The saints march in to drug wars
The found nearly a pound.
They expected to find cash.
They found $31,000.
What they didn't expect was the small altar for a skeletal Mexican saint. It was Santa Muerte, the patron saint of drug dealers, prostitutes and other criminals.
The saint, from the Spanish meaning "saint death," is popular in Mexico, where researchers say the cult claims more than 2 million followers and goes back about 3,000 years.
Police say they found the altar while executing a search warrant at 25 Market St. while investigating Roberto and Jorge Quinonez, a father and son authorities believe were moving large amounts of cocaine into the community.
Learning the culture
Santa Muerte often is associated with drugs, brutality and other crimes. Their followers pray for protection from law enforcement and safety during drug deals. Santa Muerte is believed to be as powerful as the highest Catholic saints, but she doesn't discriminate.
Offerings often are marijuana or alcohol. Blowing smoke in the saint's face is believed to awaken her powers.
Santa Muerte has slowly crept into Mexican communities in United States, often in bigger cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago. She also has started to make her way into Walworth County.
Deputy District Attorney Joshua Grube said knowing about the underground culture is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to investigation. He likened it to police learning about gang signs and colors.
The more authorities know about what the culture behind criminals, the better prepared they are to catch them.
"We learned about some little statues or bags or charms that some people believe that if you put them in a threshold of a room, it'll keep the contents of that room safe from law enforcement," Grube said. "So if law enforcement sees that on the threshold of a room or door, maybe that's the room that the drugs are in. You think, 'What are they trying to protect?'"
The Quinonez duo was not alone.
Walworth County authorities Nov. 3 arrested 11 people on drug charges, and Lake Geneva officers found Santa Muerte in some of their houses, Grube said.
It wasn't the first time Walworth County authorities found evidence of the saint in the homes of suspects, he said.
Grube and other Walworth County authorities attended a class on the topic taught by Robert Almonte, retired El Paso, Texas, deputy police chief.
'A red flag'
Almonte's interest in the religious culture underlying the Mexican drug war comes from working as a narcotics detective in the 1980s.
"We noticed there was an increase that they had these altars set up for protection from law enforcement," Almonte said.
Almonte started researching the topic. He made several trips to Mexico, trying to understand the culture behind patron saints of the crime world.
Despite the association with criminal behavior, he said, it's important to note not all Santa Muerte followers are criminals.
While in Mexico, Almonte went to shrines and participated in processions where more than 6,000 people gathered to worship Santa Muerte, kneeling and crawling after her statue.
Stricken with poverty and struggling in life, most of the followers seemed to be seeking help from whatever source they could find, he said.
But some other Santa Muerte followers have gone to greatly brutal lengths to please their saint.
Almonte recalls a case in Tijuana, Mexico, a few years ago when a member of a small crime organization owed about $7,000 to the organization leaders.
"When he finally confessed he spent the money, they cut his legs and arms off and offered it to Santa Muerte," he said.
The man's head was never found. One of the group members insisted Santa Muerte had taken it, Almonte said.
Almonte now goes around the country teaching a class on patron saints of the underground Mexican drug war.
"I want officers to become familiar with these religious icons that the criminal may have in their possession because I want this to serve as a red flag," Almonte said.
Grube said learning about the subject has heightened his awareness of Santa Muerte in Walworth County.
"It seems like once we heard about this happening, if you just look around, they really are doing this," Grube said. "They really are having these amulets and statutes and jam bags."
Possession of a statue is not probable cause to obtain a search warrant, Grube said, but it helps.
"It's just another tool," he said, "another piece of the puzzle."