special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, email@example.com
Does praying to a "narco saint" constitute evidence that someone is a drug trafficker? In an unusual case out of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the court said "no." In overturning the conviction of the woman doing the praying, the court both acted to protect First Amendment freedoms and opened a window into Santa Muerte, the unofficial Saint Death venerated by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of poor Mexicans, some of whom are members of the criminal underworld.
The case,US v. Medina-Copete and Goxcon-Chagal, unfolded on June 28 2011, when New Mexico State Police Sergeant Arsenio Chavez pulled over a truck with Nevada plates on I-40 in Albuquerque for failing to maintain adequate distance from the vehicle ahead of it. According to court testimony, Chavez felt suspicious when he noticed the occupants appeared nervous, and the woman riding on the passenger side could be heard reciting a handwritten prayer she held in her hands.
Santa Muerte shrine, Nuevo Laredo (wikipedia/not home)
In the truck were Tulsa residents Rafael Goxcon-Chagal and Maria Medina-Copete. Also in the truck, stashed in a secret compartment, were two pounds of 90% pure methamphetamine. The couple, who had borrowed the truck, denied any knowledge of the drugs, but they were nonetheless charged with trafficking meth. They were convicted in August 2012 for conspiracy to distribute more than 50 pounds of meth and firearms possession. They were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
The prayer the woman was reciting was to Santa Muerte, and the fact the she directed her adorations toward the Mexican "narco saint" helped convict her of drug trafficking.
Who is Santa Muerte?
For years, religious experts and law enforcement authorities have called Santa Muerte a "narco saint," worshipped by drug traffickers and who believe she has the power to protect them from their enemies -- who range from other traffickers to the police.
Santa Muerte is typically portrayed as a skeletal woman, wearing robes or a bridal gown, and holding a scythe -- a sort of Grim Reaper figure. For the millions that venerate her, she is a figure of compassion, protection, and unconditional love who will protect her devotees from evil. She is the saint of the marginalized, as well as the criminal.
For the Catholic Church, worship of Santa Muerte is blasphemy. Still, her popularity continues to grow, and each November, thousands of worshippers gather at her main shrine, in the rough and tumble Tepito district of Mexico City to get her blessings and bestow gifts -- both humbly modest and gaudily golden -- on her statue.
She is estimated to have 10 to 12 million devotees, not just in Mexico, but, increasingly, in the US and other Latin American counties as well.
Muerte, the Skeleton Saint."
While it began among the lumpenproletariat of Mexico City and has always been associated with criminals and narcos, the experts concede that Santa Muerte is worshipped by many who are simply poor and on society's fringes.
"Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases," Chesnut explained. "But she is not just a narco-saint, and many of her devotees aren't involved in criminal behavior. Some drug traffickers pray to Saint Jude, a recognized Catholic Saint, but that deity is rarely brought up in criminal cases," he pointed out.
Chesnut called the appeals court's ruling in the case "a landmark decision," adding that it marked the first time to his knowledge "that a conviction has been overturned because a folk saint was used in trial."
Challenging the "Expert Testimony"
Goxcon-Chagal andMedina-Copete appealed their convictions, with their attorneys arguing that federal prosecutors and the district court judge had subjected them to harmful error by allowing an expert on religious iconography to testify that Santa Muerte was so intimately connected to drug trafficking that Medina-Copete's invocation was evidence the pair knew illegal drugs were secreted in their vehicle.
The expert was US Marshal Robert Almonte, producer of the documentary, Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld. Almonte is also the author of two books, "Evolution of Narcotic Investigation" and "Managing Covert Operations."
The appellate attorneys also argued that Almonte's testimony about Santa Muerte 's association with narcotics severely undermined the defendants' defense that they had no knowledge of the drugs because the truck had been borrowed from one of Goxcon-Chagal's friend. They argued that the admission of Almonte's testimony violated federal rules of evidence.
Federal prosecutors retorted that the testimony was admissible under rules about evidence relating to "tools of the trade" of the drug business.
The 10th Circuit disagreed. In their ruling last year, the court found that prosecutors had indeed violated the rules of evidence by using Almonte's testimony, which the panel likened to "psychobabble."
