The Holy Death sect is gaining followers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's murder capital, where rival drug cartels have been battling for every inch of turf.

Three Holy Death churches have opened in the past two years in the border city, drawing hundreds of people to pray and make offerings to the "White Girl," a skeletal image dressed in women's clothing.

The sect's growth in Ciudad Juarez, located across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, has been fueled by the large presence of Federal Police officers, who put their lives on the line every day fighting drug traffickers.

Someone who lives in danger, like the Federal Police officers, or "really any person who lives here in Ciudad Juarez, needs greater protection. And if there is someone who can save you from a tragic death, it's the Holy Death," priestess Yolanda Salazar told Efe.

Drug traffickers and even residents of some sections of the border city battered by drug-related violence ask the Holy Death for protection, sometimes putting up chapels where alms, tequila, cigars, candy and other offerings can be left.

The sect's roots can be traced to 1795, according to different researchers, when Indians began worshipping a skeleton they called the Holy Death in a town in central Mexico, and there are accounts that say the religion remained underground for two centuries.

Experts, however, agree that the sect has experienced explosive growth since the economic meltdown of 1995, when worship of the Holy Death moved from home altars into the streets, with the deity gaining a presence in processions and festivals that draw hundreds of people.

Emigrants have taken the Holy Death, moreover, across international borders into other countries.

The Federal Police recently raided a safe house used to hold kidnapping victims and discovered an altar with a skull draped in a wedding dress, two other skulls and paintings of the Holy Death.

Believers usually put up small altars at home to seek the deity's protection because the Catholic Church does not recognize the Holy Death, and followers are just now erecting churches, Salazar said.

"We needed a place where people could go to worship the Holy Death because it's likely that not everyone in the family is a devotee," the priestess said, adding that some believers "cannot have their own altar. So they can come here and make their offerings and pray."

The church, which is open 24 hours a day, tends to fill up on Sundays, when a service takes place.

Entire families, men who recently arrived from other parts of Mexico, police officers and housewives gather to pray the Rosary of the Holy Death with the priest in charge of the church, whose facade is painted black and has white lettering.

A courtyard containing a large statue of the Holy Death is near the church entrance, and people leave offerings ranging from bread to valuable jewelry there.

The service takes place in the main chamber, which is decorated with candles and hundreds of figures of different sizes.

A man taking part in the service told Efe on condition of anonymity that he had been a believer in the Holy Death since the deity supposedly helped him survive a murder attempt.

"They had already told me they were going to kill me because I did not pay some money I owed. And we saw each other in El Paso, they grabbed me and were going to kill me. I heard the gunshot, but thanks to the White Girl nothing happened to me. That is why I come to pray," the man said before placing flowers at the statue's base.

"The Holy Death only provides protection," Salazar said.

"It is a protective entity, benevolent, just and equitable. God put the world in her hands since she is dedicated to gathering souls when the flame of life is extinguished," the priestess said.

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