Bad Mojo

Evil spirits walk in the criminal world

These religions appeal to criminals, as well as to honest people, because of the power they promise. When you enlist the services of a priest who owns or controls an nganga, you can pay him or her to send the slave souls out as spiritual bodyguards to protect you. On the other hand, you can ask the priest to send the souls out as goons or killers to harm your enemies. Hence, the handy connection with criminals.

I talked to Julio Mercado, now in the corporate security world, who was the regional DEA director in Dallas in the late 1990s (See "Busted," by Christine Biederman, Dallas Observer, July 10, 1997). He hasn't kept up with the drug world since leaving the DEA several years ago, but he assured me that Afro-Cuban beliefs and Mexican Santeria practices were closely associated with drugs when he was still a cop.

"We used to see it all the time," he said.

I talked to an agent who is with the DEA now, who spoke to me on the condition that I not use his name, because he is still involved in undercover work.

"We first started seeing it when the Marielitos [refugees who fled from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980] came in."

He told me that the Zetas, a vicious Mexican drug gang, are present in the Dallas area. "Yeah, the Zetas are up here, and so is the Gulf Coast Cartel."

I had asked because the Zetas have been reported to have a particular connection with Palo Mayombe.

The agent told me that Mexican immigrant criminals in general are often found to practice variant forms of Santeria, another Afro-Cuban offshoot of Lukumí belief.

"You can talk to anybody who's working drug-related homicides and they'll tell you the same thing."

Before going to work for the DEA, he was a detective on a large urban police force. "Where we used to see all this Santeria stuff, we would go in houses and run search warrants, and we would find little altars.

"Now I never found or saw anything as elaborate as this deal they found down in south Dallas. I never saw any human remains or anything. But it was real common to find little altars where they would have little army men, except they were policemen that you could buy at a five-and-dime store. And you would find them in there burning. And you'd find little police cars burning.

"It was all kind of mumbo-jumbo. But what we have found out from interviewing these people, they're not dumb people, but a lot of them came from real rural areas of Mexico. They're undereducated and superstitious."

This stuff is all over Dallas. The display window at Chango Botanica in Oak Cliff offers a version of Santisima Muerte, patron saint of criminals, for $2,197.97. I found another botanica where I could get a miniature Santisima for less than five bucks.

Owens has been very careful in her investigation of the nganga, meticulously documenting each step in her excavation of it. But I can't help wishing this had been done in a laboratory by scientists.

It seems to me she has found a number of intriguing elements. For example, she noticed that the several railroad spikes affixed to the outside of the nganga were themselves tightly wrapped in thread according to an intricate pattern. When she cut the wrapping away she found photographs inside, too blurred now to see, each with a name written on it.

"We don't have any brains in it that we know about," she said. "Some of it was so dirty and a biohazard that they just chunked a lot of the bio matter after we got done taking pictures."

The DEA agent and I had a very long talk, ranging over a number of subjects. We discovered almost accidentally that we had both been thinking of Iraq and for the same reason.

White people, Europeans, the industrialized world, whatever you want to call us: You know who I mean. Us. We have enormous faith in our own powers, so much so that we think our power can always kill their power. We can kill them with our hands tied behind our backs.

But that's what I mean about let's not kid ourselves. People to whom we condescend are not necessarily less strong or less courageous than we. They have their own ways of kicking ass.

At the ranch where Mark Kilroy was ritually tortured and killed, police found remains of 13 other victims, including another U.S. citizen and a 9-year-old child. The gang that killed Kilroy was caught because one of them drove straight into a police roadblock, believing he was invisible.

He wasn't. But he thought he was. Think about that. Then think about Dowdy Ferry Bridge.

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