VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Armed with more than 30 years in law enforcement experience, Robert Almonte is in Virginia Beach this week helping train law enforcement from around the state.
He's in town for an annual drug task force conference held in the Wyndham Resort on Atlantic Ave.
Accompanying Almonte are dozens of small statues, prayer cards and a life-sized figure of Santa Muerte, a cult deity condemned by the Catholic church.
"A lot of Mexican drug traffickers were praying for protection from law enforcement officers," said Almonte, who's teaching a seminar called "Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld".
Almonte says he first learned about the practice back in the 1980s.
In the Catholic faith, it's believed a person can ask saints to pray on their behalf and different saints specialize in specific topics from finding lost items to healing the sick.
Almonte says the saints drug and human traffickers pray to are referred to as 'narco saints'. St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases or lost causes, is particularly popular, but he says they also pray to Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, which are popular in Mexican folklore, but not recognized by the Church.
"(The Vatican says) anybody who prays to Santa Muerte, it's like praying to the Devil," said Almonte.
But why would any saint intercede on behalf of a criminal? Almonte says some in cartels don't believe what they're doing is wrong and even though in many cases they're praying to avoid police, this bizarre practice can also be a giveaway.
"They'll have a lot of these [prayer cards or idols] on them, or in their vehicle or in their home. These items are meant to be a red flag," he said. "I make it clear, though, none of these things by themselves or combined are probable cause for search and arrest. Just something to look at, keep an eye out for."
And he says it's something that police in Virginia need to watch out for.
"They are here," said Almonte of Mexican drug and human traffickers. "They're bringing methamphetamine and heroin and fentanyl and other drugs into Virginia."
The drug task force conference goes until Thursday.