In A Nutshell
The next time you need help getting out of prison or kicking a drug habit, why not offer a prayer to the Holy Thugs of Venezuela? Known in Caracas as the Santos Malandros, the Holy Thugs are real-life crooks who died in the ‘60s and ‘70s but are today revered as saints. And it isn’t just criminals who worship these thugs. Even law-abiding citizens bring gifts for Ismael and his pistol-packing posse.
The Whole Bushel
Anyone taking a trip to Venezuela should probably shy away from Caracas. The nation’s capital, Caracas is one of the deadliest places on the planet. In 2011, the city’s murder rate surpassed Baghdad’s, and over 24,000 people were murdered in 2013 alone.
All this insanity started in 1989 when President Carlos Andres Perez tried to get a handle on the city’s economic problems. Angry with his policies, citizens of Caracas took to the streets for a three-day wave of riots and protests known as the Caracazo. Ever since then, Caracas has been turning into the South American equivalent of Gotham City, just without the Caped Crusader.
Analysts and officials blame the rising crime rate on everything from inequality to corruption to the astronomically high number of illegal guns on the streets. Whatever the cause, these killings have made an enormous impact on the city’s culture . . . in some really weird ways. For proof, look no further than the cult of Maria Lionza, a strange religion that blends Catholicism, African spirituality, and native customs.
The cult of Maria Lionza has been around for a really long time and has quite an elaborate theology. Often portrayed as a naked woman riding a tapir, Maria Lionza is a goddess who presides over an army of lesser saints. These saints are the spirits of dead humans who communicate through mediums and help believers who offer prayers and gifts. Interestingly, the saints are divided into several courts such as the Medical Court (made up of deceased doctors), the Court of the Indians (made up of old chiefs), and the Court of Revolutionaries (which is pretty obvious). There’s even a Court of the Vikings.
The idea of saints isn’t too different from traditional Catholic doctrine, but the Pope would never approve of the more recent additions to the Maria Lionza religion. After the Caracazo, people started turning their attention to the Santos Malandros, or Holy Thugs. Basically, they’re a court of saintly criminals who died in the 1960s and ‘70s. Legend has it these thieves robbed from the rich to give to the poor, and the king of the Malandro Court is a crook by the name of Ismael Sanchez.
According to his followers, Sanchez was the Venezuelan Robin Hood. He held up trucks, stole meat and flour, and gave the goods to the folks in his neighborhood. Eventually, his lawless ways caught up with him, and a “bad cop” put a bullet in his back. Today, Sanchez has a shrine in the Cementerio General del Sur, one of the strangest graveyards in the world. All the Holy Thugs are buried here, and their graves are marked with miniature statues, little icons of the saints themselves.
Take Ismael’s statue for example. It’s about 1 meter (3 ft) tall and sports a sideways baseball cap, sunglasses, and a pair of Nikes. Of course, he’s smoking a cigarette, and there’s a pistol jammed into his baggy pants. Supposedly, Ismael can help people get out of jail and aid in heart surgeries. He can help you kick your drug habit, and he can grant revenge against your enemies. Devotees pray to Ismael and leave flowers, drugs, and candles at his grave. Many people even bring along cigarettes and place the butts to his lips so he can have a drag.
Other saints include women like Malandra Elizabeth and Isabelita, and then there are the guys with crazy nicknames like the Baldy, the Mouse, and even Crude Oil. Ironically, criminals and honest citizens alike pray to the Holy Thugs, and while some people beg for protection from thieves, others ask for protection from cops. It just goes to show that when people are desperate, they’ll turn anywhere for help, even to old dead crooks.
Show Me The Proof
Featured image credit: Ronald Rivas Casallas
VICE: Why More People Are Murdered in Caracas Than in Baghdad
The Guardian: Ismael and the Holy Thugs answer prayers of Venezuela’s poor
France 24: Thugs in their lifetime, worshipped as saints today
Reportage: The Cult of Maria Lionza
VICE: The Holy Thugs of Venezuela