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MESA, AZ (CBS5) -
You have probably heard of La Santa Maria or Mother Mary, but many other Catholic icons and saints are being used for not-so-holy reasons.
"You've got a lot of good people praying to legitimate Catholic saints. But unfortunately, you've got criminals that are misusing these Catholic saints," explained U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte.
Almonte is in charge of the Western District of Texas, but he traveled to Phoenix on Thursday to conduct an informational seminar on the saints' role in the drug underworld. About 300 law enforcement officers from all over the state packed an auditorium in Mesa to listen to the presentation.
"Not everybody praying to any of these (saints or icons) is necessarily a criminal, but it's an officer safety issue," Almonte explained.
"I want (law enforcement agents) to be familiar with these things that are appearing on a lot of criminal cases throughout the country," he said.
Almonte said that gangs, drug cartels and everyday criminals have hijacked many Catholic saints and icons and are using them as symbols of their organizations or to protect them from law enforcement.
"This one is very obvious. This is a 'Law Stay Away' candle. It speaks for itself," said Almonte, pointing to a candle that is meant to keep criminals from getting caught.
Some legitimate Catholic saints are being used by those up to no good. Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and Saint Michael the Archangel often are found at crime scenes
"A lot of the criminals that are involved perceive the activity they're involved in to be a lost cause or at least a desperate or difficult situation," said Almonte, referring to Saint Jude.
"Saint Michael is the patron saint for law enforcement, but a lot of criminals are praying to Saint Michael for protection against law enforcement," Almonte said.
Some symbols are used by criminals that are not even recognized by the Catholic Church.
"Santa Muerte (Saint of Death) is obviously not a legitimate Catholic saint. (She) never will be one," Almonte said.
Even so, she is often found at crime scenes, like one in Pinal County from October 2011.
"[Cartels and drug members] put little gifts to her so their prayers will be answered," Almonte said.
Almonte said the point of his presentation is to make officers aware of these saints and symbols so they know they may be dealing with someone involved in a gang or drug cartel.
"It could be a red flag, or possible indicator," he said
"I do this class across the country and I'll have officers that come up to me after break or after class and say, 'You know, I've seen this stuff before and I just didn't know what it was and now I do. I'll take a closer look at it.'"
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