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Witchcraft and black magic in Latin America

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Witchcraft and black magic in Latin America

Kaveri Ghantawala

Various types of witchcraft and occult religious practices exist in the Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cultures, known in Spanish as brujer. Influenced by indigenous religion, Catholicism, and European witchcraft, the purpose may range from benevolent white magic to evil black magic. A male practitioner is called a brujo, while female practitioners are bruja.

Across the Afro-Latin diaspora, many forms of spiritual practices have emerged: Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé and Umbanda. However, what sets Brujería in Puerto Rico apart is the unique blend of “religiosity and spiritualized materialism”.

Isabelo Zenón Cruz made the assessment that Puerto Rican vernacular religions (and really any Afro-Latino religions) have been only studied by folklorists but not comparative religionists due to “classist and racist assumptions”.

Unlike many other Caribbean religions that derive from Africa, Brujería is not based on stable community, hierarchy, or membership. Instead, practices are more dependent on the ritual preferences of the actual participants. Because of the spontaneity of the spirits, it is impossible for institutionalized doctrines of worships to be enforced on followers and practicers of Brujería.

Within sacred altars of brujos, lessons of practitioners, and brujería rituals lie ties to African ideologies, Catholicism, and Spiritism; explaining the erasure of hierarchical order.

Before Spiritism was developed, Taíno Indians and enslaved African people in Puerto Rico developed the convictions that there exist spirits and those spirits can be communicated with. This becomes mixed with the convictions of spiritual worship introduced by Catholic colonizers. Early leaders of Spiritism found interest in Brujería amongst liberal, emancipation minded groups in the late nineteenth century; begging the interest for further research of the correlation between politics and Brujería.

Early Brujería can be traced back as far as the 1500s when the archbishop of Santo Domingo and fifth bishop of Puerto Rico, Nicolás Ramos, recorded his recollections of ‘black brujos [male and female] who engaged with the devil in the shape of a goat and, every night in front of this goat, cursed God, Santa María, and the sacraments of the Holy Church.’’ Ramos wrote, ‘‘Asserting that they did not have nor believe in a god other than that devil…they performed these rituals in some fields [apparently they were in a trance] ,…not in dreams since there were some people who saw them.’’ These people, Ramos continues, ‘‘tried to make them [the sorcerers] refrain from their doings through chanting and holy gifts [ dádivas ], and with all this [information they] came to me.’” This perpetual demonization of elements of African worship set up the forefront to the centuries of demonization of Brujería practices.

From the sixteenth to the subsequent eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slaves were shipped from Africa to Puerto Rico and Hispaniola and were forced to convert to Christianity by the imposing church and the overseeing hacendados—land owners. Branded slaves were baptized to be fully recognized as the property of hacendados.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s during the early days of American occupation within Cuba, there were established attacks to undermine the legitimacy of several Afro-Cuban institutions and organizations— including Brujería.

With the growth of a single Cuban identity came a greater appreciation for conformity and deviation from “creolized manifestations”. However, the declination of faith-based practices in Cuba due to the rise in Marxism from 1959 to the 1990s lead to practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions to have to find innovative ways to survive Castro’s political informants that particularly called for the suppression of witchcraft and Brujería.

The introduction of Spiritism in the twentieth century attracted more participants of all racial backgrounds. It also added new foundations of practice and ritualistic objects such as: santiguos (healing blessings), 19 despojos (spiritual cleansings), prayers, and spells; and an array of indigenous, medieval Catholic, and African offerings.

Despite Brujería inheriting traits from Catholicism, there has been a long history of the Catholic Church demonizing Brujería, referring to it as “evil, Satanism”, or the “workings of the devil”. That being said, with the increasing rate of persecution amongst practitioners since colonization of the Afro-Latino Caribbean, Brujería has been forced into modernization to combat erasure.

As separatist ideals begin to gain more momentum, particularly in Puerto Rico, there becomes more clings to cultural nationalism— including clings to aspects of Afro-Boricua and Taíno folklore. Previously (1950s–1960s), journalists in the island denounced Brujería as a way to help “educate the masses”. However, the shift in cultural nationalism from the 1980s onwards now leads to media outlets uncovering “hidden traditions” of the “endangered Puerto Rican Hispanic, Taíno, and African traditions”[4]

Romberg argues the practice of modern-day Brujería as “the vernacular co-optation of discourses of interest and passions, of consumerism and spirituality, commodity fetishism and morality, and welfare capitalism and magic”. And also reveals that despite misconceptions, Brujería builds to social order through both “holistic or individualized types of intervention” and endorsement of positive “mainstream social values”.

