PRESENCE OF “NARCO SAINT” LEADS TO DRUG CONVICTIONS
At the turn of the 20th century, Jesus Malverde was a Mexican bandit who roamed the hills of the state of Sinaloa, and as legend has it, stole from the rich to give to the poor. The mustachioed “Mexican Robin Hood” was hanged in 1909 but his legend led people in Culiacan, the capital of the western state Sinaloa, to erect a shrine of worship because off his contributions to the poor.
The legend of Malverde has grown even more as notorious and violent Mexican drug traffickers have embraced the bandit as their own “narco saint” who will protect them from law enforcement and illegal activities in their vicious drug cartel underworld. To the believers, Jesus Malverde is “The Angel of the Poor.” They view him as their saint of personal protection, much like Catholics do with Saint Michael, the Archangel and glorious prince who is the conqueror of rebel angels.
That brings us to U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte. The former El Paso police chief was named to his position as United States Marshal for the Western District of Texas in 2010 by President Barak Obama. The U.S. Marshal’s Service hails Almonte as “one of the foremost authorities” in narcotics investigation because he has “spent much time and research on how Mexican drug traffickers subscribe to a unique “spiritual world” they believe aides them in their trafficking efforts and protect them from law enforcement.”
Marshal Almonte was the first witness called in the trial Juan Antonio Castaneda Rendon and Jason Lee Holmes who were tried and convicted in the federal district court in the Eastern District of Arkansas for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He was called as an “expert on the iconography” of the Mexican drug underworld. Law enforcement discovered several images and shrines in the home of Rendon and Christian Maldonado, a co-conspirator in the Rendon/Holmes case.
One of the images was of the “The Angel of the Poor” and “narco saint” Jesus Malverde. Almonte testified that while the presence of the narco saint’s image is only an indication of drug trafficking, the expert witness linked Holmes and Rendon to the charged drug activity and his testimony was instrumental in the Government’s drug conspiracy conviction of the two men.
On appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the two men challenged Almonte’s testimony for the following reasons:
1) he was an unqualified expert; 2) his testimony was unreliable, irrelevant, and unfairly prejudicial; and 3) his testimony was improper “drug courier” profile evidence.
On May 2, 2014, the appeals court rejected each of these claims. The court said Almonte was a properly qualified expert because “for about a decade, Almonte studied the iconography of the Mexican drug underworld. He observed icons in hundreds of narcotics cases and traveled to numerous Mexican shrines. Almonte has self-published materials on the subject and has conducted law-enforcement trainings on recognizing it.
The defendants emphasize Almonte’s lack of formal education about narco-saint iconography, but that is not required under Rule 702. In drug cases, courts frequently admit expert testimony relating to the modus operandi of drug dealers, where the expert witness is a law-enforcement officer whose only qualification is experience in the field.”
We have blogged on many previous occasions about the dangers of junk forensic science in the courtroom. We have the same opinion about most expert testimony, especially of the ilk Marshall Almonte provided in federal court. We agree with the premise made by attorneys for Holmes/Rendon; namely, that Almonte’s testimony is inherently unreliable “because he acknowledged a high error rate because many not associated with drug trafficking have statutes of Malverde.” The Eighth Circuit, we believe, casually dismissed that argument with the reasoning that “narco-saint iconography may be an indicator of drug trafficking.”
Sorry, we don’t subscribe to this rationale. More often than not, a Malverde statute is an indicator of religious worship, not drug activity. We also disagree with the appeals court conclusion that in drug conspiracy cases drug iconography in a defendant’s home is more relevant to proving the conspiracy than it is prejudicial and unfair to the defendant.
While the court noted that “drug courier” profile evidence is generally inadmissible, such evidence involves “investigative techniques” and is not comparable to Almonte’s testimony explaining the “significance of drug trafficking iconography.” Absent such testimony, the court said, the average juror “would not be familiar” with the significance of drug trafficking iconography in the “drug trafficking business.”
This issue, as we see it, is relatively simple: the Government either has real evidence of a drug conspiracy or it doesn’t. Introducing “narco-saint” evidence is designed to associate suspected drug traffickers with the violent drug cartels in Mexico.
We believe that “narco saint” evidence, standing alone, would be enough evidence for some jurors, especially non-Catholics, to render a guilty verdict. And that is both the danger and tragedy of this so-called “expert” testimony, its inflammatory use scares jurors into making illogical associations with violent criminal activity, a almost insurmountable prejudice for a criminal defendant to overcome.