Showing a visitor around his new shop in Adams Morgan last month, Andres Chavarria was the most gracious of hosts. As manager of Yemaya & Chango Botanica on 18th Street NW, a boutique that caters to local practitioners of Santería, he seemed delighted with the free publicity that his upscale store was attracting (see “Santería Steps Out,” The District Line, 6/16). A santero (or priest) as well as a salesman, Chavarria patiently explained the customs of the usually secretive Afro-Cuban religion. He spoke lovingly of the saints, known as orishas; he pointed out the dried possum carcass prized by one hungry orisha. He even shared a few gourdfuls of the rum used in Santería ceremonies.
Chavarria’s hospitality ended when it came to picture-taking time, though—no grip- and-grins for this santero. He explained that he was simply following orders: His orishas had told him not to be photographed for at least three years. He even claimed that a recent snapshot of him came out blank.
But Chavarria’s camera shyness may stem from something other than pure spirituality. Late last month, authorities charged a man they believe is Chavarria with a slew of gunrunning crimes.
On June 22, Maryland troopers stopped a driver for speeding on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Odenton. His Lincoln Town Car had a cracked windshield; he wasn’t wearing his seat belt; and a quick computer check revealed that his license had been suspended in New York. The cops searched the car and found a hidden compartment behind the rear seat that contained a cache of weapons and ammunition: a mini-Uzi submachine gun loaded with a 30-round magazine, a Cobray .380 submachine gun with a laser sight, and a loaded .380-caliber Lorcin semiautomatic handgun. The serial numbers on all the weapons had been removed. Police also found a silencer, a flash suppressor, and extra ammunition.
“I don’t know what he was planning to do, but people aren’t going out to hunt deer with [these types of weapons],” says Mike McKelvin of the Maryland State Police. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening praised the arrest at a press conference: “I have no doubt that because of this arrest and confiscation, lives have been saved.”
But state officials do have doubts about whom they have arrested.
The suspect gave a pseudonym when he was stopped, using the name of a man killed in a New York City shooting earlier this year. “He’s given us four names so far,” says McElvin. “The first three were [of persons] either dead or in jail. [Jose Andres] Chavarria was the fourth name.” Police cannot confirm his identity as Chavarria because his fingerprints are not on file at the FBI. Authorities believe that Chavarria is an illegal alien from El Salvador, and State Department officials are trying to locate relatives there.
In the meantime, the man who says he is Jose Andres Chavarria is being held as a John Doe in the Anne Arundel Detention Center. The state has charged him with three counts of transporting a handgun, two counts of possession of an assault pistol, two counts of transporting an assault pistol into Maryland, and two counts of removing a firearm’s serial number, among other crimes.
A few days after the arrest, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Yemaya & Chango Botanica in search of more weapons. The operation, police say, turned up only a few crates of frantically clucking chickens, apparently on their way to a Santería ritual sacrifice.
The botanica remained open as usual this week. The store clerk would not comment on Chavarria’s arrest.