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.
Pope John Paul II’s “Healing of Memories” Between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West
by Dr. Adam DeVille, guest contributor
In Damascus, Syria on May 7, 2001, Pope John Paul II is helped by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios Laham III after praying at the Church of St. Paul on the Wall. (photo: Enric Marti/AFP/Getty Images)
As the world watches Pope John Paul II being beatified, I want to reflect on one phrase he used almost from the beginning of his papacy through to the end, a phrase of great significance for human psychology, human history, and human harmony: the “healing of memories.”
When he was elected in 1978, his fellow cardinal and Pole, Stefan Wyszyński, reportedly told John Paul that the latter’s mission was to lead the Church into the third millennium. To do that, the pope began laying the groundwork by dealing with some of the problems from the first and second millennia. Memories of those problems — divisions among Christians, persecution, the use of violence to propagate the faith — continued to haunt the church.
As a phenomenologist with an acute insight into the human condition, the pope knew that memories of past hurts must be acknowledged before one can move on. He wanted the Church to move on freely and joyfully into the third millennium, and so he made it a priority to work for the healing of memories.
Of those memories whose healing he not only called for but actively worked towards, none were as long-standing as the memories of division between Western and Eastern Christians. Christians have memories of three periods of especially painful division: the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, in which Christians in Syria, Egypt, and Armenia divided from the rest of the Church over the question of the nature of Christ; the so-called Great Schism of 1054, when the leaders of the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople attempted to excommunicate one another; and then, of course, the Western divisions of the sixteenth-century Reformation.
John Paul felt that the East-West split was the one with the greatest possibility of being healed, perhaps even in his lifetime. That view was a touch too optimistic, perhaps even naive, but it was charming and inspiring in its hopefulness.
He did more to advance East-West healing than any pope before him. No other pope, for example, had ever written a fulsome letter like John Paul did in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, asking humbly for other Christians to tell him what was wrong with his office and how to fix it. Such a request was, and is, utterly unprecedented in papal history.
On November 27, 2004, Pope John Paul II embraces Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I during an Ecumenical Celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pontiff also returned relics of two early Christian saints aiming to establish unity among the two Christian churches. (photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
How did the Christian East respond? Here we see anew the importance of healing memories. Too many Eastern Orthodox Christians, in 1995 and still today, looked on the papal request as a ruse designed to trick them into surrendering. One Orthodox priest I know — who works with Catholics daily and is very open and friendly — said that John Paul’s request was a bit like being “hugged by a bear.” He wants to love you, and you want to let him love you, but you have memories of being mauled in the past and the scars to show it, so you remain mistrustful.
That mistrust, sadly, remains high among many Eastern Christians, of whom I am one. When you have a thousand years — and more — of division behind you, it takes time to overcome such longstanding memories of division and discord. What is especially sad and difficult to see are those Eastern Christians who have no interest in letting go of their hurts, who refuse all healing because they think — like people who believe childhood vaccines cause autism no matter how many times the science debunks this nonsense — that the “medicine” will kill them. When the pope talks about the healing of memories, some regard him as a kind of Dr. Evil figure, uttering soothing platitudes designed only to brainwash unsuspecting Orthodox into accepting their new status as automatons under papal domination and control.
How does one heal memories, both legitimate and neurotic — if not psychotic? Here I find the work of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas — whom John Paul surely read — to be very important. Levinas’s great insights were what he called the “ethics of the face” and the dangers of abstraction. For Levinas, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, he knew that it is much easier to malign someone, to be dismissive of and divided from others — even to kill them — when I do not have to acknowledge their humanity and look them in the face. I can abstractly consign someone to a racial, ethnic, or religious category and thereby dehumanize them.
But if I undergo what Levinas stressed repeatedly — the face-to-face encounter — then it is much harder for me to dismiss someone as a “dirty papist,” a “perfidious Byzantine” or a “Russian schismatic.” The face-to-face encounter is the beginning of the healing of memories of past hurts and divisions.
That is why it is so important for Catholics and Orthodox — Eastern and Western Christians — to begin to engage one another on the most basic level: in their neighborhoods, in their local communities, wherever they find themselves working, playing, and praying together. Once we acknowledge our shared humanity and begin to build not merely bridges but friendships and relationships, we not only heal past memories but create new ones in proleptic remembrance (what Scripture calls anamnesis) of the unity that is happening and is to come.
As we honor the memory of Pope John Paul II, by any measure one of the outstanding figures of our time, we have to continue his work of healing the memories of East-West division so that Christians may be united so that the world may believe (John 17:21).
Correction: The first photo caption incorrectly labeled Gregorios Laham III as Syrian Greek Orthodox Archbishop. This has been updated to Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch.
Adam DeVille is author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity and assistant professor of theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He’s also the editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies and blogs regularly at Eastern Christian Books.
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