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Blood cult or religion? Feds say narcos prayed for blessings and hexes in Dallas houses

Inside a small house in a southern Dallas neighborhood, people gathered around altars, slaughtered animals and doused themselves in the blood.
The participants were drug traffickers, the feds say, who took part in occult rituals to protect themselves and their illicit operations from law enforcement. They even paid for a “hex” to be placed on a local DEA agent investigating them, court records show. The agent’s name was found on an altar.
Their alleged cult leader, a Mexican-American known as “Padrino” or godfather, could not, however, foresee the fate that awaited them. Agents arrested more than 40 men and one woman across North Texas since 2021 on federal drug trafficking charges.
The defendants hotly disputed the government’s claims about a cult and argued the bloody rites were a valid religious exercise. Most pleaded not guilty, and many remain locked up awaiting trial.
Agents found multiple blood-soaked altars at the house near Paul Quinn College in southeast Oak Cliff as well as a “blessing book” in the home of the “godfather,” Daniel Vallejo, the accused cult leader and one of the charged defendants.
They also found cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in his house and others, court records show. A DEA agent in the case, Marcus West, said at a detention hearing last year that the cult’s purpose was “to bless the success of the ongoing drug-trafficking enterprise.”
The ceremonies Vallejo presided over in his home, although shocking to some, do not necessarily denote evil or darkness. Experts say they are strongly rooted in old folk traditions in Mexico and its organized crime underworld. Howard Campbell, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, said such beliefs stem from African and indigenous Latin American traditions, blended somewhat with Roman Catholicism.
The ceremonies are often viewed as “black magic and witchcraft” due to the animal sacrifices, he said. Others might interpret it as the worship of violence. Campbell said those assessments are inaccurate, as is the cult reference, which signifies immoral and sacrilegious practices that are unacceptable. Without proper historical and cultural context, people can reach simplistic conclusions, he said.
“There’s probably a tendency for people to overreact when they see this and see it as devil worship or something like that,” said Campbell, who specializes in Latin American studies and Mexico, in particular.
Inside this Dallas house, alleged drug traffickers gathered around altars, slaughtered animals and doused themselves in blood to bless their criminal activity, the feds said. The accused drug dealers called it their religion. (Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)
Folk religions have become increasingly popular over the years in the narco-trafficking culture, where participants make offerings to patron saints and pray for drug loads to arrive safely. Occult rituals like blood sacrifice are sometimes performed.
Blessings for narcos and cops
Perhaps the best known of these idols is Santa Muerte, an underworld folk saint associated with the Mexican drug trade whose image adorns altars and shrines in drug houses across Mexico and the U.S. Police in Mexico also are known to invoke her blessings for safety during the country’s violent drug wars.
Superstitious drug traffickers invoke her blessings in an attempt to protect drug shipments. Santa Muerte, which goes back hundreds of years in Mexico, came to prominence in rural areas and was a favorite of people “on the down and outs like prostitutes and thieves,” Campbell said, as well as those who had difficult lives and jobs. Praying to Santa Muerte exploded in popularity about 20 years ago in Mexico, he said.
“People do fervently believe in these things, just like they believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Campbell said.
Campbell said belief in the underworld saint is an “evolution of Latin American folk beliefs” found across Mexico and most of Latin America, as well as the Caribbean. Some followers would also consider themselves Catholic, he said, or at least wouldn’t completely disavow the mainstream religion.
“Even though it seems incredibly exotic, it is a common practice throughout Latin America and areas where Latinos live,” he said.
This file photo shows a statue of Santa Muerte inside a Dallas bar in 2020. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Drug traffickers, tending to be superstitious, are attracted to the idea of a “rebel saint;” a symbolic and countercultural figure who will protect them, Campbell said. Jesús Malverde, for example, was the first folk or narco saint invoked to help drug smuggling efforts. Like Robin Hood, he is known as a “generous bandit” and an “angel of the poor” who is believed to have stolen from the rich to help the poor.
Those involved in the illegal drug trade in Mexico tend to live in poor, rural societies where such beliefs are popular, even though folk religions have now spread into the mainstream, Campbell said. It may seem “ghoulish” due to the animal sacrifices, he said, but the goal is the same as in other religions: to “gain success in life through certain rituals related to saints.”
‘This is a religion’
A judge’s October 2021 detention order in the case said agents found “altars covered with animal blood” in Vallejo’s home. And they seized drug ledgers, records of money transfers to Mexico, fake passports, and a “Blessing Book” from the Dallas house, court records show.
DEA Agent “West explained that surveillance footage showed defendant and others making animal sacrifices and bathing themselves in the animal’s blood,” the order said.
