CARACAS, Venezuela — Bougainvillea shade the pathways at the Cementerio General del Sur, where the mausoleums of statesmen and movie stars stand next to the graves of aristocrats and thousands of commoners. Sculpted lions gaze down from sepulchers. Elegance, not anarchy, once defined this resting place.
Now, crypts for once-feared military rulers have been ransacked. Coffins, twisted open with crowbars, lie strewn under samán trees. Cages with padlocked gates surround the burial sites of some families, as if that might protect them from a disturbing reality: not even Caracas’s city of the dead is safe.
Accompanying Venezuela’s soaring levels of murders and kidnappings, its cemeteries are the setting for a new kind of crime wave. Grave robbers are looting them for human bones, answering demand from some practitioners of a fast-growing transplanted Cuban religion called Palo that uses the bones in its ceremonies.
Critics contend the cemetery bedlam reflects a societal breakdown in which impunity is widespread. Violent crime and police corruption in the country are pervasive even as President Hugo Chávez is calling for the creation of a “new man” as part of his socialist-inspired revolution.
“The cemetery has become an iconic emblem of our national tragedy,” said Fernando Coronil, a respected Venezuelan anthropologist. “In our daily struggle to maintain a civil order against multiple transgressions against property and propriety, not even the dead can now rest in peace.”
Nowhere is the bone traffic thriving as in the Cementerio del Sur, as the necropolis founded in 1876 by the Francophile despot Antonio Guzmán Blanco is known. The grandeur of its tombs evokes, for some, Père Lachaise in Paris.
“I still cannot comprehend how this happened,” said Jesús Blanco, 42, a horse trainer who went into despair in February when he visited the grave of his father, Melecio, and found the coffin pried open and his entire skeleton missing.
Many families have given up on visiting the cemetery entirely. During the day, drunken thugs roam its passageways on foot or on motorbikes, sometimes assaulting visitors. The cemetery’s gruesome crimes, like a murder-suicide in November, fill newspaper crime pages.
Sullen police officers milling about the cemetery’s entrance do little against the disorder, said Armando Regalado, head of Aprofamiliares, a citizens’ group formed last year to protest the trade in human bones.
“The police are there to insult and intimidate, and to ignore the abuses they see every day,” said Mr. Regalado, whose son, shot dead three years ago at age 21, is buried in an area of the cemetery called El Artista. Sixteen skulls were reported stolen from caskets there this year.
The police grew alert on a recent morning when journalists appeared at the gate of the government-controlled cemetery with a permit to do interviews. They said the permit was worthless, and requested a bribe of 1,000 bolívars, about $464, to let the work proceed. They met a refusal to pay with a shrug.
José Francisco Ceballo, a former manager of the Cementerio del Sur, caused a stir in May when he said the cemetery was “in chaos.” That month, he said, inspectors found at least 475 coffins looted of remains.
Not much seems to have changed since then, despite pledges to clean up the cemetery, said Roman Catholic priests who oversee funerals and mourners who visit. Some taxi drivers refuse to enter its grounds, or do so only on the condition that they are escorted by armed guards.
Carolina Sanoja, Mr. Ceballo’s successor as cemetery director, declined to be interviewed.
Practitioners here of Palo contend their religion is misunderstood and demonized because of the reports of chaos at the Cementerio del Sur.
They acknowledged the importance in their religion of human bones, which they place in a cauldron called a nganga, along with earth and sticks, and dedicate to a spirit, or mpungu. But paleros, as the religion’s adherents are known, shield many of their practices from outsiders.
“We must take care since it is easy to blame paleros for all the ills of Venezuela,” said Samuel Zambrano, 34, a palero leader.
“Is every Catholic to blame for a few bad priests?” he asked. “Hypocrisy and hatred are abundant, especially among those without respect and understanding for our beliefs.”
Mr. Zambrano, echoing other paleros, said the officials administering the Cementerio del Sur were responsible for the lack of controls that made possible a black market in human bones. Skulls cost as much as $2,000 and femurs about $450, according to media reports here.
Some whose relatives’ bones were stolen blame Mr. Chávez’s government, because it has brought thousands of Cuban political advisers here this decade. But religion specialists say Palo’s migration to Venezuela, and its evolution here with strong Venezuelan influences, predates Mr. Chávez’s rise to power.
“Palo probably first arrived in Venezuela with the first wave of Cubans fleeing the revolution in the early 1960s and has been bolstered with the more recent influx,” said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Latin American religions at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In Palo, bones represent ancestors and spirits of the dead. Because they contain the spiritual energy of the dead, the more powerful the people were in life, the stronger the bones, Mr. Chesnut said.
Hence the lure of remains found in ornate mausoleums. Looters at the tomb of Joaquín Crespo, a general who ruled Venezuela in the 1890s, broke into not only its interior, but also the graves of his descendants outside.
The scene of destruction is repeated throughout the cemetery, which is connected by dirt paths to hillside slums.
Milvia Santos still shakes when she describes how she felt on Mother’s Day when she went to visit her mother’s grave, only to find her coffin broken and her skull missing.
“At that moment, I felt like I wanted to leave this world,” said Ms. Santos, 40, a public servant. “Then I realized what could happen to my body if I died,” she said, “and I sat down to cry.”