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.
Producing “Presence in the Wild”
by Colleen Scheck, producer
I love this week’s program with Kate Braestrup, chaplain to the game warden service in Maine. Simply, her practical theology just makes sense to me — a daily translation of spirituality into caring, useful, deliberate action. And I’m glad we were able to add a Unitarian Universalist voice to the many diverse religious perspectives we delve into, just in the way we like to, exploring that perspective through a person’s “lived theology” (Krista Tippett phrase).
This was one of our programs that came together randomly and quickly. Krista saw a reference to Braestrup’s memoir a few months back, and she was curious about her story and her journey to Unitarian Universalism. We got a copy of the book, and as I read it I was immediately absorbed by its reality and humor, and by Braestrup’s wisdom, searching, compassion, and gutsy movement between grief and hope.
We booked the interview, grateful that our guest was willing to drive almost two hours from her small coastal hometown to Portland, Maine, so we could record her conversation with Krista via ISDN (the best broadcast-quality audio connection possible). Right after the interview, we decided it would be a good balance to the other voices, viewpoints, and topics we’ve done in recent weeks, so we front-burnered it into production. You’ve perhaps read other producers’ accounts of how some shows take time to find the right voice or precise approach, brewing like sun tea to get the best flavor. Others are like good espresso — best when ground fresh and served immediately. To me, Kate Braestrup is like that fine espresso, giving me a jolt of optimism and inspiration. (Full disclosure: I don’t drink coffee, but I was a barista for a short time).
We edited, wrote, listened, edited again, tossed around titles, planned content for the Web site. Mitch took cues from the interview and laid in Cole Porter music, but he wouldn’t give in to the “Sweet Home Alabama” reference near the end. And we laughed questioningly at Kate Braestrup’s description of a t-shirt one cop wore in a D.C. bar crammed with law enforcement officers — words I’m sure have never before been uttered on a Speaking of Faith program. Not suitable for radio, so you’ll have to listen to the unedited interview to hear them.
I exit this program with a new appreciation for the work of law enforcement officers of all kinds who are theologians in their own way, as Braestrup describes:
“Law enforcement officers, like all human beings, are presented with grand questions about life’s meaning and purpose. They consider the problem of evil, the suffering of innocents, the relationships between justice and mercy, power and responsiblity, spirit and flesh. They ponder the impenetrable mystery of death. Cops, in short, think about the same theological issues seminary students research, discuss, argue, and write papers about, but a cop’s work lends immediacy and urgency to such questions. Apart from my familiarity with and affinity for police culture, I was sure working with cops would take me right up to where the theological rubber meets the road.”