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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

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The Substitute Saints of Drug Trafficking: An Interview with U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte

by Susan Leem, associate producer

U.S. Marshal Robert AlamonteWhen 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.

Shrine to Saint MuerteA 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.

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