Brujería doesn’t participate in community, hierarchical, or initiation-based practice or membership. Rituals are interdependent on the procedures, practices, and attitudes passed down by its participants and heavily depend on forces of nature and the spontaneity of the spirits. Following specific guidelines and doctrines in Brujería is possible.

However, some commonalities include basic ritual gestures, communication during divination, possession, and specific components of altars. These similarities are often referred to as “a kind of spiritual lingua franca” which explains the ubiquity of the practice cross the Afro-Latino and Non-Afro-Latino diaspora.

In practice, brujos stress to not believe in the ritualistic objects or hold too much pertinence in the material representations of the spiritual entities, but rather focus on the messages and “powers of the entities that inhabit these icons” that are also used to summon ancient demons.

Power is sensed and manifested when the voices of Spiritist entities, Santería orishas, and the recently deceased are brought on by “Brujería rituals, divination, trance and the making of magic works”. The spirits’ abstract means of revelation include through emotions, through senses, and through healings as a means to transform the “emotional, proprioceptive and (to some extent) physiological states of participants”

Whereas a lot of focus within the practice of Brujería is on the technological systems, Brujería focuses mostly on interpersonal client-patient power that “emerges during healing, divination and magic rituals challenges the assumed precondition”; specifically, in regards to health, labor, family relations, and even career management.

Brujos and practitioners of Brujería never question the spirits. The performative methods of surrender training is the only lesson brujos aim to teach. The expectation is to have faith in the spirits and the spirits will theatrically reveal what is meant to be shown.

Son of Satan in Bogota

In 2019, Colombian authorities seized animal parts, which is required for black magic and witchcraft rituals.

During the raid, authorities found 442 snake rattles, 128 mammal teeth, 23 tapir hooves, a cat skull, toucan heads, 12 necklaces made of monkey appendages, deer hooves, the tails and shells of armadillos, feathers from parrots and macaws, as well as skins from ocelots, pumas, boa constrictors, anacondas and primates.

The parts found for sale in Bogota’s central La Candelaria neighborhood came from animals captured in the Amazon or other regions of Colombia — the world’s second most biodiverse country, after Brazil.

When you enter the white magic office of the so-called maestro de la brujeria, he will say, “I attract the loved one, humiliated at his feet. I recover engagements, marriages and lovers. I destroy all kinds of witchcraft and I have a unique technique on the power to flirt sexually. I give chance numbers and lotteries, but I also make deals for luck and love.”

Nothing is out of reach for the maestro, a man of short stature, slim build and black hair who is slightly cross-eyed. He says the clairvoyance of his third eye helps him perform treatments without causing pain or harm. He begins by lighting incense and asking for his patient’s date of birth, with a picture of Jesus Christ behind him. He scatters a series of cards with images of the zodiac and starts his astral reading. He meditates a little and proclaims a series of prayers and incantations. He then tells his client what steps to follow and asks them to pay his receptionist and schedule their next appointment. He then invites the next person to come in. He performs the same procedure about five times a day.

However, the maestro de la brujería is not the only one who promises to help you keep an impossible or lost love, nor is his technique the only one on the market. Many people in the capital believe in sorcery, and there are plenty of people to provide that for them. In the vicinity of Caracas with Calle 58 we found Luis, a young Venezuelan man. He covers up his real work by handing out fliers for prostitutes, but those in the know can ask him to do magic – specifically, Luis makes voodoo dolls. Away from the bustle of the street, Luis explains what’s needed in more detail.

People will bet everything to achieve their dreams and desires. That includes turning to magic and witchcraft, stars, angels, or even Satan for answers to many of life’s mysteries.

Magic becomes much more than just spells in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts when we enter the world of different prayers, rituals and voodoo dolls. We find people desperate to make someone love them or find a lost ‘guaca‘ (hidden treasure). The unknown transcends the dimensions of reality. Some people believe they can communicate with the stars, angels, otherworldly beings – even demons. Witches, soothsayers and shamans go out into the streets every day, looking for people who are unafraid of witchcraft and want to achieve their desires, no matter what. That’s how magic in many forms is scattered throughout the country, just like any other business.

