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.
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.