In the mid 1980s, when Robert Almonte was a narcotics detective for the El Paso Police Department, he executed a search warrant at the home of a street-level heroin dealer and discovered the woman had placed the names of Almonte and his partner on voodoo dolls.
The woman, a Mexican national, was a “bruja” (witch), and said she put a hex on Almonte and his partner, using her spiritual beliefs in an effort to protect herself from law enforcement. Almonte said the hex didn’t work and he arrested her.
“That’s when the problem hit home,” Almonte said. “It’s been increasing ever since.”
He said the woman was one of many who believe with “all their heart and soul” that as members of Mexican drug cartels, they are protected from police, their enemies in rival cartels and even from death. At the invitation of U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales, Almonte, an expert on narcotics cases tied to religion, led a training class Thursday for 350 officers throughout Maricopa County and northern Arizona at the Mesa Public Safety Training Center.
Mexican drug trafficking organizations have facilitated crimes in most states and major cities throughout the United States as they are escalating in violence north of the border, Almonte said.
Almonte, who retired as deputy chief of the El Paso Police Department and now serves as the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas, travels the country to teach law enforcement officers about looking for indicators of underlying criminal activity through cases he has experienced and helping to identify religious “saints” or icons that might be found at crime scenes where Mexican drug cartels have a presence.
“The problem is much more prevalent now both in Arizona and Texas where Mexican drug trafficking organizations are using religion to hide behind the law,” Almonte said. “They use prayer, icons or candles as a tool to facilitate criminal activity such as for drugs, human smuggling and weapons. Officers frequently run into these icons and items of their spiritual underworld and they don’t know what they’re dealing with. We want to make officers aware of these indicators of criminal activity so they can know what to look for that also can lead to other avenues in an investigation.”
Some of the popular saints that cartels pray to are the Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death; Saint Simon, the patron saint of underworld activity who originated in Guatemala; and Saint Jesus Malverde, a folk hero equivalent to Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
In following the beliefs of Saint Jesus Malverde, some drug cartels also give back to the community, including police departments who turn their heads to the criminal activity and allow them to continue operating, Almonte said.
As recently as March, the East Valley was put on the map when investigators announced that the beheading of Alejandro Cota-Monroy, a 38-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico inside his Chandler apartment in October was fallout for stealing 400 pounds of marijuana from a Sinaloan Mexican drug cartel.
For retribution, the cartel sent in three “sicarios” or hitmen from Mexico to befriend Cota-Monroy, get him drunk and kill him in what police described as a bloody and gruesome scene in a small apartment, where candles and a Ouija board were discovered. Although investigators don’t believe the crime is linked to any ritualistic activity, the incident is believed to be the first beheading in the United States stemming from Mexican drug cartel violence.
“It’s sad,” Almonte said. “It happens here, and we make a big deal of it, and we need to. They do these things to send a message to the people they believe betray them and to law enforcement. But, compare the beheading in Chandler to all the violence happening in Mexico between rival drug cartels, and that’s just another day at the office.”
Gonzales believes there will be more drug cartel-related violence north of the border.
“Whoever says that Mexican drug cartel violence hasn’t reached the United States is in denial,” Gonzales has said. “This training is advantageous and will provide officers a foundation in knowing what to look for in these kind of cases.”
Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead said there were about 35 Mesa officers who attended the event, which he described as “one-of-a-kind” training “that you can’t get anywhere else.” He stressed the importance of law enforcement agencies collaborating with federal and state agencies on investigations while noting that neighboring Pinal County’s roads are becoming highways of criminal activity connected to Mexico.
“This is a crucial piece of training for officers,” Milstead said of Thursday’s program. “We got as many officers as we could to participate without disrupting a work day. At the end of the day, the county line is nothing more than a line on a map, and by cooperation between agencies, it helps reduce crimes. It’s about making the region safe.”
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