The BLM uprisings of 2020 brought renewed attention to a method of policing all-too familiar to communities of color in the United States—traffic stops. The murders of individuals like Daunte Wright represent only a fraction of fatal traffic stops, and an even smaller fraction of race-based traffic stops. Indeed, the racial scripts that inform the policing and incarceration of Black communities also inform the surveillance and detention of Latinx communities. Traffic stops, as informal mechanisms of law enforcement and immigration enforcement, are not only shaped by racist stereotypes of Black and Latinx folks; in turn, they also serve to produce new categories of criminality and illegality. My research on material religion and Latinx Catholicism in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands investigates the way Mexican religion is incorporated into these categories.
As part of a larger project of racial profiling, officer testimonies reveal that the establishment of reasonable suspicion (through the identification of religious materials), the search and seizure of vehicles, and the violation of fourth amendment rights of Mexican and Mexican-American drivers often rely on faith-based determinations between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Officers in such cases, using their own definitions of religiosity, incorporate information learned at privately-run law enforcement trainings and seminars, where religion, racial profiling, and crimmigration intersect.
In the post 9/11 period, the role of police officers in the United States has expanded to include the enforcement of immigration law. Scholars of crimmigration, like sociologist Greg Prieto, note that traffic stops have become important and informal practices of immigration enforcement. In his research, community members informed him that rosaries hung around rearview mirrors, “rosarios colgados,” served as a common pretext for traffic stops in Latinx communities and in the identification of undocumented drivers. Crimmigration, extending the reach of Customs and Border Patrol into geographic locations beyond the 100 mile border zone, distinguishes itself as a new regime of surveillance and policing, with its “focus on non-citizens, zero tolerance policies, and greatly diminished standards of probable cause.” Additionally, public discourses related to legality and undocumented presence in the United States increasingly adopt a language of morality to distinguish between “moral,” “law abiding citizens” and “deviant noncitizens.” Traffic stops and checkpoints, as low risk and first step measures in determining undocumented presence, also serve as locations of liturgical and theological exercises, as police officers interpret the use of Catholic visual and material culture within categories of official and unofficial doctrine. Indeed, even in cases without material religion directly related to Catholicism, officers testify to making distinctions between Catholic orthodoxy and heterodoxy when establishing reasonable suspicion.
Rosaries and Traffic Stops
Cases involving the search and seizure of vehicles related to material religion are too numerous to detail, including those specifically focused on the Catholic rosary. I focus on four examples of traffic stop cases in which law enforcement testify to interpreting the presence of material religion to profile Latinx drivers and to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Taken together, and as representative of a more widespread phenomenon, these cases reveal how Mexican Catholicism is racialized by law enforcement in the United States.
In the 2006 Tennessee trial of Pete Resa and Betina Hernandez, arresting officer Eduardo Choate testified he pulled the vehicle over after observing they were Latinx and had a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. He said, “he knew that a rosary or a cross is a recognized sign of drug traffickers who are seeking protection on their journey,” and, “because the Roman Catholic faith is common among people of Hispanic heritage, and … it is well known within law enforcement circles that Hispanics are disproportionately over-represented among drug traffickers, a rosary or a cross would be consistent with this observation as well.”
The 2011 criminal trial of Eduardo Lopez Jr. included a rosary hanging from the rear view mirror as evidence to justify reasonable suspicion to search Lopez’s vehicle. Arresting officer Sergeant Lawrence Archuleta explained, “that the rosary aroused suspicion as the stop progressed because his training and experience indicates that contraband couriers often keep religious articles on their vehicles to appear law-abiding and religious, though he also admitted that there is a large Catholic population in the area, many of whom hang rosaries on their rearview mirrors.”
In 2019, Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Jason Archer testified that in the traffic stop and vehicle search leading to the arrest of Dulce M. Casi, he relied on his “training and experience” to determine reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle. Archer “stated that when he was speaking to the appellant he noticed that she was wearing a rosary around her neck. Archer, as a practicing Catholic, found it odd because it is generally not done in his culture. Archer explained that this could be considered a ‘disclaimer’ or a sign used in an attempt to show that appellant was a good, law-abiding citizen.” In each of these cases, officers testify to equating Roman Catholicism to Mexican identity and using their own experiences to define acceptable Catholic practices.
Orthodoxy v. Heterodoxy
In the 2014 criminal trial of Rafael Goxcon-Chagal and Maria Medina-Copete, the prosecuting attorney entered the passenger’s (Medina) clutching of a Santa Muerte prayer card and recitation of the associated prayer of protection into evidence as reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle for narcotics. After methamphetamine was discovered in the car, Goxcon was charged with possession and intent to distribute, and Medina was booked and charged for illegal entry and re-entry into the country. United States Marshal Robert Almonte of the Western District of Texas testified as an expert witness in the case against Medina and Goxcon. Almonte testified that although “non-criminals also pray to Santa Muerte… the prayer found in Medina’s hands, even without other evidence of criminal activity, would be a very good indicator of POSSIBLE criminal activity.” Almonte contrasted the Santa Muerte prayer with a prayer to Saint Jude Thaddeus which he said is not “an indicator unless the officer observed other suspicious behavior or items in the vehicle.” According to Almonte, “St. Jude is a legitimate Catholic saint: and a criminal praying to St. Jude would be misusing him.” Three years later, the 10th circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling on the grounds that Almonte, testifying on the couple’s veneration of Santa Muerte (1) did not successfully prove that veneration to Santa Muerte is evidence of criminal activity; and (2) “the district court allowed the witness to wander afield and render theological opinions about the legitimacy of Santa Muerte vis a vis other venerated figures.” The appellate court ruled that “a criminal trial is no place for a theological disputation on sainthood and the power of prayer” and that the testimony bordered on “psychobabble.”
Almonte’s testimony is an important and relevant point here, especially as it connects to a larger network of academics affiliated with state-sponsored counter-terrorism programs, including Homeland Security Studies departments that emerged at public universities after 2001 (though the connection between state intelligence agencies and academics has a longer history). Scholars like Almonte are called as expert witnesses in criminal cases in which Mexican popular religion is included into evidence of “tools of the trade” in narcotics operations, and they produce informational materials often used to train law enforcement officers, military personnel, and other governmental agents about religion.
Almonte’s most popular seminar, “Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld,” is described as an “intensive course [including] information on various legitimate and illegitimate saints and icons used by criminals.” As in the officer testimonies presented above, Almonte uses personal metrics for assessing sincerity and orthodox Catholicism. In public interviews, Almonte links canonical saints like Pope John Paul II, Saint Raymond Nonnatus and San Toribio Romeo to criminal activity; he states that though these are “legitimate saints” they are misused. In conversation with conservative Catholic outlets, his language echoes nineteenth century descriptions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as blood-thirsty descendants of Aztecs. In comparing the Catholicism of criminal organizations, Almonte joins in marking the difference between the Catholicism of Italian-American mafiosos (criminals who believed in the faith) and Mexican drug traffickers (“pagan religion with the veneer of Catholicism,”) as well as blaming poverty and violence in Mexico on the perceived heterodoxy of its inhabitants.
Traffic stops are one example of how religion, racial profiling, and crimmigration intersect in the United States. They are locations where definitions of religion are debated and enforced; officer testimonies and court rulings also serve as places of liturgical and theological debates. As part of a broader conversation related to questions of Catholicism and assimilation, these contemporary practices of policing speak to the diversity of Catholic experiences in the United States. These examples reveal the complications with gauging religious sincerity, and the structures that facilitate the racialization of religious practices that inform policing and surveillance.