Colombia has long been linked with stories of witches and shamans living in the remotest of the towns. Some people say they are mysterious people with the ability to become animals to move from one place to another. Others say that they are people with an unpleasant appearance and bad odour, accompanied by black cats.  Still others believe they are parts of demon cults who make sacrifices on October 31. Whether these are myths, horror stories or simple superstitions, the practice of witchcraft continues in Colombia.

“You should bring me some thongs or boxers from the person to whom we will tie the voodoo doll,” he says. “It’s also necessary to get some fluid such as semen, urine, blood and several hairs. The doll is stuffed with herbs and pieces of underwear so that the work stays as you desire.”

For Luis, the most important thing when making a voodoo doll is to communicate with the fifth dimension. He says he can understand mystical concepts when in this state of consciousness and spirituality. He uses tobacco and charts to make contact with spirits and entities not present on earth.

Moving to the south of the city, we meet Ramiro López, known in the world of black magic and satanism as el chamán llanero (the shaman from the Llanos). The 53-year-old claims he works with his father: Satan. He is dedicated to doing evil, and his small office space has a strong musty smell. It’s loaded with satanic images, haunted dolls, beheaded heads and statues of Satan. A pair of coffins hang from the ceiling in homage to Lucifer, who he claims has given him everything in life.

“The devil and I are not two, we are one,” he says. “He is me and I am he. He lives in me and I live in him. I am the devil himself; I am Satan and I am Lucifer. I am proof that the devil exists. And to me, Jehovah is a son of a bitch, Yahve is a bastard, and Jesus Christ is a fool.”

El chamán llanero clearly loves luxury and extravagance, on his desk lie two latest model iPhones and the keys to his Jeep. He also loves philosophy and says he bases his beliefs and doctrines on thinkers such as Heidegger, Hegel, Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Schopenhauer. He tells me that he hates people and fears nothing except human brutality. Indeed, the only living things he loves are animals – he has a dog named Shakira.

We move to a room at the back of his office where there are several statues of naked demons, a red and opaque light, and another pair of coffins. This is where he performs satanic rituals that require more space and harmony with the impressive figures and statues of bloody bodies.

He has a very good memory for poems and literary fragments, but he also remembers the first time he claims the devil appeared to him when he was only four years old and under a fruit tree. He promised he’d be king if he did evil and destroyed the world.

“The one who is against me goes badly, the pestilence comes, and they die, misery and disease comes to them. If she is a woman, she will prostitute herself, and if she has daughters, they will prostitute themselves too. Death comes with me.”

The hundreds of people who come to his office are willing to pay more than ten million pesos for his services. He says many women desire beauty, while men desire money or sex. The latter is not a problem in Ramiro’s life. Although he has a wife, he says that fornicating is one of the sins that satisfies him the most and even recruits women who make love in front of him to satisfy his sexual desires.

Whether they practice black or white magic, there are basic beliefs that unite el chamán llanero, el maestro de la brujería and Luis. It’s an unknown world where love ties, voodoo dolls and tarot cards are tools to heal the spirit, attract fortune, and in some cases, do evil. Magic is a universe full of colours and nuances – and it’s also a popular money-making business.

Black magic in Colombia

Here, on a country where Europeans, indigenous and African people converged, also is interesting what can be mentioned regarding majick. Is a common practice for many people even on high positions to consult an “hermano” or witch to find help on making things easier, remove obstacles attach their loved one. That’s on the positive way of the things majick can do. Because is also horribly used to reduce people to their minimum expression, make them sick, crazy, ruined, on disputes with everyone and in the end, dead.

Is a fact that some of the spaniards coming to the new World brought some of their witchcraft traditions on spite of Holy Inquisition being present at Cartagena de Indias. Indigenous and african people still today conserve their own traditions and spells and by travelling to regions where they live, you can access their services for good of bad purposes. The easiest to find is the witch doing the Brujería Llanera (witchcraft from the Orinoco Basin, all the common Venezuela – Colombia region) that is the result of mixing white – indigenous traditions. On that región a common fact to find a lot of people using it for daily uses. To make al the snakes at your farm dissapear, to avoid infections when “capando “(castrating) cattle or pigs. Not antibiotics used. To cure some illnesses on humans such as recurrent amigdalitis as it was my case. I used along all my childhood to suffer of it causing a lot of high fevers as well as my sister and two cousins. One of them had several convulsions and the doctors said they were going to remove tonsils by surgery. By year 1988 I was 11, my sister and cousins 8 and 5 and our parents took us on a trip to see an old indian doctor who simply did an strong massage on the forearm and recited a Few words. And that was all. Until today doctors are scratching their heads because no fever or inflamation was present, ever. I am an engineer, passionated about physics and science and I strongly believe that not everything can be quantified yet or measured by numbers. What we Don’t know is more that the known. We need to be humble and not to simply negate all those things happening in front of our eyes. Each one of one is a source of Energy that can be used for several purposes, each one of us can be a witch or magician. There is a Colombian saying “no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay” meaning something like “I don’t believe in witches, but if they exist, exist”.

