Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors & Dark Magico-Religious Activities (Review)

This is an updated version of an article/review originally published by Eris Magazine in 2016 using reformatted text taken from a Facebook post:

“While no certainty exists that Santa Muerte-inspired, much less ritualistic, killings will spread within the United States, recent trends suggest that they will occur at least sporadically. For U.S. law enforcement officers, it proves far better to be prepared and vigilant than caught off guard.
The latest variant of the Cult of Santa Muerte promotes extreme, corrupt, and criminal — even evil — behaviors. Law enforcement agencies need to provide a balanced, yet vigilant, response.
The rise of a fully criminalized and dark variant of Santa Muerte worship holds many negative implications. Of greatest concern, the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could emerge across the border and manifest domestically in the United States.”
- Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D., Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings (FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Feb. 5th, 2013)

A few years ago, Dr. Robert Bunker, 2015 Futurist in Residence at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia released an anthology, Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors & Dark Magico-Religious Activities — this is a must read for those in the contemporary ‘occult revival’ who misconstrue identity politics for spirituality — and even more so for those who recognize the incredible power that spiritual traditions hold for those who seriously pursue them.

As anyone who has read my own commentary knows I am not one to stand for witch-hunts and I fully support a nuanced and honest look at the rich and diverse spiritual traditions that are found around the world.

With that in mind — we have to be honest with the fact that what Bunker labels ‘dark magico-religious activities,’ such as human sacrifice, ritualized torture, and other forms of ritualized violence, are a reality — and have become a serious and growing problem in the Americas and around the world.

Violence is not simply on the side of crazed evangelicals executing witches or killing each other in botched exorcisms — there is a a very real element of danger that exists as magic and the culture of supernaturalism intermixes with the culture of violence that has been cultivated in our contemporary global society.

Main stream media reports which unfairly categorize Santa Muerte as nothing more than a ‘narco-saint’ and criminal spiritual tradition are a good reminder that the current media is not capable of hosting a real dialogue on this topic. While the majority of Santa Muerte’s devotees are not satanic cartel hitmen, the struggle to pull her tradition out of the hands of those who truly do use her to promote atrocities is something that every leader in Santa Muerte’s public devotional community struggles with daily.

I am familiar with Bunker’s work on Santa Muerte and can say that he is as fair as his position allows him to be, but as a representative of an official organization within the U.S. government his view comes from a very particular set of circumstances and experiences which may strike a nerve with some devotees.

Practitioner’s who have a scholarly bent need to be aware of the reality of the current culture of violence and how it is being refracted through spiritual traditions so that they can be a legitimate part of this discussion. It is up to those who are more educated in the various traditions where at times these violent tendencies can emerge to help keep the dialogue around these issues as rational as it can be while addressing such a sensitive topic.

Much of this anthology is centered on ‘non-state actors,’ the technical term for what is more commonly known as terrorist or insurgent groups, and may not at first seem relevant to issues of contemporary spirituality. Yet anyone familiar with groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram knows that they are examples of the power of spirituality to inspire horrendous violence. A recent White Nationalist article posted by Mitch Horowitz comparing the Normal Vincent Peale to Julius Evola shows that even something as seemingly mundane as ‘positive thinking’ can be used to frame spirituality in a way that does nothing to further the pursuit of peace.

The immediate reaction of many readers will be similar to what Horowitz said in a comment on the Facebook post where this article orginated from:

“I’ve encountered so much slander of Wicca, Santaria, etc., and what with the fake “Satanic crimes” scare of the 1980s, I’ve almost checked out on this topic. What is it about this book that transcends the media morass?”

This is exactly what concerns me — ‘the media morass’ Horowitz outlines covers up some incredibly disturbing realities. While the media demonizes traditions as a whole, it misses the fact that it’s often charismatic individuals utilizing elements of the traditions that are responsible for sparking some of the most horrible crimes in our culture.

We must also address the realities of what is now being called ‘fake news’ and it’s ability to drive behaviors — political sleight of hand is one thing, but when we consider these same social dynamics become something completely different in light of statements such as this from the previous quoted 2013 Law Enforcement Bulletin:

“An additional concern is the promotion of alleged rituals, such as “blood baptism,” derived from wearing bloody human skins taken from sacrificial victims.”

It’s one thing for a media misrepresentation to cause some arguments online — it’s quite another for it to spawn behaviors which would trigger trauma in any average person. If you don’t think this can happen just consider the murder in Wisconsin inspired by the fictional Slenderman character.

Investigators and reporters with ritual items found during a raid on a ranch in Matamoros, Mexico owned by Adolfo Constanzo. Twelve human bodies were found at the cult site, including the body of missing University of Texas — Austin student Mark Kilroy. (Bettmann/Corbis)

An succinct example of the reality that Blood Sacrifice addresses is Adolfo Constanzo, who provided the media with the first widespread image of Santa Muerte in the late 1980’s when his compound in Matamoros was raided. Constanzo had been a sorcerer for a number of cartels and was securing their shipments with human sacrifices. The media labeled him a Santero, a Palero, a Brujo, but in reality he was a charismatic individual who had adopted a number of different traditions (which he truly did initiate into) as the basis for his job as a sorcerer for hire.

