The Substitute Saints of Drug Trafficking: An Interview with U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte
by Susan Leem, associate producer
When the leader of a fast-growing drug cartel, La Familia, was arrested in late June, Mexican authorities proclaimed the end to their reign in the state of Michoacán. They gained notoriety for the grisly act of tossing five human heads onto a dance floor in western Mexico in 2006. But their moral behavior defies their moral identification. In fact, La Familia has demonstrated an affiliation with Christianity.
NPR describes them as “cult-like” and “pseudo Christian” while the Christian Science Monitor notes that “the group has supported communities with public works like street light or church repair, giving them a certain amount of credibility.” The spiritual lives of some criminals have a real dimension whether or not it appears to contradict itself.
Robert Almonte, a federal marshal for the Western District of Texas, investigates narcotics cases. He’s made it his work to educate law enforcement officers about the telltale signs and religious markers of drug traffickers. And, it’s his Roman Catholic upbringing that gives him fascinating insights into how he sees criminals taking advantage of religious traditions, rituals, and iconography.
A marketplace shrine to Santa Muerte. (photo: Patricio López/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Does faith motivate criminals differently than greed or fear?
The greed comes before the faith. The faith is what makes them believe that they will be successful and not get caught.
How did you become an expert on the spiritual/religious activity of criminals, particularly drug traffickers?
While working as a narcotics detective with the El Paso Police Department in the mid-1980s, we encountered religious items in the houses of several drug dealers. Occasionally we would find the drugs hidden in and/or around the different statues. On one such occasion, we executed a search warrant at a home of a bruja (“witch”) who was a street-level heroin dealer. She actually had notes or prayers asking for protection from us. Obviously this did not work as this was the second or third time that we had arrested her. It was then that I realized the extent that some criminals were praying for protection from law enforcement. I found this to be very disappointing.
I was raised as a Catholic, attended Catholic school, and served as an altar boy. I was taught that everything about the Catholic religion and Catholic saints was beautiful and involved only good things. However, once becoming a police officer, I began seeing the misuse of the Catholic saints and a perversion of the Catholic religion.
José de Jesús Méndez Vargas, leader of the Mexican drug cartel La Familia was recently arrested. Part of the reason I wanted to interview you is because we’ve heard this particular cartel described by mainstream news as “quasi-Christian” and “pseudo-Christian.”
I am somewhat familiar with this description. They even have some kind of a “bible” whose rules include prohibiting their members from using drugs. Yet, it’s OK to distribute them? I don’t know how anything can be considered “quasi-Christian” or “pseudo-Christian” when the same people in this are involved in brutal killings and beheadings.
What are some of the rituals or patron saints you’ve observed as important figures in the lives of the drug traffickers you pursue, and where do these icons/figures come from? Why have the popularity of these figures spread throughout Mexico beyond only criminals?
There are several patron saints that I have observed as important figures in the Mexican drug underworld. There are those that are legitimate Catholic saints and there are those that are not, but instead have been given saint-like status by their followers. All of them are being used by the criminals as well as by people not involved in criminal activity. The criminals who invoke the Catholic saints believe that, by doing this, the saints will protect them and their drugs from law enforcement.
I think it is important to share with your audience a little bit about the concept of Catholic saints first. Many non-Catholics do not understand the concept of Catholic saints. Many people mistakenly believe that Catholics worship and idolize the saints and they believe that to be wrong. It would be wrong, if that is what was occurring. Catholics do not worship or idolize the saints. We honor them.
We believe that the Catholic saints were real, live people who walked the Earth. We also believe that they lived extraordinary lives very close to God and Jesus Christ, and some even gave their lives and were martyred spreading the word of Jesus Christ. A very recent example would be Pope John Paul II, who was beatified by Pope Benedict which will eventually result in Pope John Paul II being canonized as a Catholic saint. I should add that Pope John Paul II is extremely popular in Mexico and with the Mexican people. I believe the reason for his popularity is because, aside from the Pope’s home country of Poland, Mexico is the country that he visited the most as Pope.