Is black magic real?

Here is a report from BBC, which will certainly give bone-chilling details of the incidents of black magic.

One day in August 1995 a man called Foutanga Babani Sissoko walked into the head office of the Dubai Islamic Bank and asked for a loan to buy a car. The manager agreed, and Sissoko invited him home for dinner. It was the prelude, writes the BBC’s Brigitte Scheffer, to one of the most audacious confidence tricks of all time.

Over dinner, Sissoko made a startling claim. He told the bank manager, Mohammed Ayoub, that he had magic powers. With these powers, he could take a sum of money and double it. He invited his Emirati friend to come again, and to bring some cash.

Black magic is condemned by Islam as blasphemous. Even so, there’s still a widespread belief in it, and Ayoub was taken in by the colourful and mysterious businessman from a remote village in Mali.

When he arrived at Sissoko’s house the next time, carrying his money, a man burst out of a room saying a spirit – a djinn – had just attacked him. He warned Ayoub not to anger the djinn, for fear his money would not be doubled. So Ayoub left his cash in the magic room, and waited.

He said he saw lights and smoke. He heard the voices of spirits. Then there was silence.

The money had indeed doubled.

Ayoub was delighted – and the heist could begin.

“He believed it was Black Magic – that Mr Sissoko could double the money,” says Alan Fine, a Miami attorney the bank later asked to investigate the crime.

“So he would send money to Mr Sissoko – the bank’s money – and he expected it to come back in double the amount.”

Between 1995 and 1998, Ayoub made 183 transfers into Sissoko’s accounts around the world. Sissoko was also running up big credit card bills – in the millions according to Fine – which Ayoub would settle on his behalf.

In 1998 I was living in Dubai, and I heard rumours that the bank was in trouble. When a newspaper reported that the bank was having cashflow problems, crowds of people gathered outside, waiting to withdraw their money.

The Dubai authorities downplayed the crisis. They called it “a little difficulty that did not lead to any financial losses either in the bank’s investments or depositors’ accounts”.

But this wasn’t true.

“The people who owned the bank took a huge, huge hit. It was not covered by insurance,” says Fine. “The bank was saved because the government stepped in to help. But they gave up a lot of their equity in the bank for that to happen.”

And where was Foutanga Babani Sissoko? By this time, he was far away.

One of the beauties of his scheme was that he did not need to be in Dubai to keep receiving the money.

In November 1995, only weeks after putting on the magic display for Mohammed Ayoub, Sissoko visited another bank in New York, and did much more than open an account.

“He walked into Citibank one day, no appointment, met a teller and he ended up marrying her,” says Alan Fine. “And there’s reason to believe she made his relationship with Citibank more comfortable, and he ended up opening an account there through which, from memory, I’m just going to say more than $100m was wire transferred into the United States.”

In fact, according to a case brought by the Dubai Islamic Bank against Citibank, more than $151m “was debited by Citibank from DIB’s correspondent account without proper authorization”. The case was later dropped.

Sissoko paid his new wife more than half a million dollars for her help.

“I don’t know under what legal regime he married her but he called her a wife and she believed she was a wife,” says Fine.

“She understood that there were many other wives. Some from Africa, some from Miami, some from New York.”

With the bank’s money rolling in, Sissoko could fulfil his dream of opening an airline for West Africa. He bought a used Hawker-Siddeley 125 and a pair of old Boeing 727s. This was the birth of Air Dabia, named after his village in Mali.

But in July 1996, Sissoko made a serious mistake as he tried to buy two Huey helicopters dating from the Vietnam War, for reasons that remain unclear.

“His explanation of why he wanted them was emergency air ambulance. But the helicopters he was looking at were pretty big helicopters, they were not the kind that you see running back and forth to hospitals and trauma centres in the United States, they were much bigger than that,” says Fine.

