CLEVELAND -- What protects the most dangerous drug dealers in the world?
An expert on Mexican Drug Cartels says religion. And it's helping them spread across the country -- including here in Northeast Ohio.
"This is not a borders thing anymore. This stuff is going on around the United States," said Robert Almonte, a U.S. Marshal in the Western District of Texas.
Meet Saint Muerte, or Saint Death. While not all who pray to her are criminals, altars with her image can be a red flag for authorities, the patron saint of a drug cartel.
More than 100 Northeast Ohio law enforcement officers from all different agencies met at Cuyahoga Community College Thursday to learn the signs from Almonte.
"Criminals are using these things as a tool to protect themselves from law enforcement. So the idea here, sharing this information with law enforcement, is for them to use this as a tool to help them in their investigation," he said.
Some believe Santa Muerte and other religious icons can protect their drug shipments, or even themselves, from the law. And the cartel is recruiting help.
"You have street level gangs that are actually working for the cartel, directly or indirectly, distributing the drugs, moving the money, weapons, things of that nature," said Almonte.
When it comes to drugs, the cartel is involved in nearly all of them. "Everything from marijuana to heroin, to cocaine, to pills to methamphetamine, everything," said Brian Byard, a detective with the Southeast Area Drug Task Force.
And they dabble in other crimes as well, from kidnapping to extortion to counterfeit goods.
"Ninety percent of all crime is one way or another, surrounds itself around narcotics," said Greg Manente with the Northeast Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force.
While the war on drugs is far from won, local officers say every little bit helps.
"There's a lot of people out there who have information that just may be that piece of information that law enforcement is looking for to crack that big case, or make that big arrest, or seize that big shipment," said Byard.
If you notice anything suspicious in your neighborhood, they encourage you to make a call to local agencies.
"This is one way to fight it and these officers are here because they're not giving up. We can't give up," said Almonte.