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Officers nationwide arrive to LA to learn about 'Saint Death'

May 17, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Hundreds of law enforcement officers from across the country arrived to Los Angeles on Tuesday to learn more about the patron saints of the Mexican drug underworld. Learning to identify the small details can make the difference between life and death.

Saint Death, or Holy Death, is at the heart of a religion called Santa Muerte. In recent years, the once obscure religion has been embraced by criminals.

"It's becoming more and more popular for drug users and drug dealers to incorporate the patron saints, the idols, the symbols," said Long Beach Police Officer Tim Hart, one of more than 500 law enforcement agents who attended the day-long seminar held in the City of Industry.

Presented by the National Latino Peace Officers Association, the conference featured shrines, tattoos, symbols and their affiliation to gangs and drug traffickers.

Organizers said there's nothing illegal about worshiping any of the icons. Their concern is when criminals use the religion in an attempt to further their illegal activities.

"It could be an indicator that there is criminal activity afoot. It's not an absolute," said Sgt. Oscar Mejia of the Inglewood Police Department.

"A lot of the drug traffickers and other criminals are using it against us and that weapon is prayer against different icons," said Robert Almonte of the U.S. Marshal. "There are some legitimate religious saints but others are not, such as Santa Muerte."

There is Santa Muerte temple in Los Angeles. The pastor there says his church represents the good side of Santa Muerte and that most worshippers are normal, law-abiding citizens.

In recent months, the Mexican government has cracked down on several Santa Muerte temples in northern and central Mexico. The bishop of a large temple in Mexico City was arrested earlier this year on kidnapping and money laundering charges.

Santa Muerte is not recognized by the Catholic church, and church officials in Mexico have spoken out against the religion, calling it a cult.


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