Brazil deaths cast gruesome spell

The Washington Post

SAO LUIS – In his mind’s eye, the image of what Jose Antonio Serra saw in a burned patch of jungle on the Amazon’s edge is still chillingly fresh – not because the murder happened just seven weeks ago but because there are some things a father can never forget.

What he found, a short walk from his family’s mud hut, were the remains of his 13-year-old son: a figure on its knees, head buried in the dirt, genitals and middle figure removed with cuts that looked almost surgical. In shock, Serra noticed an odd detail: The mutilated body looked diminished, even shrunken. Then he noticed the gash in the boy’s jugular vein, and realized that his blood had been drained.

“What they did to my boy is unspeakable,” said Serra, 39, a house painter. “But what is worse is that there were so many other boys, and there will probably be so many more.”

Someone is killing the boys of Maranhao, a sweltering, poverty-stricken state in the Brazilian northeast. Welson Frazao Serra, the painter’s son, was the 20th victim since 1991. Victim No. 21 – a 10-year-old third-grader – turned up Oct. 18 in the city of Codo, 150 miles southwest of Sao Luis, the state capital.

All the victims were poor; all were bright and promising. Almost all were castrated, and most had been brutally raped. Some were also found drained of blood; in some cases the eyes, lips, liver, heart or lungs had been removed.

A few corpses were attended by crosses or religious circles. Others, like Serra’s son, were discovered near offerings of chicken blood, feathers, cassava and candles. In the most recent case – in Codo, a town of 30,000 dubbed the “witchcraft capital of Brazil” – the accused murderer, now in custody, says he killed and castrated his victim at the behest of an alleged local priestess who supposedly bought the boy’s testicles for $35.

“Most people in Maranhao are afraid to talk about this, but I will say it because they have already taken what is most precious to me and I have nothing left to lose,” Serra said. “It is they – the ones who practice Macumba (black magic). They killed my son. They are the ones doing all these killings.”

The so-called Black Magic Murders of Maranhao – which followed 26 similar slayings in the neighboring state of Para from 1989 to 1991 – have transfixed Brazil. This sprawling nation of 170 million has long enjoyed surprising religious diversity despite being the world’s most populous Roman Catholic country. But as the victims’ parents and community leaders have blamed the slayings on the dark side of African-influenced religions practiced by millions of Brazilians, that tolerance faces its greatest test in years.

African religious traditions in Brazil date to the first slaves brought here in the 16th century. They fused the Catholicism they were forced to adopt by the colonial Portuguese with the spiritualism of their homelands, inventing what anthropologists describe as new hybrid religions such as Tambo de Mina, Candomble and Umbanda.

In these faiths, African deities called orixas are associated with figures from Catholic theology – the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, St. Barbara, St. Lazarus and other saints – and worshipped through private prayer, participation in Catholic celebrations, group ceremonies involving sacred drumming and spirit possession, and at times animal sacrifice.

Today, an estimated one in six Brazilians – from the poorest ranch hand to the richest movie star – practices these religions, though many also call themselves Catholic. In the northeast, a region rich in African culture, the percentage reaches 50 to 75 percent in some cities and towns.

But with the murders of boys blamed on cults practicing Macumba, many practitioners have felt unfairly victimized. In Maranhao, leaders of these religions complain their faiths are being slandered by the local press and confused with devil worship by uninformed people. Even those who openly admit to dabbling in the religions’ more occult practices say human sacrifice is a tall tale, and that the boys’ murders are likely the acts of sexual maniacs.

“The power of the dark line of my religion is strong enough to kill a man by summoning spirits, but it does not involve human violence,” said Wilson Nonato de Souza, 89, a renowned Umbanda priest in Codo whose temple has welcomed stars, politicians and, some say, even presidents. He is one of the few priests who publicly admits to using black magic.

“I don’t doubt that evil is involved,” he said. “But it is not evil of our making.”

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