by Victor Lopez
The war on drugs is raging, across the border, in Texas and across the country. Drug traffickers are taking their side of the war to another level. They're going to the extreme of praying for successful deals. But it's God they're praying to.
Drug traffickers are doing everything they can to get the upper hand on law enforcement, that includes praying to a higher, or in this case, lower power.
It's a practice.
"They understand they will probably not live a very long life. They understand they're living life on the edge. They understand they're doing something wrong. But, they try to rationalize what they're doing," U.S. Marshal, Robert Almonte, said.
Santa Muerte or Holy Death is the latest tool in the drug trafficker's arsenal. Call it devotion, a religion or simple fanaticism but drug traffickers are turning to her for guidance and protection.
According to Almonte, "They worship her, believing that she will protect them, mainly from law enforcement. That's why they pray to Santa Muerte."
The protection they seek is for everything from a successful deal or delivery, protection from being caught and arrested, even life after death.
"If they get killed, they believe Santa Muerte is going to take them to heaven," Almonte said.
Almonte has been studying and doing research on Santa Muerte for about 10 years that includes finding churches, processions and prayer services for Santa Muerte in Mexico.
"What I have found are two things; the popularity of Santa Muerte has increased, significantly, over the last few years. I've seen that," Almonte said. "The other thing I have seen is, you have two different kinds of people that are praying to her. Not just praying to her, but worshipping her. Those two sets of people include people that are not involved in criminal activity and then those that are involved in criminal activity."
The devotion to Santa Muerte is nothing new. It's been going on for years and not just in border cities. Almonte has received reports of followers from all across the country.
"I saw that back in 2004 in Mexico. To me, it was only a matter of time before she made it into the United States," Almonte said.
Almonte's research has taught him everything from how different people and groups interpret their belief in Santa Muerte, to what different symbols stand for, for example, candles.
"Most of the time, white is for good luck. Black is for protection and red is for love," Almonte said. "Not everyone who follows and prays to Santa Muerte is involved in criminal activity. These are just warning signs or red flags for law enforcement."
He is using his research to give them a more even playing field in the war against drug trafficking.
"You go into a drug house with a search warrant and you see a red Santa Muerte candle, that doesn't mean you leave the house because you think there's nothing but love going on there. You do an investigation," he said.
Agent Dante Sorianello, Resident Agent with the Midland Drug Enforcement Agency, is one of many agents across the country that has received the training.
According to him, "Any type of information you can get about people who are engaged in illegal activities and part of that illegal culture and what they're engaged in, it helps you identify your foe, for lack of a better term. Being able to identify them and the things they're engaged in, can allow you to investigate them more appropriately, more effectively and allow us, as an agency, the DEA, to be more effective in our investigations."
Sorianello says DEA Agents in West Texas also come across signs and symbols of Santa Muerte.
"About 15-20 percent of the time, when we're dealing with drug traffickers or drug smugglers that have a direct link with Mexico, we have encountered items, like the statue or little shrines to Santa Muerte," Sorianello said.
Both Sorianello and Almonte agree, not everyone who has a statue or even a tattoo of Santa Muerte is a drug trafficker. But, Sorianello says, in his line of work, "I am there for a reason, to investigate drug trafficking crimes. They have had these items and they are engaged in the drug trafficking."
For many, this belief and trust in Santa Muerte is unconditional.
Almonte explained, "Even if they're placed under arrest, they're still going to pray to Santa Muerte. They're praying to her for the court case to be dismissed or something like that."