Pope John Paul II is not a Catholic saint yet, but, almost immediately after his death, prayer candles and prayer cards with his image began popping up in Mexico and in the United States. It seems to me that a lot of people do not wait for the Vatican to canonize someone as a saint. A lot of people will give saint-like status to someone. I have reviewed several drug cases where officers have encountered prayer cards and candles to Pope John Paul II.
St. Jude Thaddeus is by far the Catholic saint used most often by the criminals. I believe the reason they pray to St. Jude is very simple. He is known as the patron saint of lost causes or difficult situations. In my lectures to law enforcement officers throughout the country, I tell them that it is similar to a police officer being in a difficult situation such as a shooting, and calling for back-up. A drug trafficker travelling the highways and byways of the United States with a car loaded with drugs, drug money, weapons, or anything else illegal perceives what they are doing to also be a “lost cause” or at least a very difficult situation. They call upon or pray to St. Jude asking him to intervene on their behalf to keep law enforcement away.
Young devotees of San Judas Tadeo come to worship at the church of San Hipólito in Ciudad, Mexico. (photo: Eneas De Troya/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Another Catholic icon that is very popular with Mexicans is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary. The apparition of the Virgin Mary occurred in what is now Mexico City some 500 years ago. The Virgin Mary appeared before a poor peasant farmer by the name of Juan Diego. The Virgin of Guadalupe is extremely popular with the Mexican people both in Mexico and in the United States. Many Catholics honor her and also pray to her, asking for her intercession with difficult situations in their lives. Unfortunately, it appears that many criminals also call upon her to protect them, as I have reviewed numerous cases where images of the Virgin of Guadalupe have been encountered at crime scenes by law enforcement officers.
This leads me to another icon known as Santa Muerte, meaning “Saint of Death” or “Holy Death.” She is not a Catholic saint but has become extremely popular in Mexico and in the United States. Santa Muerte is the most popular icon or “patron saint” being used by Mexican drug traffickers and gang members. She has also become popular with people not involved in criminal activity. Santa Muerte is the icon that concerns me the most because of her relation to death. While Santa Muerte looks like the Grim Reaper, she is not. Santa Muerte is more than that.
People don’t pray to the Grim Reaper, but they do pray to Santa Muerte. Where did she come from? I don’t think anyone really knows for sure. But a lot of people, including myself, believe that she actually goes way back to the pre-Christian Aztec’s god of death, Mictlantecuhtli. Back then, the Aztecs would sacrifice people to this god of death. Unfortunately, there are reported cases in Mexico where criminals have sacrificed their enemies to Santa Muerte.
I conducted extensive research into Santa Muerte, which included going into Mexico and visiting many different shrines for her as well as a “church” that portrayed itself to be a Catholic church, but it was not. It looked like any other Catholic church except that it also had statues and paintings of its patron saint, Santa Muerte. In a neighborhood known as barrio Tepito, there is roadside shrine for Santa Muerte. She is inside a small room that has a large glass window in front. Every first day of every month, a large procession and prayer service is held for Santa Muerte. The first time I attended this function, I could not believe the number of people that were there. There had to have been three or four thousand people there, with the majority of them holding different size statues of Santa Muerte in their arms.
There were coordinators who wore red t-shirts and they were responsible for crowd control and for pumping the crowd up. They did this by pumping their fists in the air and leading the crowd in almost high school-like cheers for Santa Muerte. I also saw some people crawling on their knees toward her shrine, with a Santa Muerte statue in their arms. This reminded me of the Catholic tradition known as una manda among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of crawling on their knees to a basilica, church, or other Catholic shrine. This is typically done as an offering so that you can have a prayer answered or as a payment because your prayer was answered.
