In the lower level of his religious curio shop on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, Eduardo Lopez has two makeshift altars where customers light candles, leave offerings and pray for something good to happen.

One is to the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. The other is to the Santa Muerte, the patron saint of death, prostitutes and Mexico's ultraviolent drug cartels.

Since the 1980s, the dark icon -- a skeleton wrapped in robes, holding a scythe or globe -- has spread from the slums of Mexico City to U.S. cities with large Latino populations. No one knows how many followers she has, although some say it could be millions.

Her rise has paralleled the rise of the Mexican drug cartels, and now she is turning up with greater frequency in shops and churches across Minnesota, causing concern among clergy and police who fear she may lead parishioners astray and embolden criminals.

"She is evil," said the Rev. Kevin Kenney, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in St. Paul, who has found Santa Muerte candles left on the prayer altars of his church. "People don't realize that they have to sell their soul."

As recently as the week before Easter, Kenney said, he found another Santa Muerte candle inside his sanctuary.

Migrating north

The origins of the Santa Muerte -- translated as "Saint Death" or "Holy Death" -- are clouded in mystery, especially since skeletons have always enjoyed a prominent place in Mexican culture, such as on the Day of the Dead holiday.

Researchers and followers say the Santa Muerte is a blend of indigenous, centuries-old beliefs in Mexico and icons of the Catholic Church, specifically the Virgin Mary.

Clerics, scholars and businesspeople say the Santa Muerte was initially carried north in a wave of Mexican immigration, both legal and illegal. She has turned up in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and, now, Minneapolis-St. Paul.

"She's growing in popularity among Mexican immigrants because she appeals to those on the margins of society," said Susanna Zaraysky, who researched the Santa Muerte for a study on prostitution and immigration. "Immigrants are looking for salvation. That is what she promises."

But her connection to criminals, especially the Mexican cartels, is troubling to many. And concern over Santa Muerte figures to increase, especially as Minnesota's Latino population, now at about 250,000, continues to grow.

Police say they are increasingly finding altars dedicated to her at drug busts -- erected in the belief the Santa Muerte will protect dealers. One instance was a 2009 cocaine bust in Wisconsin.

Last year two Twin Cities men with ties to the Mexican La Familia cartel were arrested as part of a nationwide investigation that led to 1,100 arrests and confiscation of $32 million in cash and tons of meth, cocaine and marijuana.

The success of the Mexican drug lords, some of whom are among the world's richest men, has lent credence to the powers of the Santa Muerte.

Police worry that belief in the Santa Muerte can make criminals bolder as they place their faith in her protection. One drug dealer in Arizona, for example, credited her with resurrecting him from the dead five times. One alleged serial killer in Chicago with confirmed Santa Muerte ties reportedly robbed and killed at least 10 drug dealers.

"The invincibility aspect, the shielding aspect ... that is troubling," said Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight. "It can be a dangerous situation."

The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis says the Santa Muerte has not turned up at the site of federal drug arrests so far. But with Mexican cartels known to be operating in Minnesota, the Santa Muerte is probably not far behind.

"I'm sure it's here in some form," said Knight, who has learned to speak Spanish in order to better deal with his city's Latino population, which stands at about 10 percent.

The Catholic Church condemns the Santa Muerte, but that has not stopped a stream of people from descending to the lower level of Lopez's La Hoja Verde 513 botanical shop.

They light candles and leave flowers, notes, money or other offerings to the Santa Muerte, seeking her help for success, protection or vengeance.

"People believe in her," said Lopez, who sells traditional Catholic religious icons as well as Santa Muerte paraphernalia such as statues, rosaries, candles and oils.

He said he does a brisk and growing Santa Muerte business. He set up the altars as a service to his customers.

Once confined to curio shops on Lake Street, the Santa Muerte is fast becoming more mainstream in the Mexican community.

Santa Muerte candles are sold in many Mexican grocery stores (some as far away as Burnsville and Chaska) in the same aisle and on the same shelf as traditional Roman Catholic prayer candles.

"They do sell," said Milissa Silva-Diaz, a St. Paul businesswoman who helps her family run El Burrito market, near Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

Kenney said El Burrito, one of the most popular stores in St. Paul, was selling the Santa Muerte candles until recently, when one of the owners asked him what they signified. As soon as she found out, the owner ordered that the candles be removed.

Lopez believes there are Santa Muerte followers statewide. He said it is not unusual for them to drive to his shop from as far away as Austin or Duluth to buy candles, statues or prayer beads.

"I don't ask them what they are using them for, or what they're asking for," Lopez said. "We respect their privacy."

Lopez, whose large display windows facing Lake Street feature life-size statues of the Virgin Mary and the Santa Muerte, said the new icon is attracting a broader customer base to his shop, including more Anglos or non-Latinos.

"I like tattoos, I like art," said Sabrina Gorr of St. Paul, who recently had a Santa Muerte tattoo superimposed over a Virgin Mary tattoo on her right arm. "I just wanted the picture, the beauty of it."

Kenney, who learned of the Santa Muerte last year from a National Geographic article, said he is not naive enough to think that the Mexican drug cartels' influence does not reach into Minnesota or the lives of his flock.

He knows that several parishioners have died or had relatives killed in Mexico, victims of continuing drug violence that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 2006.

Kenney said that six to nine months ago, people started leaving Santa Muerte prayer candles on altars reserved for the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or recognized saints.

"I finally got up at mass one day to tell everyone that she was evil and that she was not welcome here."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994