The district court had erred in allowing the testimony because "it applied our 'tool of the trade' jurisprudence to Almonte's purported area of expertise without considering whether a prayer could qualify as a 'tool of the drug trade,' " wrote Judge Carlos Lucero for the majority. He is the first Hispanic judge to sit on the circuit.
The lower court also erred because 'it allowed Almonte to testify as an expert based on his experience without considering the relevance or breadth of that experience, thereby eliding the 'facts or data' requirements found under [the rules of evidence], " Lucero continued.
US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carlos Lucero (law.pace.edu)
It was a double whammy: The prosecution did not show Almonte knew what he was talking about, and the lower court misinterpreted the rules of evidence to allow religious beliefs to be considered tools of the drug trade.
As a result, Judge Lucero noted, "Almonte's expert testimony characterizing the mere presence of the prayer as a very good indicator of possible criminal activity influenced the outcome of the trial in a prejudicial manner."
Lucero didn't hold back with what he thought of Almonte's testimony, either.
"He essentially painted the defendants in this case as heretics, holding beliefs not recognized by the Catholic Church either in Mexico or the United States. A criminal trial is not a place for a theological disputation on sainthood and the power of prayer. We urge the government to be cautious about appearing to take sides in theological debates," he wrote.
Out of the Frying Pan
While the 10th Circuit's decision reversed Goxcon-Chagel and Medina-Copete's convictions, it didn't free them. Instead they were transferred from federal prison to a federal detention center for retrial.
Things didn't look good for the pair. They had, after all, been caught with the meth, and the appeals court allowed to stand trial testimony from a DEA agent about the unlikelihood of drug traffickers sending loads of drugs with unknowing couriers.
Defense attorneys explored both the circumstances of the traffic stop and any investigations that might have preceded it, but were unable to find wriggle room there.
"Part of the problem is the standard permitting 'pretext stops,'" Goxcon-Chagel attorney Katherine Converse told the Chronicle. "Another problem is the difficulty of learning whether there was any NSA involvement in the stop," she added, referring to recent revelations of NSA intelligence being fed to DEA officers and on to local law enforcement agencies to launch drug investigations against potential suspects.
After lengthy negotiations with federal prosecutors, and without much in the way of a defense to the drug charges, Converse and Media-Copete's attorney advised their clients to take a plea. In February, Goxcon-Chagel copped to the charges and got 7 ½ years; Medina-Cotete, the praying woman, got four. Because of time already served, she's already been released.
And she probably sent a prayer of thanks to Santa Muerte.
Here is the complete hand-written prayer to Santa Muerte recited by and recovered from Maria Medina-Copete:
For protection during a trip
Holy Spirit of Death, I invoke your Holy Name to ask you to help me in this venture.
Make my way over the mountains valleys and paths an easy one,
never stop bestowing upon me your good fortune
weave the destiny so that bad instincts vanish before me because of your powerful protection.
Prevent, Santa Muerte, problems from growing and embracing my heart, my
Lady, keep any illness from embracing my wings (Illegible)
Glorious Santa Muerte be my protector and light my path. Be my
advocate before the redeemer. Be my truth in times of darkness
Grant me the strength and faith to invoke your name
and to thank you now
and forever for all your favors
Oh miraculous Santa Muerte, Niña Blanca of my heart and right arm of god
our lord. Today I come to you with infinite devotion to implore you for
health, fortune and luck
Remove from my path (illegible) that hurts me, envy and misfortune; don't
allow my enemy's slander reach and harm my spirit
may no one prevent me from receiving the prosperity that I am asking of you today
my powerful lady bless the money that will reach my hands and multiply it
so that my family lacks for nothing
and I can outreach my hand to the needy that crosses my path
keep tragedy pain and shortage away from me
this votive candle I will light so that the radiance of your eyes forms an
invisible wall around me
grant me prudence and patience holy lady, Santa Reina de las Tinieblas
("Holy Queen of Darkness") strength, power and wisdom tell the elements
not to unleash their fury wherever they cross paths with me take care of my
happy surroundings and that I want to adorn decorate
in my Santa Muerte