Caracas has become the murder capital of the world. In the heart of this city where poverty and violence are experienced by those living there on a daily basis is a shrine. The altar is not populated by recognized religious statues but by colorful cap-wearing images with brightly-colored trousers and cigarettes hanging from their mouths. It is to these dead gangsters that the desperate come to pray for protection.
The most widespread religion in Venezuela is Christianity, but the poor and vulnerable come to pray in a shrine in the heart of Caracas. It is located in Cementerio General del Sur, surrounded by slums perched on hillsides overlooking the roughest part of the city. Inside this place are not statues of saints, but men dressed in colorful, modern clothing, sideways baseball caps, guns stuck in their belts and a cigarette hanging from their mouth. These are statues of thugs and criminals long dead.
The Santos Malandros (Holy Thugs) became prominent in the city of Caracas in 1989, after the 3-day riots that tore the city apart and was known as the Caracazo. Cesar Chavez took over the government in 1999, and murder and violence has been on the rise since then, escalating to an all time since the ascension of Maduro's communist regime, The most recent numbers estimate 111.2 murders per 100,000 residents, making it the second most violent city in South America and the Caribbean, right behind Los Cabos, Mexico. It's believed the estimate is not really accurate but much higher, but due to the mass exodus from Venezuela the country's population is continuously shifting. The government does not release official data and local media hadn’t been providing full reports, making it a nation that has become “incapable of counting its dead.”
It is this violence that drives Devotion to the "Malandro Court" – also known as "calé court" which encompasses a pantheon of criminals. The most popular of the Santos Malandros is Ismael that is seen as a Robin Hood figure that met his demise either at the hands of a "bad cop", or being knifed by another hoodlum sometime during the 1960s or 70s. He is seeking redemption, justice and a place in heaven by helping those in need.
Some of the other thugs are Malandro Pelon, Isabelita, Raton and Petroleo Crudo among others, Worship at the shrine starts with an offering which can range from flowers, drugs, and the favorite which is cigarettes. To make sure your prayer is taken into consideration, you should light the cigarette and then place it in the mouth of one of the statue.
The shrine is located at the supposed grave of Ismael Sanchez even though it is believed this is not the exact location. It sits behind one of the most visited graves that of María Francia who favors students, as she was one when she met her death after being bitten by a snake. In this city of the dead, there are more than one grave with offerings and supplicants desperate for help in the most desperate of times and places.
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