Cooperating defendants testified members would pray for the success of their drug trafficking organization and would ask for hexes to be placed on law enforcement officers, West said in a federal court in Sherman, in the Eastern District of Texas.
“In this case, testimony was offered that the cult had placed a hex on SA West,” the court order said.
Vallejo’s defense disputed the DEA’s claim that such practices were part of a cult. Vallejo, a Mexican native who is a permanent U.S. resident, pleaded not guilty to methamphetamine distribution and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He remains in custody. His attorney could not be reached for comment.
West also testified at another defendant’s detention hearing. Christina Marie Solis’s house in DeSoto contained “numerous altars covered in animal blood,” he said, including one with his name on it.
“West testified to his understanding that the presence of his name on the altar in defendant’s home indicated that she had paid for a hex/threat be placed upon him,” the judge’s order said.
Cuban devotees of Santeria gather for a ritual on September 13, 2022 in a Havana house. The Afro-Cuban religion has a growing following among Latin American drug traffickers who seek protection and blessings for their risky and dangerous work. (ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP via Getty Images)
Steven Lafuente, an attorney for Solis, said the defendants were sacrificing goats and building shrines. The problem was that one of the shrines had the agent’s name on it, and West testified in court that he felt threatened by it, he said.
LaFuente said the defendants, who were raised Catholic, never did anything threatening, like follow or spy on the agent. They were just praying, he said.
“They were basically wishing him bad,” he said. “This is a religion. There was never a direct threat made to Agent West.”
The judge, however, agreed that it was threatening and refused the defendants a bond, Lafuente said.
‘He missed it’
West said agents who searched Solis’s home last year also found $250,000 in cash in a black trash bag, a money-counting machine, a digital scale, three guns and a kilogram of cocaine. Solis made large cash deposits at various ATMs, which the agent testified was indicative of her involvement in money laundering.
Solis, a U.S. citizen born in Dallas, remains in federal custody. She pleaded not guilty to methamphetamine and cocaine distribution and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Another defendant, William Ledesma, a 28-year-old house painter from California, told agents during questioning that he and the others practiced Santeria, an African religion that developed in Cuba and which also is popular among drug traffickers, according to court records.
“It’s…for a person’s protection. For a person to be safe,” he told them, according to court records. “It’s for a person’s health, to avoid tragedies, like for death.”
Ledesma said his religion was not related to drug trafficking. West was skeptical.
“Okay. It sounds like a cult, man,” the agent told him.
Ledesma said followers were given necklaces, each with its own meaning. One was to guard against sickness, for example. If any of the necklaces broke, it meant something bad was going to happen, and the godfather had to be told, he said. Followers, he said, also visited Vallejo, the godfather, for consultations every three weeks, for a fee of about $20.
In this file photo, statues of Santa Muerte are shown at a store in Albuquerque, N.M. La Santa Muerte, an underworld saint most recently associated with the violent drug trade in Mexico, now is spreading throughout the U.S. among a new group of followers ranging from immigrant small business owners to artists and gay activists. (Russell Contreras / AP)
Roosters and pigeons were sacrificed, but followers could also make an offering of flowers or candles, depending on the situation, Ledesma told the agents.
DEA Agent Felipe Sauceda took over a line of questioning.
“What did you ask for?”
“Well, good health, well-being for me and for my family; for us to be good,” Ledesma said.
Ledesma said he last went about a week and a half ago.
“What did he tell you?”
“That everything— that everything is fine.”
“Nothing about that this was going to happen?”
“No.”
“He missed it.”
“Well…I don’t know if he missed or not, but well, all right.”
“He didn’t notify you that something was going to happen, or that he saw that something was going to happen?”
“No.”
In this file photo, vendors display ornately decorated statues of “Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte,” or Our Lady of Holy Death, in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood, on Nov. 1, 2022. La Santa Muerte, is a cult image and folk saint, a personification of death, associated with healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife by her devotees. (Fernando Llano / AP)
Rebel saint
The DEA agents testified about the group’s ceremonies during detention hearings in which prosecutors were asking judges to detain the defendants until trial because they were dangerous or a flight risk.
The FBI has called such beliefs part of a cult steeped in “deviant spirituality” and used by drug traffickers to justify their criminal actions.
Campbell, the anthropologist, said these beliefs aren’t the cause of criminal behavior but a “remedy to deal with their existential anxiety about the dangers of the business.” Like the cab driver who carries with him a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“We don’t want to fall into that demonization of people because their beliefs fall out of the mainstream,” he said.
Law enforcement officers tend to denigrate and demonize groups they oppose on the basis of such things as clothing, tattoos, sexuality and religion; to attack the individual for who they are, not necessarily for what they did, Campbell said.
But he said he understands how the hex on the agent would bother them, and for good reason.

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