A devotee puffs smoke at a statuette dedicated to Santa Muerte in Tepito, a shantytown in Mexico City. The skeletal image, also known as La Santísima (“Little White Girl”) or Doña Sebastiana (“The Skinny Girl’”) is thought to date back to pre-Columbian times. (photo: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)
People were blowing smoke on each other’s statues as a ritual and a form of worship for Santa Muerte. The smoke came from cigars, cigarettes, and marijuana cigarettes. Everyone was asked to remove their hats and pray to Santa Muerte so that she can protect them and lead them in the right direction.
After that, they began praying the rosary! This was a strange phenomena to me as I had only experienced the Catholic rosary being prayed to the Virgin Mary. That is when it became apparent to me that a lot of these people who pray to Santa Muerte are actually getting Santa Muerte to take the place of the Virgin Mary. This was even more evident as they had the Santa Muerte statue dressed very similarly to the way the Virgin Mary is dressed. I have also seen images of what appears to be the Virgin of Guadalupe, but in place of the face of the Virgin Mary is the face of Santa Muerte. I also have seen a statue of Santa Muerte sitting down in the place of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus Christ.
At a corner near the procession was a shrine for the Virgin of Guadalupe. I walked over to the shrine and noticed that I was the only one at her shrine, yet a few feet away there are thousands of people praying to a skeleton. After the rosary was concluded, people lined up so that they could pay their respects to the Santa Muerte statue. There were people from all walks of life, the elderly, the middle-aged, children, and even babies being held in their parents’ arms. Many of them would make the sign of the cross while standing before the statue of Santa Muerte and many of them would rub the glass window with their hand. I noticed a young man holding a newborn baby in his arms and appearing to be presenting the baby to Santa Muerte. I also noticed a lady in line pushing a wheelchair with a little boy in it toward the shrine of Santa Muerte.
On seeing this, my thoughts were that this lady had probably heard about Santa Muerte performing all kinds of miracles. What did she have to lose? Nothing else has helped her little boy; maybe Santa Muerte can cure him?
On the other hand, I am aware of Mexican law enforcement officers who are not involved in criminal activity who pray to Santa Muerte asking her to protect them while they are working the streets. They also pray to her in case they get killed in the line of duty, asking her to take them to heaven.
I saw a documentary from Venezuela featuring shrines to tiny gangster icons for example.
Tiny gangster icons? I would like to learn more about that!
What is the reason for creating/worshiping new saints, ones not sanctioned by the Vatican?
I believe one of the reasons people create new “saints” is because many of them are poor, hopeless, and desperate. What they have has not made a difference, so they are always looking for something or someone new that may be able to help them. What I have also noticed is that these people who create new saints or icons do not abandon what they had before. If they had been praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Jude, and other saints, they continue to do so, while at the same time adding these new or additional non-Catholic saints.
In interviewing some of these people in Mexico, several of them told me that is why they believe they are not doing anything wrong. On one of my visits to a church whose patron saint is Santa Muerte, I noticed that there was a real Catholic church about a block away. The priest from the Catholic church went to the Santa Muerte church, stood outside, and told the people going in and out that they were sinning by praying to Santa Muerte. One person responded to the Catholic priest, “Father, you are just jealous because we have more saints than you do.”
I read that you have lead training classes to help law enforcement recognize and interpret the religious underpinnings of Mexican cartels. How has your experience in this aspect of criminal activity changed the way you do think about your work and your previous understanding of criminal minds?
I do conduct many training sessions for law enforcement officers throughout the United States. The reason for this is because many of the cartels distribute and traffic in narcotics in many different cities throughout the U.S. My first thought on putting this class together was for the purpose of enhancing the safety of law enforcement officers throughout the U.S. I knew that a lot of law enforcement officers are not familiar with this area, and I thought it was important for them to be able to recognize and understand these different icons that criminals may be using for protection from law enforcement. The next benefit to law enforcement is that the presence of these icons may assist them in possibly detecting criminal activity.
