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A few things that cops look for when patrolling for drug-trafficking: Nervous drivers, the smell of dope and religious artifacts. Cannabis transported through the Illinois Valley often comes from Mexico, where superstitious traffickers often carry amulets, prayer cards and statuettes in hopes of avoiding arrest. Police say traffickers pray for protection not only to saints such as the Virgin Mary but also to scandalous figures, such as La Santa Muerte (St. Death), not sanctioned by the Vatican. “We know through our training and experience that these people who worship these saints and idols are steeped in the drug culture,” says one drug agent.
NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord
Ed Jauch patrols the freeways for drug dealers and looks for routine signs of trouble such as speeding. When he stops a vehicle, he also peeks inside for a different sign of drugs: Religious artifacts. Marijuana passing through the Illinois Valley comes primarily from two regions: Northern California and Mexico. Mexican drug traffickers are predominantly Catholic and likely as not to travel with amulets, prayer cards and statuettes of Catholic saints — as well as unholy idols — to which they pray for protection from drug interdiction officers like Jauch. “All these are, at the very least, clues of possible drug trafficking,” said Jauch, commander of the La Salle County State’s Attorney Enforcement (SAFE) Team, “because we know through our training and experience that these people who worship these saints and idols are steeped in the drug culture.” Peru police detective John Atkins said he doesn’t see statuary in street-level drug stops, but he sure saw them on highway interdiction during a stint with the drug task force. “If I saw it, I’d suspect narco activity,” Atkins said. “That would raise my curiosity and I’d ask questions about it.” Jauch said he first noticed idols and statuary about six years ago; back then the items would be prominently displayed or mounted on dashboards. Traffickers today still carry the idols, he said, but are less brazen about keeping them in plain sight. “They’ve figured out that we’ve figured it out,” Jauch said. “I don’t think they’re getting away from it by any means. I think they’re being more covert and putting the artifacts in their pockets or under their shirts. We used to see them openly displayed.” To ask a canonized saint to aid and abet a crime is to commit the sin of idolatry, according to Catholic teaching. “You can’t ask someone, whether they’re canonized or not, for a bad act,” explained the Very Rev. Antonio Dittmer, pastor of the La Salle Catholic Parishes. “The saints want to help us get to God, not stay away from God.” Nevertheless, Jauch and his peers are pulling over cars and trucks containing images of recognized saints such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jude the Apostle — along with figures that are not saints and are unlikely to ever be recognized as such. One of those figures is Jesus Malverde, a Robin Hood figure who reportedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Malverde’s life spawned an enduring cult following though he is not recognized as a saint and his veneration is at best frowned upon by the church. La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Towne said he first learned of the devotion to Malverde in law enforcement training. He said he wasn’t surprised to learn that a bandit would be venerated by drug dealers. “Both Columbia and Mexico have a certain subculture that reveres the drug cartels as heroes,” Towne said. “There are songs and poems about famed drug couriers and traffickers. If this occupation is being glorified, than to extend to it to some kind of sainthood is really a part of that culture and mindset.” Drug dealers also pray to another figure, one that Mexico’s bishops have denounced as satanic. La Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death,” is a skeletal figure clad in a nun’s habit, resembling the Grim Reaper. The origins of La Santa Muerte are unclear, The Associated Press reported. Some followers say she is an incarnation of an Aztec goddess of death who ruled the underworld. Some scholars say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of indigenous populations in the Americas. For decades, though, La Santa Muerte remained an underground figure in isolated regions of Mexico and served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses, said Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.” It wasn’t until 2001 when a devotee unveiled a public La Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City that followers in greater numbers began to display their devotion for helping them with relationships and loved ones in prison. Economic uncertainty and a violent drug war against cartels that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives also are credited for La Santa Muerte’s growth. “Her growth in the United States has been extraordinary,” Chestnut told The Associated Press. “Because you can ask her for anything, she has mass appeal and is now gaining a diverse group of followers throughout the country. She’s the ultimate multi-tasker.” La Santa Muerte’s image has been used on prayers cards citing vengeance and protection, which are sometimes found at scenes of massacred bodies and on shipments of drugs. U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte in West Texas told the AP he has testified about La Santa Muerte in at least five drug trafficking cases where her image aided prosecutors with convictions. In 2012, Almonte testified that a Santa Muerte statue prayer card, found with a kilogram of methamphetamine in a couple’s car in New Mexico, were “tools of the trade” for drug traffickers to protect them from law enforcement. The testimony was used to help convict the couple of drug trafficking. “Criminals pray to La Santa Muerte to protect them from law enforcement,” Almonte said. “But there are good people who pray to her who aren’t involved in any criminal activity, so we have to be careful.”