Constanzo lead a small group of hitmen and kidnappers and was hired by cartels, politicians, celebrities and others who could pay his fees to secure what they wanted — which often included him abducting and killing individuals during the spiritual working to assure success. You want to make sure that shipment gets there with no trouble? Great, you handed him the cash and he did the work — which often included kidnapping and ritually torturing and murdering individuals as part of the deal. The more critical the request — the more blood and pain needed to make sure the spiritual work went right.

What Bunker is outlining here is how that kind of isolated ‘magico-religious’ practice is being refracted through decentralized iconographies adopted by cartels, organizations like ISIL and Boko Haram, and other groups as the actively and institutionally organize themselves with more efficiency.

This is a process that the infamous Julius Evola, an early-mid 20th century, politically active Traditionalist/Fascist sorcerer who came into the contemporary public conscious during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, was well aware of, and which author, Guido Mina di Sospiro and noted esoteric scholar, Joscelyn Godwin outline in their novel The Forbidden Book — only within the current digital culture this process is being sped up and amplified.

As I point out in The Politics of Initiation, a review of Godwin and Mina Di Sospiro’s novel (available here):

”If one doubts the practical expediency of traditional magic philosophy, reports have it that Giordano Bruno’s treatise De vinculis en genre has at times been included in the curriculum of the London School of Economics. Couliano, in his examination of Bruno’s legacy, considers Bruno’s writings on the subject to be more effective as a framework for political machinations than the popular works of Machiavelli.
Written several years prior to Anders Breivik’s violent outburst in Norway under the auspices of an imagined Templar order, The Forbidden Book deals with political potentialities inherent in traditional esoteric philosophy. Since it’s publications the warnings and insights it contains regarding the underlying mechanisms of radicalism are even more timely — one might even say prophetic. Like Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found at Saragossa, an initiatory novel from the early 19th century, the story unfolds leading us into the intricate relationships of politics, philosophy and religion — where religious and esoteric identity becomes a mask for influencing social change, and individual involvement in this game becomes an initiatory experience that restructures personal identity and understanding.
Not only does the book serve as a way in which to view these aspects, but in itself it serves to remind us that future events, such as Breivik’s attacks, can be anticipated, in a general sense if not specific times and dates, if one understands the movement of forces within the world. The Forbidden Book plays with these notions within the cultural space, focusing on the importance of place in our sense of self and examining how manipulating culturally significant monuments, or personally significant areas such as a house, can cause effects within a wider cultural context. This is a topic that has become increasingly potent in the ideological warfare of the 21st century, with 9/11 standing at the gateway to the century as a marker for how effective targeted attacks on the cultural infrastructure provide a blank canvas for mapping out political agendas.”

A charismatic leader such as Constanzo, or a more hidden one such as Evola, has historically been the key to this dynamic — but — that is where the situation is becoming more intensified in the current cultural climate.

Decentralized organizations — or leaderless organizations — are not run by a charismatic person per se — they can be run by a charismatic iconography or philosophy or ideology. Librarian of Congress James Billington’s book Fire in the Mind’s of Men is a great outline of this process in terms of revolutionary movements pre-1900. Leaderless Jihad by Marc Sageman outlines some more recent examples. In the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom give examples of this from the business world. All of these texts have been key sources in helping to understand the growth and development of Santa Muerte as a decentralized devotional tradition. Her strong iconography acts as a centralizing factor for disparate groups — and their various interpretations and interactions amongst devotees further develops it.

There is a desperate need for more dialogue around these areas because of the failures in the wider media to address the delicacy of what is going on here.

The views of professionals within the military, defense, intelligence and judicial branches of the government are often misrepresented in the media in regard to this topic. Through my own work on the Santa Muerte tradition, I can say that the publicly available official analysis of crimes associated with Santa Muerte are chilling — most of the information is closed off as it relates to active investigations, but what is public is incredibly disturbing and needs to be addressed and not ignored or obscured. This is not the mediated sub-culture that has become public in the United States we are talking about — this is the sanctification of death by individuals who are often already capable of extreme acts of violence and criminality.

‘Ritual crime’ as a label has a very checkered past — murder is murder in the eyes of the law and there have been many unfortunate examples where fundamentalist ideologies have used accusations of ritual crime against minority groups — what is missed in rejecting this category wholesale is that murder can be inspired and cultivated through certain ideologies and even encouraged by them. As Bunker points out in his introduction to Blood Sacrifices, “the acknowledgment that blood sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice, actively occurs in the 21st century is a pivotal triumph in scholarly research. Twenty years ago, this book could not have been published. In most universities, think tanks, and government research facilities, characterizing any type of murder as sacrificial was viewed at best as a secondary motive and at worst as junk science.” This is still the case with some of the recent pop scholarship of the ‘Satanic Panic’ era.

All of us writing in areas of contemporary spirituality need to take this subject very seriously and be aware of the wider context of these issues. Spirituality and religious ideology has a power that many, especially in the United States, have cast aside in order to focus on identity politics, abstract academic noodling and aesthetic concerns.

Works such as Blood Sacrifice are a good reminder that not everyone is so naive.

For more on the book see: