Commentary: An 'unsaintly measure' may backfire on Mexico

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Commentary: An 'unsaintly measure' may backfire on Mexico
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- The Mexican media have taken to calling the drug war "Calderon's Iraq," and suggest it could swallow up the entire six-year term of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

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That's a bit off the mark. A better comparison is with the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. As the Bush administration went about trying to thwart further terrorist attacks, some Americans worried that the preventive measures would destroy our most precious freedoms.

A variation of that could be happening in Mexico, and one of the things under fire is religious freedom. Consider the government's campaign against a saint who has become associated with drug dealers.

For the last few months, in border cities from Nuevo Laredo to Tijuana, Mexican officials and soldiers are believed to have destroyed roadside shrines and chapels where the faithful pay homage to La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Also known as La Nina Blanca, the saint is depicted as a skeletal figure dressed in white robes. Gang members bear tattoos of her likeness, and soldiers say that they find shrines to her during raids on houses used by drug cartels.

While the federal government has denied any involvement in the vandalism, local authorities acknowledge what they are doing and even defend it. According to news accounts, Mexican soldiers have been seen escorting crews who wrecked the shrines. The crackdown is part of a larger and misguided attempt by authorities to break the romantic hold that narco-traffickers have on Mexico's pop culture. For instance, Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos wants the Baja California Legislature to ban radio stations from playing drug ballads, known as narco-corridos. Obviously, Mexican politicians and law enforcement officials see themselves as battling the narcos for the hearts and minds of the Mexican people. And just as obviously, the officials must believe they're losing. Why else would they be so desperate as to strike a blow against La Santa Muerte?

The authorities are right about one thing. They're losing the Mexican public relations battle. And stunts like this don't help. There is too much potential for backlash. In fact, it's already happening. Some critics have even insisted that the government is curtailing freedom of religion by telling people which saints they can worship and which ones they can't. On more than one occasion, hundreds of people have turned out to protest the crackdown and, in effect, protect the saint's reputation. La Santa Muerte's defenders insist that the saint isn't partial to drug dealers and claim she's popular with anyone who works at night: taxi drivers, police officers, nurses, prostitutes, etc. Some people believe that La Santa Muerte is an all-purpose saint who protects all sorts of people against violent or sudden deaths. Those who worship her leave beer, coffee, candy and other gifts at roadside chapels throughout Mexico -- just like the dozens that were destroyed in the border cities.

For now, it's hard to decide whether this episode is comical or sad. Clearly, the attack on La Santa Muerte is a silly distraction from the real war against drug traffickers. Calderon can still win that war when more Mexicans wake up to what is happening to their own children because of the drug culture. Up to now, it's been mostly Americans at the end of the demand curve, and so most Mexicans didn't care. But as drug traffickers have been forced to develop a domestic market for their lethal product line because of the government's crackdown along the border, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine are flooding Mexico. In five years, drug addiction will be destroying what is to Mexicans an even more precious institution than religion: the family.

So this is a battle that can be won. And Calderon was right to engage it. His war against the cartels has made him the most heroic and consequential Mexican leader since President Lazaro Cardenas beat back imperialism by nationalizing the oil industry in the 1930s.

However, by going after La Santa Muerte, my concern is that Mexican authorities are missing the main reason why such symbols are so popular in the first place. It's because they fill a spiritual void for people lacking jobs or economic security -- things that government is supposed to provide. So if it comes down to a popularity contest between a saint and the government trying to destroy her, which side do you think will win?

That's right. In that matchup, the government doesn't have a prayer.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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