GEORGIA — Cartel traffickers preying on the American appetite for illegal drugs also pray to their own set of saints.
“Narco saints,” or patron saints of the drug cartels, are making the criminals even bolder.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne talked with a veteran Drug Enforcement Administration undercover agent who has extensive experience with cartel members worshipping statues and lighting candles in the name of drug trade.
“Some people believe that they are invincible when they’re under the protection of a saint,” the undercover DEA agent told Winne.
Atlanta DEA Special Agent in Charge Robert Murphy is no stranger to shrines of “narco saints.”
He says they are facilitating the flooding of Georgia streets with illegal drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.
“Atlanta is a major hub. I mean, we’re talking about from a transportation point, from a trafficking standpoint, we have a huge user base so there’s money here,” Murphy said.
Winne asked Murphy if he finds the shrines at major drug labs and drug stashes often.
“Yeah,” Murphy responded. “It would be more newsworthy if we didn’t find one.”
The “narco saints” make Georgia communities less safe, as cartel bosses use them to recruit and embolden their soldiers
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson says she was so alarmed by the “narco saints,” she used forfeited drug money to bring an expert in from Texas to educate local police officers about the growing cult worship.
“Why it’s so dangerous, particularly for law enforcement officers, is they believe they’re invincible and they’re not afraid of death,” Lawson said.
Robert Almonte is a former U.S. marshal from Texas who teaches police across the country about this.
“The main reason I am here is to enhance officer safety,” Almonte said while in Georgia.
He said the primary role of the “narco saints” is for protection from officers.
“This is not just a job for me. This is a mission,” Almonte said.
The DEA undercover agent says the “narco saints” make cartel traffickers more devoted, dedicated and deadly.
The undercover agent showed Winne several statues the DEA found at various drug labs or stashes close to Atlanta.
They represent the two most prominent “narco saints”: Santa Muerte, which means “Saint of Death” in Spanish, and Jesus Malverde, known as a Robin Hood-like figure with roots in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which is home to one of the world’s deadliest drug cartels.
The undercover agent led Winne to a Gwinnett County store which sold, among other unrelated items, Santa Muerte and Malverde figures, and the kind of candles the agent says are often used by metro Atlanta drug traffickers.
The candles are decorated with phrases such as "law stay away," "free get out of jail," and "tapa boca."
Winne interviewed in silhouette for her safety a woman who said she has associated with many cartel members.
“The ‘tapa boca’ candle is meant to keep snitches away?” Winne asked.
“Yes. Silence you,” the woman replied.
The store’s owner acknowledged one meaning does relate to snitching, but she also suggested that it can be used to silence gossip.
She used the example of using a candle for a sister-in-law saying things about her marriage.
Winne asked: "The candles that say 'police stay away' or 'get out of jail free,' are those the kinds of candles that drug traffickers buy?"
“No,” she claimed. “Everybody buys those candles, even me. I use those candles.”
The store’s owner said she caters to many religions and sells candles for lots of innocent purposes.
“I know a lot of people come here to protect (themselves),” the store owner said.
“I can’t tell which one is from the cartel or which one is not, because you can seem normal to me, and maybe you’re from the cartel. And you can come with a lot of tattoos and look like a gang member and you’re a nice person,” she said.
RELIGIOUS LEADER WEIGHS IN
Santa Muerte is also a folk saint followed by many people who are not criminals.
Almonte says the cartels misuse real Catholic saints as well, and he and the undercover agent say not every follower of Santa Muerte or Malverde is a drug trafficker.
“I know there are people that believe in them, so I am not going to disrespect that,” the undercover agent said.
A Roman Catholic priest, who asked we protect his identity from the “narco saint” worshipping cartel members, noted Santa Muerte and Malverde are not saints in the eyes of the church.
“We’re talking about not only false idols, but we’re talking about evil idols,” the priest said. “Everything Christ did always brought out the good. He brought always life to the community, never death. Drugs bring death.”
Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, author of "Devoted to Death," a book about Santa Muerte, says most of her followers are not criminals, though her importance to the cartels is undeniable and cartel members have killed in her name.
Dr. Chesnut, from Virginia Commonwealth University, maintained the worship of Santa Muerte is the “fastest growing new religious movement in the West.”
Santa Muerte and Malverde have been linked to violent deaths in Mexico and the United States.
The professor has been quoted calling Santa Muerte “basically the poster girl of narco-satanic spirituality.”
Almonte indicated he showed the police officers in Clayton County “some extremely graphic video” showing beheadings in Mexico.
“The Mexican cartel is doing it in Mexico and they are doing it here. They are doing it here because they have been here for a while,” Almonte said.
“Those that are beheading people (and) torturing people,” Almonte added. “(They) believe that, in spite of that, Santa Muerte is going to take them to heaven.”
Murphy referred to “human sacrifices being made. You’ll find them in mass graves. You’ll have a shrine there, so in their mind, this is an offering to this faux saint that condones their behavior and somehow emboldens them and gives them more power and more prestige in the narco world or in the violence world.”
“They believe,” Murphy said, “they’ll exchange their soul at a later point for it; that’s the general belief. It’s a deal with the devil.”
Almonte says drug traffickers who worship Santa Muerte have also been tied to murders in the United States. He says he does not know of a confirmed Santa Muerte drug murder in Georgia – yet.
Cox Media Group