By Mica Rosenberg
MEXICO CITY, April 10 (Reuters) - Followers of Mexico’s "Saint Death" cult figure, revered by thieves and drug runners but also law-abiding housewives, say their faith is being persecuted by the government’s war against drug cartels.
Worshipers of the cult figure plan to march through Mexico City later on Good Friday in the latest of a series of protests after soldiers and police bulldozed elaborate roadside shrines to the death saint near the northern border with Texas.
Known as "Santa Muerte" in Spanish, the saint is often depicted as a skeletal "grim reaper" draped in white satin robes, beaded necklaces and carrying a scythe. Followers leave offerings of tequila, rum, beer, cigarettes, cash, flowers and candy at altars adorned with rosaries and candles.
Mexican authorities destroyed more than 30 such shrines erected near the city of Nuevo Laredo last month on the grounds they were built without the proper licenses. Some shrines were also knocked down in Tijuana, triggering protests there.
"We are doing these marches because there has been a lot of aggression from the government ... It seems like they are fighting a holy war," said 52-year-old vendor Ernesto Hernandez at a protest last week.
The Catholic church frowns on the cult, whose origins may trace back to Aztec and Mayan death-gods or to ancient European traditions, but many devotees call themselves Catholics.
The lure of the death saint is that she is said to honor requests without judging them. Her followers may number up to 5 million, according to the cult’s high priest David Romo.
They range from police officers and politicians to kidnappers and gangsters who get tattoos of the saint and are said to ask her for protection before setting out on hits.
Romo says his church condemns violence and has no links to drug traffickers, but he leaves the door open to everyone.
"Christ went to see prostitutes, thieves, all marginalized people," Romo said in his cramped office in the saint’s largest sanctuary in Mexico City, a run-down storefront around the corner from a street lined with prostitutes.
President Felipe Calderon has launched an army assault on Mexico’s drug gangs, but the increased firepower has failed to contain the violence, with some 6,300 people killed last year.
In 2007, gunmen from the powerful Gulf Cartel handcuffed three men and shot them dead at a Santa Muerte altar in Nuevo Laredo, leaving lit candles, flowers and a taunting message for rivals.
At the shrine in Tepito -- a rough part of the capital with a market that reputedly sells contraband and drugs -- chicken coops line the walls near the pews facing two life-sized skeleton statues wearing glittering dresses and crowns.
Santa Muerte offers a refuge to people who can be shunned by the traditional Catholic hierarchies. "If a narco opens the doors of his heart and comes to us asking for spiritual assistance wanting to convert, we say welcome," Romo said.
Followers say their death saint is being unfairly targeted, since criminals profess all kinds of religions.
"If you go to the prisons you are not only going to see people there tattooed with the ‘Santa Muerte.’ You’ll see the Virgin of Guadalupe or Christ himself. It’s illogical. We are going to end up shutting down all the churches," Romo said.
(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Philip Barbara)