Caracas, Venezuela -- Skulking in the dead of night in the remote and overgrown Las Pavas section of the Southern Municipal Cemetery, robbers armed with crowbars and sledgehammers first shattered the tomb's concrete vault and the granite marker that read, "To our dear wife and mother in heaven, Maria de la Cruz Aguero."
Then they lifted the coffin lid and stole leg bones and the skull of the woman, who had died Sept. 9, 1993. They sold the bones for $20 each, the skull for as much as $300, said Father Atilio Gonzalez, the cemetery's resident Roman Catholic priest.
Sometimes entire skeletons, particularly those of children, are stolen from crypts in this final resting place of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, including three former presidents.
"These unscrupulous people are insulting God and committing a mortal sin," said Gonzalez. He said that graves in the city's largest cemetery are robbed every night, and it's getting worse. "They have perfect liberty to desecrate the tombs because the government does nothing to stop it."
The desecration of the woman's tomb was part of a ghoulish crime wave, including assaults, rapes and dope deals, that has made the cemetery so dangerous that funeral home workers say they carry weapons whenever they have to go there. Parts of the vast cemetery, particularly the remote hillside sections reserved for the poor, are in ruins and choked with weeds, providing perfect cover for thugs and the homeless.
In the past when graves were robbed, the primary objective was to steal personal effects such as jewelry or gold dental fillings, said Odalys Caldera, an investigator in the city's judicial police. Today, thieves are pillaging the graves for darker reasons.
The buyers of the bones are paleros, the practitioners of a black magic cult related to Santeria whose rise in popularity here is fueled by a strange brew of faith and politics.
"Santeria, witchcraft and black magic are much more out in the open now. That's the reason," Caldera said. "Of course the state is aware of the robberies, but hasn't taken the necessary steps to impede them."
Santeria, which combines Catholicism and African and indigenous spiritualism, was brought to the New World by slaves from Africa centuries ago and still thrives, particularly in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and, increasingly, Venezuela. It is also popular in regions of the United States with strong Caribbean immigrant communities, such as south Florida, Washington and Los Angeles,areas where hundreds of thousands are thought to practice it.
Although most Santeria followers steer clear of the use of human remains and Satanism, the paleros embrace them. They use bones in black magic rituals in which the objective is to cast evil spells on enemies: to induce bad luck for an unfaithful spouse, a car accident for unwanted in-laws, a serious illness for a business competitor, Gonzalez said.
Police, church officials and historians offer a variety of theories for the rise in Santeria generally and of black magic in particular in Venezuela. Some, including anthropologist Rafael Strauss, point to the vacuum left by the Roman Catholic Church, which, as in many other Latin American countries, has lost believers in Venezuela to evangelical and other Protestant religions. Church rolls also are suffering from a lack of interest among younger people.
"We are seeing a new syncretism that is uniting parts of different religions," said Strauss, a retired University of Central Venezuela professor. "It's how people make it easier to meet their spiritual needs."
Gonzalez acknowledged that the country is suffering a crisis in belief.
"People are losing faith," he said. "Instead of assuming responsibility to accomplish something good, they resort to witchcraft, which they see as the easy way."
But others see politics at work. Father Manuel Diaz is a parish priest in the El Hatillo suburb of Caracas where three Santeria babalaos, or shamans, have recently opened centers. He says the government of leftist President Hugo Chavez is encouraging the rise of Santeria to counter the authority of the Catholic Church, which Chavez has viewed as his enemy.
In a pastoral letter to his parishioners last month, Diaz said the government has a "concrete objective, to undermine the authority of the church and align its faithful with certain ideologies." In the letter, he wrote that leaders of the movement to discredit the church were coming from an unnamed "Caribbean country," presumably Cuba.
Although Santeria and other spiritualist religions have been present in Venezuela since Spanish colonial days, the rise of black magic, including that practiced by paleros, is relatively new, said Maria Garcia de Fleury, a comparative religions professor at New Sparta University in Caracas.
"We've always had a little witchcraft, but nothing like what has been unleashed recently," De Fleury said. "This is not Venezuelan."
Without offering hard evidence, De Fleury and some church officials blame the growing presence of Santeria on Cuba, which she says is exporting babalaosalong with doctors, teachers and sports trainers to Venezuela as part of closer economic relations with Chavez.
"It's because the government is behind Santeria, promoting it, letting in Cuban babalaos who are proselytizing very actively," De Fleury said.