THE THUG COURT

Superheroes, Cease Fear, Victims

To lose weight, a prayer to Saint Isnardo. To cure diabetes, another prayer to Santa Gertrudis. An invocation of Mary Magdalen will relieve the pain caused by a love, Saint Arauco will help you find work, and Saint Romano will keep you from drowing in the sea. In Latin America, the process of syncretism between indigenous, African and Christian deities is powerful and exciting.

Pagan gods never ceased to exist, they just adjusted to fit the forms of Spanish and Portuguese saints. Christianity, witchcraft, voodoo and Santeria are constantly mixed in Central America, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, places where there are saints and rites for everything from choking on food to guiding your soul through purgatory. 

It is well known that in Colombia, for example, it's not only the pious who entrust themselves to saints. In Pablo Scobar's time, killers and thugs used to hung scapulars on different parts of their bodies to prevent the cops from catching them, or on their hands to keep a steady pulse when shooting. In Venezuela, however, there is a much stranger holy rule: la Corte Malandra.  Thug Court.

These are the thugs and thieves of legends. The most important crooked deity here is Ismael Sanchez, a thief who, everybody says, never stole from those on his street, but who assaulted truckloads of flour and meat to distribute to struggling neighbors. 

Along with Ishmael, other "saints" have been immortalized in reckless plaster and plastic, fitted with sunglasses, baseball caps and guns lashed on their broad belts. Their poor dress and war wounds, cuts on the face and body, speak of life of battle. It is said that characters like la Chama Isabel, Jhonny, Antonio, Freddy, Ramon and Machera, thugs from the '60 and '70s, would later become legends in the most popular and dangerous neighborhoods of Caracas.

However, this admiration and "sanctification" actually started in the 1990s, when Venezuela began to suffer a wave of major crimes, one that continues today and makes the city one of the continent's great hubs of violence in the continent. According to a statement supported by figures from the Venezuela Violence Observatory, an NGO responsible for monitoring crime rates in the country, 19,336 Venezuelans were killed in 2011, for an average death rate of 53 per day.

Only gunmen and prostitutes worship the Thug Court's saints of caps and guns,  some say, but, but their popularity has recently spread, thanks to Santeria rites that are celebrated with them. Many people pray to them to prevent attacks from criminals, asking vengeance against those who once wronged them; even mothers and grandmothers pray to the Thug Court to keep their children and grandchildren out of bad company, drugs and gangs. Today, in the general cemetery south of Caracas, where the tombs of many of these old rascals lie, altars with flowers, bullets, and bottles of alcohol in tribute to those who from thieves became "saints".

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