CARACAS, Venezuela — In the Caracas slum of Pinto Salinas, William Andrade and his neighbors hold regular seances to summon the spirits of dead criminals.

The group often asks "santos malandros," or "delinquent saints," for protection, said Andrade, who earns a living making T-shirts. Among the criminals Andrade and his neighbors appeal to is Alexis the Rat, thought to have plied his trade in the Venezuelan capital during the 1970s and 1980s. 

“Alexis the Rat is our friend. I ask him to protect me so that I can leave my house every day,” Andrade said. “If I can’t escort my kids to school, I pray to him so that he will keep them safe.”

During seances, characterized by cigar smoking and offerings of alcohol and cigarettes, the gangster spirits are thought to possess the medium's body. Group members seek advice, believing spirits can foresee the future and warn against dangers.

These gatherings have sprung from the alarming Venezuelan crime rate, especially in Caracas. According to the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA, there were almost 2,000 murders in the city in 2008, and the murder rate of 130 per 100,000 citizens is the highest in South America and among the highest in the world. Last year, Venezuela posted record murders and kidnappings.

Andrade blames Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, for the country’s spiraling violence. But many others trace the violence to the Caracazo, a popular uprising brutally oppressed by the government about two decades ago.

The santos malandros, a previously obscure branch of the Maria Lionza cult, also crept out of the periphery around this time.

The Maria Lionza cult in Venezuela combines elements of African animism, Cuban Santeria and Catholicism. Historians trace it to the colonial era, when African slaves incorporated their own brands of religion with Christianity to protect themselves from being banished by the Catholic Church.

The cult differs from other regional religions — such as Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Candomble — in that it doesn't involve animal sacrifice and its gods are real, historical figures. It is divided into a hierarchy of courts, at the top of which sits Maria Lionza, a woman said to have been born with translucent skin and striking blue or green eyes into an indigenous tribe in the state of Yaracuy. She is flanked by Negro Felipe, a black hero from the Cuban wars of independence, and Guaicaipuro, an Indian chief who rebelled against the Spanish conquistadors. The political court features Simon Bolivar, known as the liberator of South America. A medical court is spearheaded by Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a white-suited doctor revered for treating the poor for free, as well as black and indigenous courts.

At the bottom is the court of the malandros. It features criminals who have made their way into popular folklore, such as Ismael, a delinquent born in the Caracas slum of Lidice who died from a knife wound in a gang fight. Other Maria Lionza "saints" include Petroleo Crudo (Crude Oil), Freddy, Miguelito, Pez Gordo (Fat Fish) — and Alexis the Rat. In return for their help at seances, the dead criminals receive more "light," allowing them to rise up the hierarchy of spirits.

The criminals, who stalked the streets of Caracas in the 1970s and 1980s, have been idolized as contemporary urban Robin Hoods. Yes, they robbed and killed. But they are also remembered as protectors and providers: Ismael, the key figure in the court, is believed to have been a bank robber who shared the spoils with his neighbors and who held up trucks so they could be pillaged by his fellow shantytown dwellers.

The flourishing of this cult subset can be linked to the rise in violent crime in Venezuela over the past two decades, said Francisco Ferrandiz, a professor of social anthropology at Spain’s University of Extremadura.

“There’s a very clear connection between violence and the santos malandros,” he explained. “The cult is a space that produces hope and reduces anxiety by contact with mythic figures. People can make symbolic gestures that improve their social situation.”

Ferrandiz believes that young people in particular are attracted to the santos malandros because of everyday fears of violence — the cult offers a dialogue about delinquency.

Andrade’s group includes teenagers, whose parents bring them in hopes of dissuading them from a life of crime. It seems that while violence continues to permeate Venezuela’s urban spaces, people will continue to turn to the spirits of former criminals for solace and protection.

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