Gangster Cult Shields Venezuelans from Crime

As the setting sun casts long shadows over a Caracas cemetery, crime-weary Venezuelans pray at the tomb of the notorious thief Ismael, believing he and other dead gangsters can protect them against violent attacks and robberies.

Devotees of the Corte Malandra or Gangsters' Pantheon say the spirits of gangsters who once maintained a reign of terror in Caracas now watch over them in a city where murders and robberies are rife.

The Gangsters' Pantheon takes as its symbol a hawk on a motorcycle -- one of Ismael's tattoos -- to honor him, The Rat, Isabelita, Luis, Little Miguel, Antonio and other criminals who once preyed on poor hillside neighborhoods.

"The cult started with Ismael, a criminal who robbed the rich to help those who lived in his barrio," said Yamileth, a worshiper who works in a store selling spiritual and religious objects.

The roots of the Corte Malandra are unclear. Some say Ismael was Juan Francisco Carrillo, a thief murdered in the 1960s. Some say he died in the 1970s.

Believers say the spirits of the dead criminals are trying to make amends for their villainous past by protecting people and helping those who might be tempted into crime.

Police register as many as 100 murders each weekend in Venezuela, an oil-rich country where startling poverty sits beside huge wealth. Most crimes occur in ramshackle shantytown neighborhoods in the capital and most murders are settling of scores between criminal gangs.

The government last week began a new program to send National Guard troops into Caracas' most crime-plagued areas in an attempt to combat murder and robbery. Polls show many Venezuelans put security as one of their main worries.

Venezuela, though mainly a Roman Catholic country, has many cults based on rituals taken from African slaves and indigenous beliefs which count politicians and ex-presidents among their followers. Santeria -- a form of voodoo mixing Christian practices and African mythology -- is common.

Ismael "lived the bad boy life, so I think he can help many people escape from that life too," said Mayra Marin, a 43-year-old who become a devotee a few months ago.

The Gangsters' Pantheon is part of the Maria Lionza cult, which brings together a mysterious trinity of deities -- the mythical Amazonian goddess Maria Lionza, the historic Indian chief Guaicaipuro and the black slave rebel Negro Felipe.

Though based in Venezuela, the Lionza cult is starting to gain recognition in Cuba and Spain.

Nina -- who said she become a believer after spending four months in intensive care with a gunshot wound -- said she has seen retirees, army generals and high-ranking police officers paying their respects to Ismael's tomb. Even some modern-day criminals pay homage to the dead thief.

"People come to pray for boys who are in prison, kids with bad behavior, drug addicts and those who have strayed. Lots of young girls come to ask why their husbands are beating them," she said.

Devotees say anyone can pray at the tomb and pay for the favor with an offering of candles, a cigar, a glass of strong local anis liquor and a hot salsa song.

Figurines of the criminal "saints" are found more frequently in the spiritualist and amulet shops common in poor neighborhoods in Caracas. For less than $1 one can buy a statue of a muscular figure armed with a revolver and wearing dark glasses, basketball shirt and cap.

"One of the ways to make up for what they did in life is to help people through the cult," said spiritualist shopkeeper Yamileth, hugging a statue of Ismael.

But not all the followers of the goddess Maria Lionza believe the Gangsters' Pantheon belongs in the cult.

"What type of dark energy can come from this," said Raiza Lopez, a Tarot card reader at another spiritualist store. "We don't sell any of that stuff and we don't use it either. That would put us in touch with really bad vibes."