The voices of law enforcement and religious anti-cult ‘experts’ have been prevalent in the public conversation surrounding Santa Muerte’s emergence in the global culture. Often at odds with more objective investigation, the testimony and analysis of these pundits has made searching out the thread of reality within her tradition more difficult for those unaware that the most vocal critics of her devotees are often culturally biased to ignore the social implications of her rise in popularity.
A hyperactive focus on criminality has come back to bite this type of ‘expert’ testimony in a recent court case judged by the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals – with the court overturning a guilty verdict where testimony from a law enforcement anti-cult expert was deemed to have unfairly influenced the jury:
During their trial, prosecutors called upon U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte in West Texas to discuss the use of Santa Muerte, which translates in English to Death Saint, among drug traffickers. Almonte, who has trained law enforcement agents and written about Santa Muerte, has been used in previous cases to testify about the folk saint.
Although Almonte testified in the couple’s case that not all Santa Muerte devotees were linked to criminal behavior, the appeals court said his remarks were used by prosecutors in closing arguments and were “highly prejudicial to the defendants.”
With her global growth and with the significant number of devotees she has throughout the Americas, it is important that biases regarding the nature of her devotions and the intentions of her devotees be cleared up. In the overturned case, evidence of the accused parties having a Santa Muerte prayer card became a focal point of the prosecution who brought in Almonte to provide information supporting the contention that the devotional item could be related to charges of firearms possession and drug trafficking.
The popularity of her imagery throughout the U.S. and Mexico makes these kinds of broad-sweeping assumptions dangerous, especially with the very real threat of violence that surrounds drug trafficking and organized crime. Justice department employees who see Santa Muerte as an indicator of criminal devotion may be encouraged to take extra measures to combat perceived violence from ‘death cultists’ with nothing more than circumstantial evidence of a popular devotional tradition to back up their actions. Those educating law enforcement on these issues, such as Almonte, need to be very clear on the true social implications of traditions such as those that follow Saint Death.
As Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out on Twitter:
“The Santa Muerte court ruling is big blow to law enforcement self-appointed “experts” who testify in drug cases on regular basis. U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, the law enforcement agent rebuked in Santa Muerte court case, couldn’t distinguish between statutes of St. Jude & Jesus.”
For more on this developing story Click Here to read AP reporter Russell Contreras’ article on the situation.