Animal sacrifice all in a day’s work

Thu, Jun 5, 2008

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Animal sacrifice all in a day’s work

Police get lessons in religious rituals

BY DAVID OVALLE | The Miami Herald | Apr. 16, 2003

When Miami-Dade County police were called to a home in South Miami-Dade, they found people slicing up chunks of goat meat and plucking feathers from chickens. Blood spattered the feet of some of those in the house.

”You’re killers! You’re all going to jail!” one officer yelled as the elderly residents began to panic.

The commotion and threats didn’t end until a call was made to a local anthropologist and a police detective who explained to the officers on the scene that what they had encountered was a routine and legal Santería ritual.

No arrests were made and police left.

The followers of religions whose practices such as animal sacrifices, the casting of spells and use of ”magic” powders can seem alien to many officers.

”We really need more cultural sensitivity,” said Jackie Ben, a longtime Santería priestess. “Officers need to be educated in all these religions. Many of them tend to think that being a part of this religion means you are involved in criminal activity.”

Hoping to promote greater sophistication among South Florida law enforcement agencies, anthropologist Rafael Martinez and Nelson Reyes, a North Miami Beach police detective, led a weeklong course on ritualistic religions at Miami police headquarters last month.

Officers from around the county learned about Santería, Palo Mayombe and Haitian vodou, religions with roots in Africa fused with Christian traditions. The influx of exiles and other immigrants has brought tens of thousands of practitioners in these religions to South Florida.


The first day of the class, Martinez and Reyes laid artifacts on a table in a training room of Miami police headquarters: a three-foot high doll found in the bushes of Sewell Park, on the Miami River near the Orange Bowl, dressed in red and black. Machetes used in rituals of Palo Mayombe — a Congo religion which worships the dead — still smelling of chickens. Seashell-studded heads of Elegua, an important Santería deity.

The vast array of artifacts surprised Assistant State Attorney Stephen ImMasche, a longtime Miami resident who knew only casually about the mix between old African faiths and Christian iconography.

Now, he can rattle off the names of Santería deities such as Ogun and Changó.

Like many who have taken the class over the years, ImMasche has dealt with the religions sporadically because he did not how to recognize the faiths.

”I’ve had cases where people were hesitant to talk about it but I didn’t explore it,” said ImMasche, who specializes in domestic violence.

“And I didn’t explore it because I didn’t have that knowledge to cross the cultural barrier.”

Ben, the Santería priestess, visited on the third day of class. Officers need to respect the religions, she said, as they would Christianity or Judaism.

For example, Ben said, some Santería ceremonies cost in excess of $5,000.

And at these ceremonies, officers may encounter worshipers in a trance. To the santeros, the worshiper is possessed by an orisha, or deity.

Martinez teaches officers to not directly question the possessed person, but to ask an elder priest to break the trance — or ”dismiss” the orisha. Otherwise, it may offend the practitioners.

”Many times, officers are judging the rituals according to their perceptions, their upbringing as Christians,” Martinez said. “They immediately equate it to devil

There are up to 100,000 Santería practitioners in South Florida, according to Mercedes Sandoval, a professor of anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College.


Born among the slave population of colonial Cuba, the religion combines elements of Catholicism with practices of African nations. It not only outlived slavery, it spread among Cubans of all backgrounds.

In South Florida communities, even more people have become initiates — including many non-Hispanics and even some police officers, Martinez said.

Sandoval said it is harder to estimate the number of practitioners of Palo Mayombe or Haitian vodou because these faiths are much more secretive.

Martinez estimates that the number of those who worship Palo Mayombe, or paleros — perhaps about 30,000 — has grown exponentially with Santería because many people practice both faiths.

The number of practitioners of Haitian vodou also likely has grown to the tens of thousands, Martinez said.

About the religions

• SANTERIA: Brought to the Caribbean by slaves, it is a mix of Christian and West African native faiths. A 1993 Supreme Court ruling protects animal sacrifice in the religion as long as the goats and chickens are cut in a precise part of the neck, similar to the way kosher meat is prepared.

• PALO MAYOMBE: With origins in the Congo basin, it is considered darker than Santería because worshipers believe they are empowered by the remains of the dead. Those remains are kept in an urn called the Nganga. Remains often are brought into the United States illegally or stolen from graves.

• HAITIAN VODOU: It is also considered more mysterious than Santería. Ceremonies often include machetes as props and magic powders. During the faith’s day of the dead, worshipers often dress up as Baron Samedi, the deity of death.

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