CARACAS, Venezuela — Milvia Santos went with her children to the Southern Municipal Cemetery in the Venezuelan capital on Mother's Day to pay her respects to her late mother, Astrid.
As they were about to lay a dozen red roses on the grave, however, they found a hole in the concrete slab. When they warily reached in to open the coffin, they saw that Astrid's skull had been stolen.
Santos fainted. When she came to, she sobbed uncontrollably.
"This was supposed to be my grandmother's place to rest in peace for eternity," Yohan Camacho, Santos' son, said later by the grave site. "Instead, it was ransacked for black magic rituals."
Foreign Policy magazine last year called Caracas the world's homicide capital, and it isn't much safer for the dead than it is for the living.
Grave-plundering at the Southern Municipal Cemetery and others in Caracas has reached epidemic proportions. Priests, academics and the victims' families blame black-magic practitioners known as "paleros," who use skulls and other human bones to initiate members into an African-based cult that spread to Venezuela from Cuba and is growing rapidly here.
Father Rafael Troconis, a Roman Catholic priest in Venezuela who's studied the occult, said Venezuela's close ties with Cuba had fueled the dramatic spread of the paleros and practitioners of Santeria, another black-magic religion.
"There's always been a certain interest in witchcraft in Venezuela because of our African and Indian roots," Troconis said, "but it has reached such proportions that it has become quite worrisome to us in the church."
Wagner Barreto, a Santeria priest in Caracas, said that Santeria had become increasingly popular in part because of the belief that President Hugo Chavez was a practitioner, although he'd denied it publicly at least once.
"I don't know whether it's true or not," Barreto said in his home, surrounded by statues of his gods. "Chavez has never said that he does belong. He was dressed in white for two or three months (several years ago). I do know of a lot of members of Congress who practice Santeria, governors, too. Santeria, I can assure you, operates at all levels of society. It's very connected to the politics of the moment."
Barreto emphasized that while Santeria followers sacrifice chickens and other barnyard animals, they don't use human bones in their rituals.
"It's done by another African cult," Barreto said, meaning the paleros.
The Southern Municipal Cemetery used to be Caracas' most prestigious final resting place. Three presidents, as well as dozens of other Venezuelan notables, are buried there, many of them in tombs topped by elaborate sculptures.
Now many people won't visit the cemetery unless they're armed. A recent visitor found no security except for a front-gate guard, who asked arriving drivers to show their licenses.
The cemetery's overgrown bushes and weeds add to the sense of disorder. So do the makeshift encampments of homeless men atop some graves.
Grave sites reserved for the poor on the hillsides at the far reaches of the cemetery are especially dangerous. Santos was robbed at gunpoint two years ago when she visited her mother's hillside grave, and gunfire between rival gangs broke out during a funeral on Mother's Day.
The gangs predominate in hillside slums throughout Caracas, including one that overlooks the Southern Municipal Cemetery. Gang members like to pay their final respects there by pouring cheap alcohol onto a buddy's coffin and then blasting away at it with their handguns.
"The first time I saw it, I couldn't believe it," said Rafael Plaza, a Catholic deacon who's overseen cemetery burials for five years. "Now I make sure to tell everyone beforehand to put away their guns."
It's the grave desecration that causes the greatest heartache, however.
Julian Torres buried his mother, Juliana, five years ago in a simple plot under a tree. He typically visited her grave once a week.
In April, he got word that the grave had been disturbed.
Torres, a 58-year-old taxi driver, went with two friends and stood back several feet as they moved the broken concrete aside and opened the coffin.
"Gone were her head and leg bones," Torres said this month, still in shock. "I never thought this would happen. It's the witch doctors."
"People have lost faith in Western science and traditional values," said Rafael Camero, an anthropology professor at the Central University of Venezuela, "so they turn to black magic to solve problems that the state can't."
More than a dozen shops sell Santeria goods in downtown Caracas, a few blocks from the Congress and several government ministries.
Rafael Sosa sells books, incense, statues, beads, urns, white garments, cleansing liquids and hair from a horse's tail, which he assured a visitor was real.
"A lot of the paleros also believe in Santeria," Sosa said. "But using bones, I'm against that. It's against my principles."
Barreto, the Santeria priest, reported seeing animal tongues hanging from a tree several months ago in a slum in western Caracas.
"It is a place where a lot of paleros live," Barreto said, adding that they use human bones to initiate new members into the cult.
Jose Francisco Ceballo, the director of the government-owned Southern Municipal Cemetery, said he couldn't speak to McClatchy without the approval of higher-ups, which wasn't granted.
In an interview in mid-May with the Caracas newspaper El Universal, however, he said, "The Southern Cemetery is in chaos."
Ceballo, who recently assumed his post, said he'd begun to clean up the cemetery and would improve security.
Any improvements will be too late for Ana Sambrano. She got word in April that her nephew's skull had been taken.
When Sambrano and a daughter got to the grave site and opened the coffin, they found that one of the grave robbers had left his baseball cap behind.
"I left it inside," said Sambrano, who's 72. "I was too afraid to take it out."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009