ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A follower in New Orleans built a public shrine in her honor. She turns up routinely along the U.S.-Mexico border at safe houses, and is sighted on dashboards of cars used to smuggle methamphetamine through the southwest desert.

Popular in Mexico, and sometimes linked to the illicit drug trade, the skeleton saint known as La Santa Muerte in recent years has found a robust and diverse following north of the border: immigrant small business owners, artists, gay activists and the poor, among others — many of them non-Latinos and not all involved with organized religion.

Clad in a black nun’s robe and holding a scythe in one hand, Santa Muerte appeals to people seeking all manner of otherworldly help: from fending off wrongdoing and carrying out vengeance to stopping lovers from cheating and landing better jobs. “Her growth in the United States has been extraordinary,” said Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” and the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Because you can ask her for anything, she has mass appeal and is now gaining a diverse group of followers throughout the country. She’s the ultimate multi-tasker.”

Exact numbers of her followers are impossible to determine, but they are clearly growing, Chesnut said.

The origins of La Santa Muerte are unclear. Some scholars say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of indigenous populations in the Americas.

For decades, though, La Santa Muerte remained an underground figure and served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses, Chesnut said.

It wasn’t until 2001 when a devotee unveiled a public La Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City that followers in greater numbers began to display their devotion for helping them with relationships and loved ones in prison.