HOUSTON -

In the fabric of neighborhoods throughout Houston, you'll find culture, heritage, and practices developed through years of tradition. Threatening to disrupt that vibrant balance is a growing phenomenon some describe as a blessing — others as evil.

It's the worship of the folk saint Santa Muerte, which in English stands for the Saint of Death. It began in the first half of the 20th century in Mexico and has spread into Central America and throughout the United States.

In Houston, you see her decal on vehicles and her likeness on storefronts. People pray to the robe-draped female skeleton for an array of reasons — including health, love, prosperity, and justice.

Store owners like Maria Barrientios sell the saint's merchandise in her store in southwest Houston and is a devout believer.

"I pray to her like I would pray to God, Hail Marys and Our Fathers," said Barrientos. "As long as you talk to her from the heart, she hears you just like God hears you."

But some warn there's a dangerous and deadly side to Santa Muerte. Federal agents say drug cartels embrace the saint of death. Altars of worship are often found in the homes of suspects — and brutal killings on both sides of the border have been linked to death saint followers.

"Bottom line, a lot of criminals are praying to Santa Muerte for protection," said U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, who is based in San Antonio.

Almonte trains other narcotics officers who will likely encounter suspects who worship Santa Muerte. He tells of a particularly brutal murder in which cartel members in Mexico killed a fellow member who had misplaced a large sum of cash. They tied the man to chair and used a power saw to cut off his limbs.

"One of the female members of this group got the cutting saw, cut off his head. took his head and offered it up to Santa Muerte as an offering," said Almonte. "That was in her confession."

Almonte said death saint worship has spread across the country among criminals, but also among many law abiding citizens like Maria Barrientos. Regardless of their reasons, there are many faithful followers.

"We have to believe in something," said Barrientos. "If death was given to us, then why don't we believe in her?"