These different icons are not probable cause by themselves, but no doubt can serve as red flags and possible indicators. What has changed in my previous understanding of criminal minds is that now more and more they believe that using the power of the spiritual world will further their criminal activity. The criminals are using these icons as a tool against law enforcement and now law enforcement is using these things to enhance law enforcement officer safety and detect criminal activity.
Tell me about the psychology of the “Robin Hood” theory. I’ve read that communities in Mexico have benefitted from the philanthropy of these cartels who have provided street lights, funds to repair churches, etc.
I think it would be best to talk about a patron saint being used by people who originated as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. His name is Jesus Malverde, and he is known as the original narco-saint. It is clear that he is not a Catholic saint, but is more of a folklore saint. The legend of Jesus Malverde is that he was a bandit in the early 1900s in Culiacan, Sinaloa and he would rob from the rich and give to the poor. A lot of people believe that his real name was Jesus Juarez Mazo. This bandit would hide in the green brush wearing green camouflage and then jump out and surprise his victims and then rob them. Many of his followers believe that this is what led to the name of Jesus Malverde; he is doing “bad” things, and mal is how you say “bad” in Spanish, and his trademark camouflage is green, and verde is how you say “green” in Spanish. So, by combining these two words, you get “Malverde.”
The facade of a chapel dedicated to the 18th-century bandit Santa Jesus Malverde, known as “the saint of the drug dealers,” by the people of Culiacan, Sinaloa state in Mexico. (photo: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)
The story goes on that the Mexican government captured Jesus Malverde and hung him from a tree and left his body there to discourage others from stealing. The poor people were gathered near the tree where his lifeless body hung. They then began talking amongst each other saying that Jesus Malverde died for them. That was his original title, and today you still have people who are not involved in criminal activity, but they pray to Jesus Malverde as their “angel of the poor.”
Another version of the story of Jesus Malverde is that the governor of the state of Sinaloa placed a bounty on Jesus Malverde. A bounty hunter encounters Jesus Malverde and shoots Malverde in the leg. Somehow Malverde manages to escape and makes it back to his camp. Jesus Malverde knows that he is dying, so he instructs one of his comrades to take his body to the governor, claim the reward money, and distribute it among the poor people. This was his last good deed.
About 30 years ago or so, Mexican law enforcement began noticing that several of the cartel members being arrested were wearing medallions with the image of Jesus Malverde and several of them had shrines dedicated to Jesus Malverde. I believe the criminals related to Jesus Malverde because many of them see themselves as doing the same thing as Jesus Malverde. The criminals rationalize that they too are doing a bad thing by selling drugs and being involved in other criminal activity, but they are doing it for the right reasons, to provide for their families and the poor people with the proceeds gained from their criminal activity. His national shrine in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico is the first shrine that I went to visit.
How do bystanders in the communities of these drug traffickers reconcile their good deeds with their harmful and illegal actions? I imagine it must be quite difficult. Are drug traffickers trying to buy the goodwill of their neighbors or doing penance for causing so much harm in the world?
I believe they are trying to rationalize what they are doing. As with Jesus Malverde, they believe they are doing a bad thing but for good reasons.
I’ve read that members of drug cartels pray for protection and success in their endeavors. I know of law-abiding citizens who use religion for the same purpose in everyday life. Does it change the way you view drug trafficking or the traffickers themselves?
It has given me a new way of looking at what the criminals do to further their criminal activity, at least in their minds. You mentioned that you know of law-abiding citizens who use religion for success in the everyday life. I believe that the overwhelming majority of these law-abiding citizens are praying to God, Jesus Christ, or a recognized and organized religion. These criminals are not organized in their prayer to these icons, and a lot of them will put their own little spin on the prayers and rituals. I have seen the criminals pray to all sorts of icons up to and including God, and down to and including the devil.
What does the spiritual life of drug traffickers teach us about being human?
It teaches us that drug traffickers are acknowledging that they are human, and they need assistance and guidance from the spiritual world, including both recognized and non-recognized religious saints or icons.
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