We enter the heavily guarded gates and proceed slowly past a few funerals in progress. It's a Monday, which means the weekend's departed are being laid to rest. They are overwhelmingly young and male, and forlorn relatives are scattered across the graveyard.
The Cementerio General del Sur initially looks like any Catholic cemetery: old graves interspersed with overgrown greenery, fresh flowers left by recent visitors dotting the landscape. But as you look closer at the gatherings of people, elements of Santeria pop out. Many visitors are dressed entirely in white. Small statuettes of saints sit on top of graves, and most people are carrying offerings.
Venezuela is, to put it simply, a deeply divided society. The Chavez regime is a direct response to a distrust of authority born through centuries of violent dictatorships. This distrust is not limited to politics: Venezuelans living without running water have a wee bit of a difficult time connecting with the traditional saints of the Roman Catholic Church. They opt instead for more familiar, and flawed, figureheads.
The cemetery is surrounded on all sides by cascading hillside slums, like the upper decks of the world's worst football stadium. It's an imposing place to spend an afternoon, and the gravity is palpable.
Until you see Ismael Sanchez.
Standing at about three feet tall, with a sideways baseball hat and permanent cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, Ismael is the leader of the Santos Malandros (in English, the Holy Thugs)—a collection of dead saints with a shared history of criminal activity. Ismael is a dapper little fellow, sporting wraparound sunglasses, bright accents on his shirt to compliment his baggy pants, and shiny new Nike sneakers to match the swoosh on his cap.
The idea of grown men worshipping at the feet of three-foot Homie dolls is a bit odd, but we assure you, the practice is even weirder.
We find seven different Ismael statues on the plot when we arrive, along with numerous plaques, handwritten tributes, and other donations. Each of the Ismael statues has been built with a small nub between his lips, so followers can wedge cigarettes and weed in their mouths as offerings.
Every day, hundreds of Venezuelans pour through the cemetery gates to visit Ismael and his esses to ask for a variety of seemingly simple blessings: protection from theft, the health of a loved one, or just not getting shot on the way back from the market that evening.
The irony is that in life Ismael Sanchez was, by all accounts, an unrepentant criminal. He made his living robbing people, but his devotees are quick to point out he favored a Robin Hood-style approach to holdups.
"If he ever stole anything, it was for the people, for his neighborhood, so everybody could eat," explains Ramon, the de facto caretaker of Ismael's plot. With a Tampa Bay Rays cap pulled tight over his eyes, he made sure we recorded Ismael's virtues. "Now, people come here to bring Ismael alcohol, cigarettes, fruits, and cake."
Ismael is the boss of the court, but the rest of the Holy Thugs are held in similar reverence: Isabelita is helpful for exacting justice, Tomasito for loyalty-related issues, and so on down the line: Johnny, Elizabeth, Ratón, and Petroleo Crudo (in English, Crude Oil. Yes, he's the black one).
As we were speaking with a group of kids visiting the Malandros Court after getting off work for the day, a few rounds of automatic-weapon fire erupted in the hillside slums surrounding us. The kids promptly left, and we followed closely behind.
Not far from the cemetery, we passed a storefront selling statues of the Holy Thugs in all shapes and sizes. Inside, we met a spiritualist named Clara who offered to channel Ismael for us. We asked her if it seemed a bit troubling that, in a country so violent, so many people were praying to a crew of armed criminals. She told us no, the thugs were just vessels for a larger good. Then she and Ismael told me that I had a nice light and should visit the Great Pyramid.