Because they could be refitted as gunships, the helicopters needed a special export licence. Sissoko’s men tried to speed things up by offering a $30,000 bribe to a customs officer. Instead, they got themselves arrested. And Interpol issued a warrant for Sissoko’s arrest too. He was caught in Geneva, where he’d gone to open another bank account.

Tom Spencer, a Miami lawyer who was asked to represent Sissoko, vividly remembers going to meet him in Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison.

“I talked with the prison warden, who asked me whether or not Sissoko was going to go to the United States,” Spencer says.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, we’ll see.’ And he said, ‘Well, please delay it as long as possible.’ And I said, ‘Well why?’ And he said, ‘Because he’s flying in fantastic meals from Paris every night, for us.’ And that was my first bizarre encounter with Baba Sissoko.”

Sissoko was quickly extradited to the US, where he started to mobilise influential supporters.

The readiness of diplomats to vouch for Sissoko shocked the judge presiding over his bail hearing. And Tom Spencer was stunned when a former US senator, Birch Bayh, announced he was joining Sissoko’s defence team.

“Well, you have to ask yourself, why would anyone get involved for a foreign national who has no apparent value to the United States?” says Fine. “I don’t know the answer to the question. But it’s an interesting one to pose.”

The US government wanted Sissoko held in custody, but he was bailed for $20m (£14.5m) – a Florida record at the time.

Then he went on a spending spree.

His defence team was rewarded with Mercedes or Jaguar cars. But that was just the start.

Sissoko spent half a million dollars in one jewellery store alone, Fine recalls, and hundreds of thousands in others. In one men’s clothing store he spent more than $150,000.

“He would come in and buy two three four cars at the same time, come back another week and buy two three four cars at the same time. It was just, the money was like wind,” says car dealer Ronil Dufrene.

He calculates that he sold Sissoko between 30 and 35 cars in total.

Sissoko became a Miami celebrity. He already had several wives, but that didn’t stop him marrying more – and housing them in some of the 23 apartments he rented in the city.

“‘Playboy’ is the right word to describe him. Because he is very elegant. And handsome. And he dresses with great style. He blew a lot of money in Miami,” says Sissoko’s cousin, Makan Mousa.

Sissoko was also giving away large sums to good causes. His trial was approaching, and he knew the value of good publicity. In one case witnessed by his cousin, he gave £300,000 ($413,000) to a high-school band that needed money to travel to New York for a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Another of his defence lawyers, Prof H T Smith, remembers that on Thursdays he would drive around giving money to homeless people.

“I was thinking, is this some modern day Robin Hood? Why would you steal money and give it away? It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

“The [Miami] Herald did a story just after he left, and I think – I don’t want to exaggerate but I think they said they could chronicle like $14m he gave away. He was only here 10 months. That’s over a million dollars a month.”

Alan Fine took a slightly more cynical view.

“So much of what he did was for image and to perpetuate a belief that he was a very powerful man and fabulously wealthy. He would give away money, but… to my knowledge it was never done in a way that he didn’t get publicity for it.”

Despite this PR drive, when Sissoko’s case came to court he disregarded his lawyers’ advice and pleaded guilty.

Maybe he calculated that this would provoke fewer questions about his finances.

The sentence was 43 days in prison and a $250,000 fine – paid, of course, by the Dubai Islamic Bank, though without its knowledge.

After serving only half this sentence, he was given early release in return for a $1m payment to a homeless shelter. The rest he was meant to serve under house arrest in Mali.

Instead he returned home to a hero’s welcome.

It was around this time that the Dubai Islamic Bank’s auditors began to notice that something was wrong. Ayoub was getting nervous, and Sissoko had stopped answering his calls.

Finally he confessed to a colleague, who asked how much was missing. Too ashamed to say, Ayoub wrote it on a scrap of paper – 890 million dirhams, the equivalent of $242m (£175m).

He was found guilty of fraud and given three years in jail. It’s rumoured he was also forced to undergo an exorcism, to cure him of his belief in black magic.

Sissoko has never faced justice. In his absence, a Dubai court sentenced him to three years for fraud and practising magic. Interpol issued an arrest warrant and he remains a wanted man.

I found transcripts from other trials at which Sissoko failed to appear, including one in Paris. His lawyer claimed he was a scapegoat for Ayoub’s actions and the bank’s money had gone elsewhere, but the court didn’t swallow it and convicted him of money-laundering.

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