Unreal Worlds: Drugs and Death on the Rio Grande


So I was going to write a little bit more this week about the weird history of American espionage in the 19th century, but then I got sidetracked by a Mexican death cult. Let me explain.

Earlier this week, a Mexican naval special forces unit killed the leader of the Zetas drug gang — Heriberto Lazcano, a.k.a. “el Lazca,” “Zeta 3,” and “the Executioner” — in a shootout near the town of Progreso, about 80 miles from the U.S. border. While the deaths have been hailed as major victories in Mexico’s ongoing war against the drug cartels that control much of the U.S. border region, authorities were apparently not immediately aware of the fact that they had killed one of the most notorious and dangerous cartel leaders in the region. After the shootout, Lazcano and another drug trafficker killed with him were fingerprinted, and then handed over to a local funeral parlor so that they could be prepared for burial: standard practice in the military-led campaign against organized crime in northern Mexico. A short time later, examinations of the prints led Mexican Federal Police to identify one of the dead men as Lazcano, prompting authorities to return to the funeral parlor in an attempt to recover the body of the man who had been Mexico’s Public Enemy Number 1 for more than a decade.

The Disappearing Dead

…But they were unsuccessful: the body was gone. Most sources (including the one linked above) dismissed Lazcano’s posthumous disappearance as a simple matter of theft, blaming the missing body on other members of the Zeta cartel unwilling to see their leader’s body remain in the hands of the Mexican authorities. But, of course, there’s substantial evidence that the reasons behind Lazcano’s disappearance was something more sinister.

Lazcano had been a major figure in the group since its creation in the late 1990s, a deserter from an elite Mexican army unit who got his first introduction to the drug trade as an enforcer for the powerful Gulf Cartel. After Lazcano and several others split off to form their own cartel, they developed a reputation for hardcore paramilitary discipline, complex tactical operations against enemy cartels and the authorities, and a penchant for elaborate, brutal displays of violence and depravity meant to intimidate anyone who would attempt to oppose them.

Ritual Sacrifice

In May 2012, the group dumped the headless  torsos of 49 people along a border highway, a sacrifice apparently meant only to emphasize that the Zetas could kill without reason. Of course, 49 can be interpreted to mean “magician” or “magus” in the numerological Hebrew Gematria, and the careful removal of the heads and extremities of the dead strongly suggests that there was a ritual component to the murders. A few days later, 18 (“Die,” or the Masonically significant “Abif” in the Gematria) more mutilated bodies were dropped on a lonely section of desert highway, also killed by the Zetas.

The strange killings (of which the above are only some of the more recent examples) and the disappearance alone would probably be enough meat for a campaign of modern supernatural horror set against the background of the international drug war on both sides of the Rio Grande, but let’s not forget that — like many of Mexico’s drug cartels — a significant number of the Zetas are devotees of a death cult that reveres a skeletal deity referred to as Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death,” who might be the devil, or the King in Yellow, or maybe an immortal, soulless Ambrose Bierce in your game.

Worshiping Death

The origins of the Santa Muerte cult are not well understood, but the prevailing theory is that the secretive religion has its roots in syncretic quasi-Catholicism, with heavy influence from Carribbean folk religion and pre-Columbian regional faiths, including the worship of blood-sacrifice-obsessed deities from the Mayan or Aztec pantheons, which we have written a little bit about before. So, your Saint Death might be a rogue Aztec Tulpa or even a forgotten Lovecraftian Olmec god. Regardless, even without devotees like Lazcano and the Zetas, the Santa Muerte cult is dangerous.

Mexican authorities arrested one of the primary “bishops” in Death’s church in January 2011, accusing David Romo of running a kidnapping and extortion ring that in your game might have fed unwilling sacrifices to the Zetas…who, in this set up, might be twisted Templars of a desperate, addict god. Sounds a little bit like a powerful vampire, doesn’t it? If you want to play all in shades of gray, set your PCs up as members of a cartel slowly becoming aware of the eldritch sorceries and black magicks behind the the rise of Santa Muerte and the Zetas, and bam! You’ve got a slightly twisted Night’s Black Agents on the Rio Grande. There’s a certain appeal of going bad guy on bad guy, but it’s just as easy to cast your players as DEA agents, Federales, or even weekend warriors suddenly in over their heads as the border arms race suddenly isn’t just about running guns.

But there’s still room for direct opposition. You can take the whole thing one step further into Tom Clancy-esque black ops territory, especially considering that at least one part of the U.S. Department of Defense has actively studied the Santa Muerte cult as if it were a foreign military all on its own. Don’t forget, of course, that you can cast this kind of game as a genuine clash of faiths — or maybe even just heaven vs. hell. Your PCs could instead be specially trained paramilitary exorcists battling demon-possessed drug traffickers in the shadows of Nuevo Laredo, or modern day inquisitors trying to identify and disrupt the heretics within the church who have fallen under Saint Death’s sway.

Bring it Home (But Not Literally)

But lets not forget our numerologically significant sacrifices and disappearing corpses. If you want to cast your Santa Muerte as an intentional — even infernal — mockery of the Catholic Church, Lazcano’s death, disappearance (and presumably upcoming) resurrection would be just the kind of thing someone interested in preventing the rise of the anti-Christ would want to stop. Even if your Saint Death isn’t fully stocked with bloodsucking undead, the kinds of massive murders and mutilations that the Zetas are known for would be just the kind of thing a budding black magician might use to create one. Maybe Lazcano could see that his time was limited and decided that — if he couldn’t avoid death — he’d have to find a way to just get past it. Maybe his body wasn’t stolen. Maybe he walked right out the door.

The hunt is on.

Kennon Bauman is a professional analyst and lapsed historian who knows the sinister secret history of the little plastic thingies on the ends of your shoelaces. He lives outside Washington, DC with his wife, two children, and dog. You can find Kennon’s bite-sized musings on Twitter @theUniverseGM.

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  1. Marco says

    I actually happen to live in the area you describe, a small town named Alamo just across theRio Grand, and our group has been using this cult in our World of Darkness games for years now. The really scary part? Its REAL. Well, at least to the worshippers, but its impact is felt everywhere around these parts. Some places even have stautes in FULL VIEW in our cities. The Church just ignores the problem for some reason. Anyway, great article!


  1. […] If you don’t like the flavor but want to keep it in Gumshoe, stick with the disclosure model, but put Vampires at the top of the conspyramid and run it in Night’s Black Agents….but perhaps instead of burned spies, your PCs are cops on the front line of Dizdar’s secret holy war. Maybe the same one being waged against Santa Muerte? […]

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