Thugs in their lifetime, worshipped as saints today

Photo posted by Matías Jaramillo on Flickr.
 
As Venezuela’s urban crime rate soars, devotion to a very particular group of saints known as the “Santos Malandros”, or “Corte Malandra”, is becoming widespread. These “holy thugs” wearing dark sunglasses, baseball caps and guns tucked in their belts might have been petty criminals during their lifetime, but are now considered modern-day Robin Hoods.
 
Photo posted by Ronald Rivas Casallas on Flickr.
 
The dozen or so members of the “thug court” have two things in common: they were all small-time crooks who died in the 1960s and 70s, and came to be respected because - legend has it - they never robbed in their neighbourhoods and always shared their pillage with the people in need around them. Even though their devotees have been often stigmatised as thieves and prostitutes, the reality is that more and more ordinary Venezuelans have turned to these peculiar saints to ask for protection.
 
At the head of the thug court is Ismael Sánchez, who would supposedly steal truckloads of meat or flour and then distribute the goods among his neighbours in a poor area of Caracas. His death remains a mystery, with some saying he was stabbed during a quarrel and others insisting that he was shot by the police, but his grave in the Southern General Cemetery of Caracas has become the place where people bring the entire ‘court’ alcohol, candles and other gifts as offerings.
 
Making an offering to Ismael Sánchez. Video posted by jmisterbarbaro on YouTube.
 
Devotion to the "Malandro Court" – also known as "calé court" – began around 1989, when the tough reforms made by president Carlos Andrés Pérez to curb the economic crisis triggered a wave of protests and riots that became known as the “Caracazo”. Economic unrest led to political instability and crime rates soared during the 1990s. Hugo Chávez, who became president in 1999, has tried to reduce poverty but violence has since risen to an all-time high.
 
Venezuela recorded 17,600 homicides in 2010, more than three times the amount registered in the country a decade ago, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-profit organization that monitors crime rates. Its rate of 57 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants places the oil-rich country only second to El Salvador in Latin America. The Venezuelan government has not published official homicide statistics since 2005.
Contributors

“It’s common for parents to ask them for help in pulling their children away from drugs and delinquency”

Teresa V. (not her real name) is a special educator in the east of Venezuela and a devotee of the thug court.
                   
The ‘corte malandra’ doesn’t just attract criminals, as many people think. In fact, most people seek them to ask for protection from crime, since murders and thefts have increased in Venezuela like never before. It’s common for parents to ask them for help in pulling their children away from drugs and delinquency.
 
I have been a devotee of Ismael Sánchez and the ‘corte’ for eight years and I strongly believe that they have protected me from harm. One Sunday night in January I was returning home when I was surprised by a group of thugs who assaulted and abused me. I was absolutely devastated and wanted to die. I don’t even know how the police managed to find me because in my distress I wandered to a place far away from where the attack happened. The next day I went to report the incident, but I couldn’t stop crying because I had no idea who my assailants were. I blamed the saints for not protecting me.
 
One day later I dreamt that Ismael appeared and told me he hadn’t abandoned me. He comforted me by reminding me I was alive and saying that those who had hurt me would eventually be brought to justice. In my dream I told him that I wanted them dead, but he warned me that death was not something people should play with because they would carry that burden forever. I woke up the next day much calmer, and soon after my mother received a call notifying her that my assailants were in police custody. I felt so grateful that I named my son after Sánchez.”
Post written with freelance journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.

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