Associated Press, May 1, 2003
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans have long practiced novel versions of the Afro-Caribbean-based Santeria faith, whose local pantheon includes 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar.
But there’s nothing like the newest icons at Santeria shops: criminals who are legends in Caracas slums. These foot-(30-centimeter-)high statuettes, sporting guns and knives in jeans pickets, represent spirits trying to repent for their sins by warning youngsters to avoid crime, help people get out of jail, and cure drug addiction.
There’s Kid Ismael, a bank robber who some say killed dozens of people in the 1970s before police gunned him down. He wears a baseball cap sideways, smokes a cigar, and clutches a .38-caliber pistol.
Kid Isabel, a prostitute and thief who died of venereal disease in her 20s, wears sunglasses, a tight pink T-shirt showing her bellybutton, a ski hat over her blond hair and a knife in an ankle pocket.
Their spirits are part of the 200-year-old cult of Maria Lionza — the basis for Venezuelan variations of Santeria, a faith that emerged in Cuba when African slaves began blending Yoruba spiritual beliefs with Roman Catholic traditions.
A beautiful Indian woman from the western state of Yaracuay, Maria Lionza presides over various courts of spirits. Original Santeria deities like Eleggua, the Yoruba god of destiny associated with St. Anthony, belong to the African court. One court includes Simon Bolivar, who liberated a string of South American nations from Spanish rule — including Venezuela.
Kid Ismael and Kid Isabel are members of the “corte malandra,” or criminal court.
The Catholic Church frowns upon the cult of Maria Lionza but long ago abandoned efforts to eliminate it. Her supplicants come from all classes, but especially the poor. The size of the cult isn’t known, though each year hundreds of thousands trek to Maria Lionza’s reputed home — Sorte Mountain, 270 kilometers (180 miles) west of the capital.
Shopkeepers say malandro statuettes hit the shelves over the past two years. The malandros as spirits surfaced in the early 1990s, along with a rise in crime, according to anthropologist Patricia Marquez, academic director of the Institute of Higher Administration Studies in Caracas.
“For the upper classes, the malandro personifies the growing threat of urban violence,” Marquez writes in “The Darkness of Days: the Malandro,” a chapter in the book “20th Century Venezuela,” published by Fundacion Polar.
“In contrast, in the slums, the figure of the malandro oscillates between hero and villain.”
There were 9,000 homicides nationwide in 2002, up from 8,000 in 2001. Vulnerable to random violence and distrustful of sometimes brutal police, many shantytown residents seek protection from malandros, dominant figures who controlled turf and commanded respect and fear.
Most malandros were killed by police or rival gangsters in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. They robbed for the poor and protected neighborhoods. They have become folk heroes — Latin American Robin Hoods.
“Ismael robbed, but it was to help the neediest,” says Juan, a Caracas mechanic shopping for candles at a downtown Santeria shop.
Juan says he bought an icon of Ismael — the most popular malandro — after the spirit convinced his son to “stay away from bad neighborhoods.”
As crime flourishes, Marquez noted, fewer people romanticize the current crop of criminals as good guys. “Among other things,the corte malandra reflects nostalgia for that supposed malandro of the past, the one that protected the neighborhood,” she said.
“Things were different back then. Not as many people had guns. We mostly used knives, and we never killed anybody just for kicks,” says Saul Abache, a medium speaking for the spirit of 1950s outlaw Armando Cedeno who is known in the slums simply as Armando.
Abache works in the Lino Valles Spiritual Center, the hub of the Maria Lionza cult in Caracas’ Petare slum. As with other spirits in the cult, “malandros” give counsel through mediums like Abache, known as “santeros.”
Abache is contacting Armando on behalf of Juan Carlos Aguiar, a taxi driver who says he was wrongly imprisoned for 14 months on cocaine charges before Armando helped him get out.
Abache sits at a wooden table in a long blue robe. His face glows in candlelight. He smokes a cigarette and swigs anise, the drink malandros request when being invoked.
“I lost my life because I went down a bad path. I liked things that weren’t mine,” Armando says through the voice of Abache. “I died at the hands of police.”
The spirit says he has counseled more than 100 people, mostly teenagers with drug problems.
“I tell the mothers their kids should see me right away,” he says. “Mostly I just talk to them. I don’t believe people turn to crime because they have to. When kids say that, I reply: ‘You have a healthy body. You can work.’ I’m tough on them.”