Milvia Santos went with her children to the Southern Municipal Cemetery in the Venezuelan capital on Mother's Day to pay her respects to her late mother.
As they were about to lay a dozen red roses on the grave, however, they found a hole in the concrete slab. When they warily reached in to open the coffin, they saw that the skull had been stolen.
"This was supposed to be my grandmother's place to rest in peace for eternity," Yohan Camacho, Santos' son, said later by the grave site. "Instead, it was ransacked for black magic rituals."
Grave-plundering at cemeteries in Caracas has reached epidemic proportions. Priests, academics and the victims' families blame black-magic practitioners known as "paleros," who use other human bones to initiate members into an African-based cult that spread to Venezuela from Cuba and is growing rapidly.
The Rev. Rafael Troconis, a Roman Catholic priest in Venezuela who's studied the occult, said Venezuela's close ties with Cuba had fueled the dramatic spread of the paleros and practitioners of Santeria, another black-magic religion.
"There's always been a certain interest in witchcraft in Venezuela because of our African and Indian roots," Troconis said, "but it has reached such proportions that it has become quite worrisome to us in the church."
Wagner Barreto, a Santeria priest in Caracas, said that Santeria had become increasingly popular in part because of the belief that President Hugo Chavez was a practitioner, although he'd denied it.
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