SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Mexico’s Episcopal Conference released a statement on Apr. 24 criticizing the “culture of death and violence” connected to drug cartels and disseminated on social media, including the “distorted cults like the one to Santa Muerte (Saint Death).”

The episcopate’s declaration was released only a few days after the picture of a T-shirt portraying Santa Muerte and a message in support of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) went viral on social media.

Mexican brand Camisetas Pendejas (“Stupid T-shirts” in Spanish) is behind the creation that came to the nation’s attention and that can be bought from street vendors just a few blocks from the presidential palace in Mexico City.

It shows Santa Muerte’s skull with the index finger placed vertically in front of its lips. The message reads: A real man never bad-mouths López Obrador.

The T-shirt spurred controversy in Mexico, which will hold general elections on Jun. 2 and is going through an electoral campaign. The candidate from López Obrador’s party, left-winger Claudia Sheinbaum, has been leading the race with a comfortable margin and has 57 percent of support. Surveys show that center-right politician Xóchitl Gálvez is behind her with 30 percent.

The picture of the controversial T-shirt has been spread on-line by López Obrador’s Morena party and became an informal element in the electoral race. Santa Muerte’s association with drug cartels has been emphasized by the press and by the political opposition. Some of the president’s opponents also emphasized that the T-shirt can be seen as some kind of threat against those who criticize him. Feminist groups highlighted the idea of “real men” included in the message and pointed to its misogynistic nature.

The controversy was brought to López Obrador during a press conference earlier this week. He said that the Santa Muerte issue has been “solved in Mexico a long time ago and is about religious freedom.”

“In this country we are free to have the religion that most closely adheres to our faith and we are also free to not have a religion. We must be respectful of believers and non-believers – and that’s a secular state and religious freedom,” he said on Apr. 23.

The Bishops’ Conference’s declaration on the following day called the Mexican people to build a culture of peace and to repudiate violence, a message that had already been emphasized by the episcopate in an previous statement, issued after its general assembly earlier this month.

“We cannot ignore the worrisome reality faced by our society with the implementation of a culture of death and violence through the dissemination of a narco culture on social media, along with violent images, distorted cults like the one to Santa Muerte, and digital intimidation,” the letter read.

The bishops went on by saying that they “energetically denounced the glorification of violence and called all social segments to unite against such destructive practices.”

“We should decide to recover and restore a Mexico that has always been known for expressing values of faith, family, living together, traditions, gastronomy, poetry, painting, art, and wonderful places to share with the world,” the document said.

The Mexican Church’s attacks to the Santa Muerte devotion are not something new. According to Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of the only academic book in English on Santa Muerte (Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint), that has been happening over the past 15 years.

He recalled that even Pope Francis, during his visit to Mexico in 2016, referred to it as a macabre narco cult.

“The new religious movement of Santa Muerte has been unable to obtain legal recognition due to opposition from the Church and its main political ally, the PAN party,” Chesnut told Crux.

He said the Catholic opposition to Santa Muerte is not only connected to its association with drug cartels – Santa Muerte tattoos are commonly seen among gang members, and images of it are frequently found in their headquarters – but also to its fear of competition.

“The Church opposes Santa Muerte as a ‘satanic narco-cult’ and because it fears losing millions of parishioners to what is the fastest growing new religious movement on the planet,” Chesnut argued.

He emphasized that Mexico, along with Cuba, is considered to be the nation with the least freedom of worship in the Americas by the Pew Research Center, so López Obrador’s defense of the Santa Muerte devotion in the name of religious freedom was a reasonable reaction.