JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Chihuahua state authorities this week ran a road roller over 2,800 illicit items – from portable fans to musical instruments – seized from inmates at a prison where 17 people died in a bloody New Year’s Day escape.

A few items in the rubble yield clues to a lifestyle or subculture law enforcement experts often associate with Mexican drug gangs. They include statues of La Santa Muerte (Holy Death or the Grim Reaper) and La Catrina, a symbol of the afterlife represented by a skeleton dressed up as a fine lady.

A road roller crushes illicit items seized from inmates at Juarez’s Cereso No. 3 prison. (State of Chihuahua)

State officials did not address the meaning of those items, and the prison and its inmates remain off-limits to journalists.

But in a non-descript metaphysical store in Downtown Juarez, shopkeeper Edgardo Enriquez described the people who come to buy the statues or spend a few minutes alone in the altar to Saint Death in the back of his shop.

“They come to ask for protection from La Santa Muerte. It might be a mom whose son was just killed but wants to ask for protection for her other sons,” Enriquez said. “Lately, a lot of people are coming to La Santa Muerte, I think it has to do with the violence in the city.”

Juarez last year recorded more than 1,200 murders, most of them drug-related. The manner of death is often gruesome: decapitation, strangulation and burning.

During the New Year’s Eve prison break, seven of the dead were state prison guards. A day later, during the hunt for the 30 escapees including reputed Mexicles gang leader Ernesto “El Neto” Pinon, two state police officers were killed in a gunfight with five suspected drug traffickers.

“We get three to four people a day seeking her benefits, not just random people, but also police and those who smuggle people to the other side. [….] They may bring an offering of a bottle of whiskey or tequila, tobacco, candy or an apple,” he said. The shopkeeper urges care when offering a lit candle, lest the light might go out in the middle of the prayer and “she might say, ‘you offered me light, but there is no light. No more favor for you.’”

Other than protection from her embrace, others come to plead for riches – dollars by the handful. Some popular representations of La Santa Muerte have her surrounded or sitting on piles of gold coins and money.

Enriquez tries not to talk in detail about his customers and would rather not reveal the exact location of his business. Other shops that featured shrines to La Santa Muerte have closed in Juarez because of threats from gangs.

His neighbors were not too happy to have him next door at first, he said. They did confront him outright but came to his with pet peeves like the smoke that occasionally comes out from the back.

“I explained to them it is a good smoke to drive out negative vibes. […] I tell people that La Santa Muerte is a saint, like we have other saints. In life, we have white and we have black. Life is not a single color. We are all children of God but each one of us thinks differently,” the man some neighbors call “El Brujo” (the witch or the sorcerer) said.

Enriquez said it’s not just people in the drug culture that seek La Santa Muerte. He’s seen mothers come plead for their sick children to be spared and people with terminal illnesses come make their offerings.

The tiny room where he keeps a larger-than-life statue of La Santa Muerte also holds a representation of the St. Michael the Archangel and portraits of Jesus Christ.

Enriquez said he has been delving in the occult since he was young and saw visions. Together with his wife and his daughter, the middle-aged Juarez resident reads Tarot cards, conducts spiritual cleansings and advises those who want to stay in contact with the dear departed.