When the 'Saint' Has a Criminal Record

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Leslie Mazoch / AP

Members of the Maria Lionza Cult gather at Sorte Mountain in Venezuela.

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Judith Escalona visits the General Cemetery in southern Caracas at least once a month. At the tomb of Ismaelito, she pours the dead man a drink and lights him cigarette after cigarette. Ismaelito was no relative, however. He is the king of the santos malandros — the holy thugs. The purpose of Escalona's tribute, including the prayers she offers to Ismaelito, is protection. Almost 50 people die from criminal violence in any given week in Caracas. Escalona's store has been burgled several times, but she is grateful that no one has been killed — and she hopes Ismaelito will keep it that way.

Venezuela's leftist President, Hugo Chávez, may have reduced poverty in this oil-rich country, but his Bolivarian Revolution has yet to bring safety and security to the streets. (This summer he's had to deploy national guard troops on public buses in the capital to keep them from being hijacked.) Many Venezuelans have responded by entrusting themselves to a group of dead "saints" who had lived delinquent lives. Ismaelito and other santos malandros such as Petroleo Crudo (Crude Oil), El Raton (The Mouse), La Malandra Isabelita, Machera and countless others were petty criminals in the 1960s and '70s. Most, if not all, are said to have died brutally at the hands of the police. But, like sinful ghosts trying to escape purgatory if not hell, they are all believed to have gained some form of redemption through favors and deeds attributed to them by their believers.

"When I walk up the streets of my barrio and there are no police in sight, I pray to Ismaelito or to Petroleo Crudo," says Escalona. "They were malandros, so maybe they can talk to these malandros and tell them not to harm me." She adds: "I also believe in the Virgin Mary and my other saints — it's just that these saints understand the street better."

The santos malandros may be popular among some of the faithful, but they are not, of course, recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. As is typical of the syncretic Catholicism of Latin America and the Caribbean, in Venezuela the faith openly accommodates non-Christian symbols and beliefs. The most prominent is Maria Lionza, the fertility goddess, proclaimed by the local belief system known as espiritismo. Her statue stands, quite literally, in the middle of one of Caracas' main highways.

What makes the cult of the santos malandros stand out, however, is its moral ambiguity. Santiago Rondon, a "spiritual consultant" in La Pastora, one of the capital's oldest neighborhoods, describes the tradition as a windshield wiper swinging between good and not so good. "It goes this way and it goes that way," says Rondon. "One day the santos malandros help a desperate mother keep her child off drugs; the next day they help you score some cocaine. It's the duality of life, but that's the way real life functions." And there's always the danger, acknowledged by believers, that the malandro spirit can turn against someone seeking help.

The santos malandros are the latest pantheon to be incorporated into the broader cult of Maria Lionza. Among the others are the Corte Medica, consisting of doctors believed to be responsible for healing miracles. Its best-known figure, Jose Gregorio Hernandez, is currently in the process of being canonized by the Catholic Church. But inclusion of the santos malandros has raised controversy among devotees of espiritismo (also known as santeros). That's because they are regarded as spirits with a "low light," who, in order to gain redemption in death, must undo the harm they did in life.

There is no doubt in his devotees' minds, for example, that Ismaelito, the king of the holy thugs, was a thief and one of the most wanted crooks of his time. Still, among many who knew him when he lived, he's considered more of a Robin Hood than a criminal. In El Guarataro, a shantytown in southeastern Caracas, those who knew him remember the time he raided a meat delivery truck and shared the bounty among his neighbors. "I was an errand boy," recalls Carlos Flores, 50. "He would steal, but he never killed. Today's malandro is mean — he will kill you for a pair of shoes. Ismael wasn't that way. He even helped my mother carry her grocery bags up the steep hill."

Caraqueños, as residents of the capital are known, recognize that the logic is strange. But when you have to walk up the steep, serpentine roads that are the only access to most of the poor hillside barrios that ring the city, after dark, hopping over open sewers, passing houses that have no running water or paved floors, the company of a dead malandro might seem comforting. It certainly beats pleading for your life with a living one.