An idol of a man dressed in blue jeans, orange shirt, green baseball cap and a gun stuck in his belt is hardly something you’d expect to see at a place of worship. But it’s pretty common in Venezuela, the country with the highest murder rates in the world. Religious cults worship thugs and criminals who are long dead and gone. Even though the most widespread religion in Venezuela is Christianity, the worship of local thugs is so strong that it cannot be overlooked. The people who participate in such cult worship are more often than not, from the poorest sections of society.
With an average murder rate of about 14,000 a year, Venezuela isn’t exactly the safest place in the world. In such a scenario, I suppose it would be easiest for the people to relate to a God with whom they can connect, as compared to the Christian saints. And that is what makes the Maria Lionza cult so popular. According to this alternate religion, the dead co-exist with the living and they can be accessed through a few people who act as a medium.
The practice of worshipping thugs doesn’t have its origins too far back in history. According to Professor Daisy Barreto, anthropologist and cult expert, the Santos Malandros (Holy Thugs) became prominent in the city of Caracas in 1989. This was when the streets of the city were torn down by rioting for three days – the Caracazo. “The Maria Lionza cult, unlike Catholicism, is not static and constantly incorporates new saints who reflect the country’s situation,” says Prof Barreto. “The mediums started receiving these thug-like figures to reflect the wave of crime that the country has experienced after the Caracazo.”
Photo: Ronald Rivas C
The most popular of the Santos Malandros is Ismael. There are countless versions of who he is and how he lived, but it is widely accepted and understood that Ismael does more than just understand his devotees. He is said to reflect the hopes and fears of the Venezuelans, knowing what they live and how they suffer. He is accepted as a good and honorable thug, a sort of Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. It is also believed that he was killed by a bad cop; he was shot in the back sometime in the 50s or 60s. And so Ismael has come back to seek redemption by helping those in need. By doing this he will be at peace, and attain the justice that he was denied.
The requests and prayers that are received by the spiritual priests of the cult can be quite varied. Santiago Rondon, one of the priests, said, “In one day I can receive a mother who wants Ismael to turn her child away from drugs or crime and a boy who wants Ismael to find him a gun.” While praying for ‘evil’ things like somebody’s death or revenge is discouraged, there are plenty who do just that. Ismael is just one of the deities at the shrine of the Santos Malandros. Some of the others are Malandro Pelon (“The Baldy”), Isabelita, Freddy (“The Turkey”), “The Mouse” and “Crude Oil”. The method of worship is pretty bizarre too. Some people bring flowers, and others bring drugs as offerings. But the most popular offerings for Ismael are cigarettes, which he liked the best. They actually place burning cigarettes in between the lips of an Ismael figurine.
According to another priest, the people need a symbol of spirituality, something they can believe in, something they can relate too. And that is exactly what the Santos Malandros stand for.