Mexican town’s ‘witches’ mine ritual for money

Black magic turns into big business

CATEMACO, Mexico — As a full moon rose over Catemaco, Luis Marthen pulled on his black cape, armed himself with jade amulets, and prepared to greet the devil.

The Mexican shaman was practicing a centuries-old ritual in this eastern jungle town known worldwide as a center for black magic. On the first Friday of every March, the town’s “witches” — 126 of whom are registered with the local chamber of commerce — perform an elaborate purification ceremony to rid themselves of a year’s worth of negative energy.

But what began as an obscure ritual in an isolated corner of Mexico has become big business in a country where everyone from peasant farmers to presidents turns to witches for help — or to cause harm. The onset of television marketing and the Internet has fueled the boom in recent years, feeding what some fear has become a criminal network trading in witchcraft.

In 1995, a feud between warring shamans resulted in at least five deaths, According to residents. But the violence has not deterred business. Since the early 1990s, thousands of people from throughout the world have poured into the town, 320 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Veracruz, to consult the witches in the first hours after they have become cleansed.

“People come to offer their soul, so that someone else dies,” said Marthen, the son of illiterate farmers who claims to have inherited his gift for witchcraft from his grandmother, a Nahua Indian shaman. “Sometimes, people are looking for inheritance. Sometimes, they just want power.”

Such requests are not cheap. Marthen, who put a son through medical school on his shaman’s earnings, said he used to charge around $1,000 to perform “devil’s work.”

But these days, he says he only performs “good witchcraft,” such as herbal healings and exorcisms, at prices ranging from $20 to $400. First-time services are usually free.

The back rooms of Marthen’s modest concrete house are divided among the forces of good and evil. Behind a red velvet curtain in one room, a glaring portrait of a green-eyed devil hangs alongside stuffed iguanas, terrifying masks, and murky-looking potions. The other room, used for “white magic,” is adorned with a crucifix, a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and white candles.

At 9 a.m. on Friday, the plastic chairs outside the house were packed with eager clients, some of whom had been waiting since dawn to undergo a ritual purification ceremony.

Maria Garcia, 33, from the nearby farming village of Zampoapan, pleaded with Marthen to stop her husband from drinking. She sat quietly as he studied the signs in five tarot cards and then explained that her troubles were caused by her husband’s infidelity.

“Be careful, because he’s with another woman. That’s why you are doing so badly. She’s young, thin, fair-skinned,” he said, taking off his wire-rim glasses for emphasis as Garcia shrank in her chair.

He then revived his patient by adding, “Your future will be good.” She gratefully took a coin amulet wrapped in felt and a satchel of white powder before stepping into the next room where Marthen’s son, Luis Francisco, waited to perform a cleansing ceremony with a raw egg and basil.

Like most of Marthen’s patients, Garcia came on the recommendation of family or friends. She explained how her father had been cured of a debilitating lung disease, and how the shaman had made her older sister walk after an “evil wind” had knocked her over and temporarily paralyzed her.

Such beliefs frighten some in Mexico. Last year, a state legislator from President Vicente Fox’s conservative National Action Party tried to ban witchcraft in Veracruz on grounds that it violated church teachings. But the idea was shot down by fellow legislators. Mexico is 90 percent Roman Catholic, but indigenous traditions also run deep.

“Witchhunts don’t go over well in Mexico,” said Felix Baez, a specialist on witchcraft at the Institute of Social and Historical Investigation the the Veracruzana University in the nearby town of Xalapa. He said the town derived its tradition from a blend of Spanish medieval tradition, ancient indigenous beliefs, and practices brought over by African slaves.

Others say the witches provide a valuable social service, making up for inadequate medical care and boosting patients’ morale.

“What harm does it do for a doctor to provide a little witchcraft so that a patient will be happy?” said Rafael Aguirre, a medical doctor and shaman whose father, Gonzalo, was the town’s most famous witch. He explained how he recently tricked a patient into taking tuberculosis medicine by convincing her that he was prescribing her a magical cure.

“You have to give the patient what he wants,” Aguirre said.

Unlike other witches interviewed, Aguirre did not claim that his powers derived from the devil.

“It’s all common sense, logic, and experience,” he explained, matter-of-factly. “If a woman tells me her husband has left her, chances are he’ll come back. So I tell her that. The important thing is that she believes.”

However, Aguirre acknowledged that he sometimes goes along with a patient’s wish to do harm.

“People look for this,” he said, whipping back a green polyester curtain to reveal a red devil statue. So he obliges, he says, and sometimes people die by chance.

“Is it witchcraft?” he asked, smiling. “Or just talent?”

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