Zavaleta has seen the Santa Muerte grow in popularity in the past decade in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, spreading from altars kept secretly in homes to public displays of devotion to a saint not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
The latest development, Zavaleta said, is decals on the rear windows of vehicles showing the female hooded figure and stating, "Dios me cuida y ella me guia" (God protects me and she guides me).
Earlier this month, Chihuahua state anti-kidnapping agents found a skeleton dressed as a bride in a large altar to the Santa Muerte in a house used to hold kidnapping victims in Jucrez.
The Santa Muerte (Holy Death or Saint Death) phenomenon is a mixture of Catholicism, pre-Hispanic traditions, shamanism and what some would term magic.
Followers pray to "la Santcsima" for health, employment and protection but can also ask her to return a lover who has strayed, make a person fall in love and eliminate an enemy in the increasingly dangerous Mexico.
Roman Catholic priests and other Christian groups have condemned the Santa Muerte as idolatry, witchcraft and even devil worship.
In June, the Mexican army destroyed many Santa Muerte shrines in Nuevo Laredo, claiming the roadside monuments were linked to organized crime.
But believers claim that "la Nica Blanca" is a force for good or ill depending on each follower and that she is unfairly maligned by nonbelievers, the media and religious groups.
"What is real important that a lot of people need to understand is that it is not only criminals who pray to Santa Muerte," said U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, a former El Paso police narcotics officer and deputy chief who has extensively researched saints revered by the Mexican underworld.
"People pray to Santa Muerte the way they would pray to any other saint, asking her to intercede on their behalf on personal issues in their lives," Almonte said. "Criminals pray for protection from their enemy, and the enemy begins with law enforcement. They pray so law enforcement does not arrest them, seize their contraband or convict them."
In recent years, U.S. law enforcement has seen an explosion of Santa Muerte figurines, altars and amulets found in connection with drug seizures from Oregon to Pennsylvania.
Almonte, who teaches police courses on the topic, said he gets two or three inquiries a week from law enforcement about Santa Muerte and other folk saints.
In his classes, Almonte said, he stresses that just because a person has a Santa Muerte item does not mean the person is involved in crime, and the item is not enough probable cause to make a stop.
"Santa Muerte is pretty popular here in the El Paso area," Almonte said. "It is not just criminals that pray to Santa Muerte, so it's important that the officers understand that so they can handle it on a case-by-case basis."
A variety of Santa Muerte statues, figurines and amulets crowd the small shop that Margarita Reza has run for about six years in the Fox Mercado Mall in Fox Plaza.
Customers seeking the Santa Muerte are "young and old, men and women," Reza said. "A few months ago, there was a group of Germans that came here to buy."
Reza said she isn't a follower of the Santa Muerte but has heard her customers talk of the favors granted for praying to the hooded figure holding a globe and a scythe.
A bust of folk saint Jescs Malverde peered behind a colorful row of statues of the Santa Muerte. Years ago, Malverde used to be more popular, but the Santa Muerte has easily surpassed him in popularity, Reza said.
According to legend, Malverde was a bandit from the state of Sinaloa who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor and who was hanged by the governor. Malverde, who looks like Clark Gable, was adopted as the unofficial patron of drug traffickers.
Reza said those who pray to the Santa Muerte are not necessarily involved in crime or drugs.
"It's because of what they see on television," Reza said. "They catch sicarios (hit men) and they will have an altar to la Santa Muerte but most people pray to her for health."
The origins of the Santa Muerte are a mystery and may be linked to centuries-old customs.
Some say the skeletal saint's origin may be the legacy of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec god and goddess of the dead and rulers of the underworld realm of Mictlcn.
Journalist Josc Gil Olmos in his book "La Santa Muerte: La Virgen de los Olvidados" (Virgin of the Forgotten), published in November, writes of a Catholic Church document reporting indigenous people having rituals with a skeleton in 1797.
Olmos explains that through the centuries in Mexico there were cases of devotion to skeleton figures in churches that were later expelled by priests when they had become more popular than recognized saints. Those altars ended up as secret shrines in homes.
By the 1960s, the Santa Muerte had emerged among the marginalized in the poorest sections of Mexico City.
Olmos theorizes that the popularity of Santa Muerte began spreading rapidly in the mid-1990s as desperation grew because of the decline of the Mexican economy along with disillusionment stemming from the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
If the government and saints could not provide jobs, health care or protection from crime, then maybe the Santa Muerte could, Olmos wrote.
The Santa Muerte did not replace Jesus Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints, but believers added her to their faith. Devotees believe the Santa Muerte works for God.At least in appearance, the skull-faced Santa Muerte has replaced the Virgin Mary in some statues and images used by followers. There is also a Santa Muerte rosary, but in place of a crucifix is an image of the Santa Muerte.
Researchers said part of the allure of the Santa Muerte is that worship is open to all and left to the individual and often not part of an organized church with priests or pastors. Believers feel Santa Muerte does not judge; after all, death comes to all equally.
There are a few Santa Muerte churches in Mexico, which have not been officially recognized by the Mexican government. There are also Santa Muerte churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Almonte said believers leave fruit, candies and other food at altars to the Santa Muerte intended to feed her spirit and drink to quench her thirst. They will blow smoke in her face as part of rituals. Followers will also offer gifts (money, drugs and other items) while asking for favors.
Almonte recalled an incident in the U.S. in which police stopped a car with a large Santa Muerte statue in the back seat with cocaine in her nose. The driver claimed she enjoyed it, Almonte said.
Zavaleta and Almonte said there are cases in which murders of rivals have been offered to the Santa Muerte.
Olmos writes that most believers condemn violence and view the death saint as a protector. Earlier this year, Santa Muerte followers had a peace march in Jucrez.
But there have been deaths linked to the Santa Muerte followers, Almonte said. Almonte described a case in Tijuana in which a man was abducted, tied up and killed and his limbs cut off by members of his crime group as revenge for stealing money. A woman "cut off his head and offered his head to Santa Muerte," he said.
"The police told me they recovered all the body parts but they never recovered the head," Almonte said. "The explanation they got from the female was that Santa Muerte had his head."
It is unknown how many followers the Santa Muerte has because the worship still often takes place in private. Olmos estimates that "La Flaquita" (the skinny one) may have as many as 10 million believers.
"A wide sector of Mexicans," Olmos stated, "have, paradoxically in the figure of death, found hope in a time when daily life is marred by executions, torture, disappearances, human rights violations, unemployment, corruption, injustice, impunity and a lack of confidence in governmental, justice and religious institutions."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service