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Last updated: 15 december, 2010 - 10:41 GMT

Magic and Murder in Venezuela

Followers of Maria Lionza performing rituals at Sorte Mountain in Venezuela

Followers of Maria Lionza performing rituals at Sorte Mountain in Venezuela

Assignment reporter Will Grant describes how he joined gang members on a pilgrimage seeking guidance and protection from the spirits of dead gangsters – known as the Holy Thugs.

The complication in making a programme about how Venezuelan gangs worship the spirits of dead gangsters is that you have to keep some pretty dangerous company.

And this was particularly the case in the thick forests of the Sorte Mountain national park in the western Venezuelan state of Yaracuy.

On what is considered the holiest day in the spiritualist calendar, we travelled 300 kilometres west of Caracas to where thousands of followers of a syncretic religion – the blending of two or more belief systems into a new system – known as Maria Lionza, had gathered.

To help us understand this cult-like religion, we had taken with us American academic Wade Glenn, who has studied spiritualism in Venezuela for many years.

Local legend

As we arrived, one medium had apparently been possessed by the spirit of a dead Viking – called Erik the Red.

Assignment reporter Will Grant

He explained to us how a ‘maroon colony’ – a village built by escaped slaves and indigenous tribespeople who resisted the Spanish – grew up in Sorte’s dense jungle where African, indigenous and Christian religions began to fuse.

According to local legend, Maria Lionza was a green-eyed chieftain’s daughter who was born in 1502.

Portrayed as a strong, well-built woman, she was said to ride a tapir and sit upon a throne of animals.

Today, she is still revered as a goddess of nature, love, peace, and harmony.

Spiritual guidance

A medium channelling the spirit of a dead Viking

A medium channelling the spirit of a dead Viking

One of the more bizarre rituals of the Maria Lionza religion involves mediums ‘channelling’ the spirits.

And as we arrived, one medium had apparently been possessed by the spirit of a dead Viking – called Erik the Red.

Drinking rum from a Norse horn, he had pierced his face with sharp spikes and blood was running down his chin and chest.

“Although it may seem shocking to Western eyes,” Wade told us over the noise of the drums, “people are basically seeking guidance from the spirit world.

“They want help in resolving their problems.”

Sacred offerings

Tobacco is considered a sacred offering to the saints

Tobacco is considered a sacred offering to the saints

The spirits and saints in Maria Lionza are divided into courts of ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ light, with Maria Lionza herself at the top.

At the bottom, with the least light, are the spirits of dead gang members – the Holy Thugs.

It was clear that many of the young men walking around the forest that night were still heavily involved in Venezuela’s violent gang world, adding an intimidating edge to the proceedings.

Tobacco is considered a sacred offering to the saints and the air was thick with cigar smoke with everyone – including children – puffing away.

Many worshippers were bathing in the muddy brown water of the river, cleansing themselves before receiving the spirits into their bodies.

‘The other side’

Worshippers attempt to channel spirits into their bodies

Worshippers attempt to channel spirits into their bodies

We were invited to witness a ceremony in the small hours of the morning by a medium from a group from the city of Valencia.

Bernando was a broad-chested man, his hair was tied back with a brightly-coloured headband and his flat indigenous nose gave him the air of a shaman.

“We make offerings and light candles to our Queen, Maria Lionza,” he says.

“Then we receive any spirits she chooses to send down to us – including gangsters.”

As the drumming and chanting got louder and faster, Bernando began to receive visitors from ‘the other side’.

One by one, the followers in his group received blessings and instructions.

After the ceremony was over, Bernando introduced us to several young men who had either recently left gang life behind them or were trying to turn over a new leaf.

Many of them were barely 18 years old and we were struck at how easily they spoke of committing murder, violent assaults and robbery.

The Holy Thugs

Nearly a third of Venezuelans are thought to be Maria Lionza followers

Nearly a third of Venezuelans are thought to be Maria Lionza followers

Back in Caracas, a rehabilitation programme for former gang members had put us in touch with an active gang leader known as Jhonny.

He too spoke openly of gang killings and the protection he believed he received from the Holy Thugs.

The leader of the Holy Thugs is a petty thief called Ishmael Sanchez, who was gunned down by the police in the 1970s.

Jhonny had no doubt that the spirit of Ishmael was watching over him.

“Well, I’ve lasted this long,” said Jhonny who, at 25, is a veteran of the gang life. “I feel like he’s sitting right beside me.”

A steady stream of worshippers travel to Ishmael’s grave in Caracas every day to make offerings of cheap liquor and cigarettes, to ask him for protection in the capital’s violent shantytowns.

Some estimates say as many as 30% of Venezuelans are Maria Lionza followers, with many people turning away from established religion in favour of spiritualism.

As one young girl at Ishmael’s grave told us: “We can be killed just walking home at night. We need all the help we can get.”

To watch an audio slideshow previewing the documentary, click click here

To listen to Assignment: Magic and Murder in Venezuela, click click here

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