Travelers in Search of Mexico’s Magic Find Town of Witches and Warlocks

Catemaco, Mexico - To kill a man, Alejandro Gallegos García explains, all you need is a black cloth doll, some thread, a human bone and a toad. Oh, and you must ask the devil permission, in person, at a cave in the hills where he is said to appear.

Assuming you have these things, plus the green light from the prince of darkness, you simply lash the doll to the bone, shove it down the unfortunate toad’s throat, sew up its lips and take the whole mess to a graveyard, reciting the proper words.

“The person will die within 30 days,” Mr. Gallegos said matter of factly, as if he were talking of fixing a broken carburetor. (The toad dies too, by the by.)

“There exists good and bad in the world, there exists the devil and God,” he went on, turning a serpent’s fang in his rough fingers. “I work in white magic and in black magic. But there are people who dedicate themselves only to evil.”

Mr. Gallegos, 48, is a traditional warlock, one of dozens who work in this idyllic town, nestled near the Gulf of Mexico by Lake Catemaco in the state of Veracruz. Like most witches here, he melds European and native traditions in his work, a special brew of occultism he learned from his uncle.

His cramped cement workroom holds an image of the Virgin Mary and a large crucifix with a bloodied Jesus. A six-pointed star is painted on the floor, with a horseshoe to one side and a St. Andrew’s cross on the other. Candles dedicated to various saints crowd his table, most with photographs lashed to them. Some are photos of men and women whom the client wants to ensnare in love. Others are of barren women who want children. Others are of people with maladies from asthma to cancer.

Beneath the table Mr. Gallegos keeps ragged boxes full of herbs, bark and roots that have been used in these parts for medicinal purposes since before Hernán Cortés was a gleam in his great-great-grandfather’s eye.

He has dead bats, used in certain love charms, and ground-up rattlesnake, for curing illnesses. He uses oils extracted from lizards and turtles, the dried tongues of certain fish, coyote skin, eggs, chickens, holy water from the church and less-than-holy water from the lake. He knows dozens of local plants and their attributes. And he wields the tooth of a venomous snake.

“This goes back to ancient times,” he said. “There were witches here before the Spanish. Here there is a mix of everything, even of God.”

Catemaco is known throughout Mexico as a center for witchcraft and, to the dismay of some hard-core practitioners, magic has become a big tourist draw. The town holds an International Congress of Witches on the first Friday of every March.

During the event, a black mass is held at the mouth of the cave where the devil supposedly loiters. An oversize six-pointed star — they call it a Star of David — is set alight, to the delight of photographers. Politicians show up to receive amulets for good luck at the polls. Believers flock to the town to have their auras cleansed.

Sandra Lucía Aguilar, a 25-year-old cashier, traveled 22 hours by bus from Cancún for the black mass. A few days later she found herself in the waiting room of a popular witch doctor known as “The Crow,” hoping for a little black magic to force her errant boyfriend to return.

“I lived with him for five years, and then, overnight, he ran off with another woman,” she said. “I want him back. He humiliated me a lot and I want to humiliate him.”

The Crow turns out to be a slick-looking fellow named Héctor Betaza Domínguez, who wears white guayabera shirts and sits in a candlelit room among effigies of La Santa Muerte, a Mexican icon resembling the grim reaper in drag.

Mr. Betaza says people come to see him from all over Mexico and from major cities in the United States with large Mexican communities. Many simply want “una limpia,” or cleansing, to ward off evil spirits. But a majority of the complaints are broken hearts.

Asked where he learned his craft, Mr. Betaza, who calls himself a “master of occult sciences,” becomes evasive, muttering something about his mother having practiced magic. “This you don’t learn,” he said. “It’s something that you carry in the blood.”

Not everyone is convinced. The Rev. Tomás Alonso Martínez has the unenviable job of parish priest in a town best known as a haunt of the devil and witches. “It’s farce,” he said, “a lie, a fraud.”

In his five years in Catemaco, Father Martínez says he has seen so-called witches practice all sorts of confidence schemes, extracting money from gullible and vulnerable people.

One common trick is to tell someone he is hexed and then remove the hex for a fee. Another is to tell people they are sick, then offer them a traditional cure for an outlandish sum.

“They attribute to themselves power they cannot have,” the priest said. “The fundamental problem that exists with these people is that there are people who believe them. Anyone can set themselves up as a witch.”

Even Father Martínez acknowledges, however, that mixed in with the questionable practices are vestiges of a pre-Hispanic past. The use of Catholic saints also bespeaks a syncretism of beliefs, he notes.

In his church, an icon of the Virgin Mary sits in an alcove directly above and behind the altar. Before Mass, many go to the shrine and pass herbs over their bodies to cleanse themselves. Some leave pictures of loved ones, amulets and prayers.

That syncretism also emerged clearly when Mr. Gallegos performed a cleansing ritual on a recent afternoon. The client was a taxi driver named Santos Luna Cruz who wanted protection from envious rivals.

Stripped to the waist, Mr. Luna stood on a worn piece of velvet in the center of a chalk Star of David. Candles burned at each point of the star. A horseshoe was to one side, a St. Andrew’s cross to the other. Two glasses of water, believed to absorb evil spirits, were placed in front of him.

Mr. Gallegos sprinkled holy water, garlic and ammonia over him. Then, chanting the common Catholic prayer to “the father, the son and the Holy Ghost” and invoking a long list of saints, Mr. Gallegos held eggs to the man’s head and rubbed them over his body.

He scratched crosses with his serpent’s tooth on Mr. Luna’s face, arms, chest and abdomen. He took a live chicken and passed it over his client. He blew the holy water from his mouth in a fine spray at the man, and beat him with clusters of herbs.

When it was over, Mr. Luna, 34, grinned and ran his hand through his wet hair. “I felt very stressed out at first, but now I feel lighter, better,” he said. “I feel like he is taking away from my body the bad vibrations.”

Mr. Gallegos pointed to two eggs that broke during the ritual. “When the egg breaks, it is because it has absorbed the pain inside the young man,” he said.