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Criminality and Evangelisms in the Favela: Ethnographical Notes from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Ana Beraldo, PhD, Sociology, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil/ Former Visiting Student, CLAS (2018–19)

Figure 1. Morro da Luz, picture taken by the author, April 2019

A Fortress of Crime

“We live in a fortress of crime,” said Thiago (pseudonym) as he tried to explain to me how daily life works for those who live in favelas. He is a 23-year-old black man who I met while conducting my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork at Morro da Luz (fictitious name), a large shantytown in the city of Belo Horizonte[i], Brazil. I myself grew up in the same city, in a middle-class neighborhood not far away from Morro da Luz, and yet I noticed that Thiago was making an effort to translate so that I could really grasp the reality he was portraying, at the same time so close and so distant from my own.

When Thiago described the favela as a “fortress of crime,” he was talking about how criminal groups, especially the ones involved in drug trafficking, create order in the territory by establishing moral parameters of rightness and fairness. Through actions such as punishing those that rob inside the community, killing socially recognized rapists, quickly taking sick people to the hospital, or making sure public service workers are well treated while performing duties that are important for neighborhood residents, criminals exert a governance that goes far beyond the limits of the criminal groups themselves and that regulates behaviors and relations in the peripheries in a broader sense.

Since these groups are heavily armed, their actions are anchored in the possibility of the use of force, and, not infrequently, in the actual use of it. But that alone would not be enough to form an effective criminal governance. Not just at Morro da Luz but in many similar places around Brazil and Latin America, criminal organizations have managed to successfully build for themselves a level of legitimacy that, although far from being total or hegemonic, is definitely significant.

Often enough, the governance exercised by criminal groups offers some protection—albeit in problematic ways —to a population vulnerable to many types of violence, from police brutality to insufficient access to rights. While there is a socially shared image of “favelados” (favela dwellers) as potentially dangerous people from whom the rest of society should be sheltered, and while this representation is deeply connected to security policies that are based on incarceration, persecution, and murder of this fraction of the population, criminal groups acting in those territories (whose members usually grew up in the same neighborhoods in which they now engage in illicit activities) are able to differentiate between the poor and act more accordingly to what is constructed as right. Thiago explains it once again: “Here there is no mugging, there is no rape, there is no this and that, but this is not because the police provides security for us, it is because the criminals don’t let it happen…we know that if it weren’t for them, things would be worse.”

A Battle against the Devil

As Thiago described those dynamics, he constantly emphasized that he does not approve of criminal activities nor does he agree with the violent ways in which criminal groups relate to each other, the police, and the community as a whole. As proof of that disagreement, he reminded me that he and his nine siblings grew up immersed in an evangelical environment, very much engaged with the activities of the church they attended on a daily basis— one among many scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Over the last five decades, Brazil has been experiencing important transformations, most strongly in the popular classes, both in regard to the religiosity of its people (with a reduction of Catholicism and a broadening of the evangelisms) and in regard to the dimensions and types of criminality and violence that characterize the country (with an expansion of illicit markets and an intensification of violent relations that are not exclusively, but considerably, related to those markets and to the ways they came to be structured in poor territories).

Interestingly, evangelical churches promote themselves precisely around the idea of a “battle against the devil,” and the devil, when it comes to places such as Morro da Luz, is profoundly linked to drug abuse and criminality. This has to do with Thiago’s argument that, since he was raised as a devoted evangelical, he could not agree with criminal activities. In Thiago’s claim, and in the discourses that circulate among poor Brazilian circles, crime and evangelism appear as rival sides of an everyday war for subjects and subjectivities. In that scenario, how can criminality and evangelism expand simultaneously in the same portion of the population?

Evangelisms in the Fortress of Crime

Figure 2. A pastor and an armed drug dealer talking, favela da Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Picture by Alan Lima, published October 19, 2017, available at

Through the ethnographic study I conducted in Morro da Luz, I identified that evangelisms and criminality are entangled, and that they connect with each other by two main phenomena: the conversion (from criminal, drug dealer, addict, to believer, evangelical, pastor)[ii] and the figure of the outlaw evangelical, increasingly common in the urban outskirts.[iii]

The converts experience a transformation of who they are, a construction of a new identity that is formed in opposition, but always attached, to the old one: they are and forever will be “ex-criminals,” “ex-traffickers,” “ex-addicts,” and so on. The converted bodies and presences in the favela seem to be signified as the living proof of the religious capacity of “salvation.”

At the same time, there are subjects that are “bandits” and “believers” who, while immersed in criminal networks, are also evangelical religious. In fact, for those who are inserted in illegal markets and in violent sociability, religious spaces can be one of the few places where they can take a break from the constant and tiring task of avoiding death[iv].

Both the convert and the criminal believer are usually very well received and integrated in evangelical temples and social relations. In my fieldwork in Morro da Luz, I realized that this is socially possible because the war the evangelisms are fighting is not between pastors and drug dealers, nor between religious and sinners, but between god and the devil. That is why Thiago could, at the same time, disapprove of criminality and recognize the criminals as a source of protection for the favela. The combat that goes on is otherworldly, transcendent. In the mundane sphere, they are all flawed humans, and, most importantly, they are all “favelados.”

[i] Belo Horizonte, a city with 2.5 million inhabitants, is located in the southeast of Brazil.

[ii] Also see: BRENNEMAN, R. “Wrestling the Devil: Conversion and Exist from Central American Gangs.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 112–128, 2014; and TEIXEIRA, C. A construção social do “ex-bandido.” [s.l.] Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2009.

[iii] See also: VITAL DA CUNHA, C. Oração de traficante: uma etnografia. 1. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Garamond LTDA, 2015.

[iv] See also: RUBIN, J. W., SMILDE, D., JUNGE, B. “Lived Religion and Lived Citizenship in Latin America’s Zone of Crisis: Introduction.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 7–26, 2014.


The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Daniela Gutiérrez Flores, PhD Student, Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies 

During the first half of the sixteenth century and before the establishment of the Inquisition in New Spain, idolatrous practices carried out by indigenous people were punished with extreme severity. This sparked a religious debate on how to deal with the newly converted subjects. American Indians, because they were considered ignorant new Christians, would be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, whose operations pertained only to mestizos, Africans, creoles and Spaniards. Instead, a tribunal was specifically created to attend to the indigenous population: the Provisorato de Indios.[1] 

Among the activities of this institution was the vigilance and extirpation of idolatry among indigenous peoples. The processes carried out by the Provisorato were commonly initiated by accusations made by individuals to fellow members of their community and, if grave, ended in an auto de fe. There were some cases, however, in which people turned themselves in. Such is the case of an indigenous woman who confessed to being a witch before Juan Ignacio Castorena y Ursúa, head of the Provisorato de Indios from 1709 to 1728.

The eighteenth century saw big changes in the configuration of Mexican cities. Indigenous people had formerly occupied the margins of urban spaces, but gradually, many of these villages were integrated into bigger cities. This resulted in the introduction of syncretic unorthodox religious practices into urban life, a situation that certainly troubled religious authorities. The Provisorato was a key institution in the attempt to suppress the heterodox religiosity of the “rustic” groups that suddenly erupted in the cities. This is the context surrounding this indigenous woman’s confession.

The confession is preserved in a 1736 manuscript I have recently begun to examine. Because it is a testimony in the first person, it serves as a fascinating window into colonial religious practices and the process of self-fashioning before ecclesiastic authority.

The woman begins by narrating her childhood. She was born, we are told, in a family with a long tradition in sorcery and witchcraft. While she was still a baby, her parents gave her away to Lucifer, who became her “nagual.” This syncretic representation of the devil takes us back to the first contact between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples, when practices such as nahualismo were amalgamated under Catholicism as evidence of the devil’s presence in the Americas. In the religion of the Ancient Mexicans, the term nahualli designates the spiritual companion or “alter ego” of a person, which usually takes the form of an animal.[2] From the beginning of her confession, the woman represents herself through duality. The devil is certainly an intrinsic part of who she is, but reason—and with it, the possibility of redemption—still lies within her.

She then goes on to tell us how Lucifer raised her: he taught her to walk, to dress, to make her bed. He gave her baby animals to play with and took her on walks through the maize fields. The devil is portrayed as a maternal loving figure, a “chichigua” (wet nurse) who nurtured her with knowledge about witchcraft, but also with practical everyday-life skills. Perhaps one of the most interesting characteristics of this testimony is precisely the connection drawn between the fantastic world of flying shape-shifting witches and the mundane life of common individuals. The devil and the witch, far from being esoteric figures, are placed here in the concrete, familiar contexts of colonial life.

When the woman grows older, she marries Lucifer in a big celebration in which guests danced to the dance of the Moors and the Christians (a traditional Spanish dance that enacts Christian domination over the Moors, but that in the Americas was adapted to dramatize the process of colonization). In this dance, our witch plays la Malinche—Hernán Cortés’s famous interpreter and mistress—and, thus, the devil plays the conquistador. Through this dramatization, both Cortés and La Malinche emerge as demonical figures. Her union to Lucifer mirrors that between Spaniards and Mexicans, symbolically making mestizos the offspring of a diabolical alliance.

As a wife, the witch gains deeper knowledge about demonic customs, acquiring higher powers and ascending in satanic hierarchy thanks to her superior talent. She recounts explicit tales about raping sleeping nuns, eating babies in tamales, using their blood to knead tortillas and even murdering her own mother at her father’s request (he had grown bored of her). She becomes the new head of her family and a sort of “First Lady” of the Satanic Church, accompanying Lucifer in his travels around the world.

Out of this document emerges a strong female voice that freely brags about her power and talent with deep pride. Her association with Lucifer allows her to occupy a position in society that is not typically reserved for women: she replaces patriarchal authority in her own family, annuls her maternity by eating her children, satisfies her sexual desires unrestrictedly and even challenges the authority of Lucifer himself. When demanded to sacrifice the only son she has ever been fond of, she protects the baby by offering him to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Reciprocally, the devil does not act according to “traditional” masculine roles. He helps women in domestic tasks—such as grinding nixtamal to make tortillas—so that they do not exhaust themselves with too much housework. At Lucifer’s side, the woman has radical liberties that she does not find in her earthly Christian marriage to an Indian cacique. With her human husband, who ignores her true identity, she says the “worm” of her desire has died and she feels condemned to die “dumb.”

How were all of these tales received by the authorities in the Provisorato de Indios? The final whereabouts of this witch are a question I have yet to answer. She may have been processed, or perhaps the gravity of her crimes was lessened by the fact that she confessed. Indeed, her insisting reiteration about her demonic lineage, along with her representation of confession as an act of rebellion against Satan, seems to constitute a strategy for attenuating her culpability. In representing herself as an ignorant, irrational woman who was “fooled” into worshiping the devil by her family, she would have been able to protect herself while simultaneously talking extensively about her past. Regardless of her final destiny, this unique document shows how colonial subjects manipulated existing religious discourse to negotiate their position in an ever-changing society.

[1] See Gerardo Lara Cisneros, ¿Ignorancia invencible?: superstición e idolatría ante el Provisorato de Indios y Chinos del Arzobispado de México en el siglo XVIII, UNAM: México D.F., 2014.

[2] See Roberto Martínez González, “Bruja y nahualli: versiones y perversiones en el proceso colonial,” Cyber Humanitatis, Universidad de Chile, Nº48 (Primavera 2008).

The Aesthetics of Communal Survival: Recasting the Relation between Santa Muerte and Violence

 Agnes Mondragon Celis Ochoa, PhD student, Anthropology 

Photo by Toni François

Santa Muerte, a folk saint so little known before the turn of the century—in a religious landscape mostly populated by centuries-old figures—has become widely present in the Mexican public sphere in the past few years and, just as quickly, has been associated with criminality and drug violence in the media. This association has depicted Santa Muerte’s followers not only as criminals themselves, 1 but also as engaging in illegitimate, even blasphemous, 2 devotional practices. While this mass-mediated association resonates with old, Porfirian-age and ultimately colonial discourses linking Mexican lower classes to criminality 3—which of course, says more about class hierarchies in Mexican society than about Santa Muerte devotees themselves—I consider there to be, indeed, a relation between this saint and violence that remains unexplored. By examining a collective ritual that takes place in Santa Muerte’s main shrine in the downtown slum of Tepito, Mexico City, I wish to explore one of the ways in which such a relation plays out.

Tepito is a neighborhood best known for its massive informal market—where, allegedly, one can buy commodities of all imaginable kinds—but is also remarkable for its strong communal identity, which claims a pre-Hispanic past and which was able to resist gentrification efforts by the local government 4. It seems to have harshly felt the well-known effects of neoliberalism: unprecedented flows of money (especially of illegal trades), greater inequality, harsher capitalist competition, and the violence this brings about. The practices surrounding Santa Muerte, I argue, are means through which this violence is collectively acknowledged, evaluated and addressed, while offering a space by which the community of devotees reminds itself of such a fact and (ritually) reconstructs social bonds, which are crucial for both collective and individual survival.

Photo by Saúl Ruiz

On the first day of the month, devotees gather around the Santa Muerte shrine well before the main ceremony. Many are seen close to their Santa Muerte icons, either because they are holding them in their arms [image 1] or because they have placed them over a piece of cloth on the floor, like small, improvised shrines [image 2]. All sorts of small objects—candies, toy bills, beaded bracelets—can be seen in people’s hands or adorning their statuettes. The objects are gifts brought and distributed by devotees in return for miracles granted by Santa Muerte. As has become customary, devotees bring many such objects, which indicates the magnitude of the intended repayment. Devotees will offer them as gifts to several of the numerous Santa Muerte statuettes gathered on that day—insofar as all are equally indexes of the same Santa Muerte. While offering the saint her gratitude, however, it becomes unclear whether the recipient of the gift is Santa Muerte or (also) the devotee carrying the icon. Moreover, the gift is usually accompanied by a que te cuide y te proteja, “may she look after and protect you”, whose target is clearly a fellow devotee. In this way, the gift giver is demonstrating Santa Muerte’s efficacy to the recipient and encouraging others to engage in or maintain relations with her. As anthropologist Timothy Knowlton shows for a similar ritual, [5. Timothy Knowlton, “Inscribing the Miraculous Place: Writing and Ritual Communication in the Chapel of a Guatemalan Popular Saint”, Linguistic Anthropology, 25(3), December 2015] these individual communicative acts, superimposed on each other—as can be seen in the accumulation of gifts adorning the statuettes [image 1]—constitute and help sustain this collective devotion overtime.

But there is more to this. Gift giving, one of the classical concerns in anthropology, has been found to be at the very foundation of sociality, as acts that inaugurate (or, in our case, reestablish) social bonds and that carry the obligation to reciprocate. Following Nancy Munn, 5 a gift may initiate a reciprocal transaction, and thus a social bond—a connection between the two persons involved where the gift giver is constituted and remembered as a generous person and her action reciprocated through a return gift sometime in the future.

This logic of reciprocity, although inverted, appears in devotional practices through which Santa Muerte followers attempt to harm others, to retaliate against others’ abuses of power or to counteract a competitor’s conspicuous economic success, situations that have become increasingly common, as mentioned, in recent years. The possibility to engage in these harmful practices, however, comes with a warning: Santa Muerte takes a loved one if a devotee fails to repay a favor. In other words, Santa Muerte takes revenge by mirroring the devotee’s harmful act, and thus breaking this devotee’s network of social bonds in the same way that she mirrors a devotee’s thankful repayment by creating a new social bond through gift giving, as the ritual above describes.

Knowledge about Santa Muerte’s revengefulness, for devotees, is thus a recurrent reminder about the perils of destroying social relations. Communal ritual practices not only result from the collective acknowledgment that a network of friends and kin is fundamental for everyday survival—especially in communities that have faced the hardships of poverty 6—but also that violence is ultimately unsustainable for social life. Santa Muerte followers then gather once a month in order to ritually suture back these severed bonds. In this way, the community becomes an agent that sustains itself into the future.

  3. See Ricardo Pérez Montfort, coord., Hábitos, normas y escándalo: prensa, criminalidad y drogas durante el porfiriato tardío, Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1997
  4. See Alfonso Hernández and Laura Roush, “The Vita-migas of Tepito”, Ethnology, 47 (2/3), Spring/Summer 2008: 89-93; Diane E. Davis, “Zero-Tolerance Policing, Stealth Real Estate Development, and the Transformation of Public Space: Evidence from Mexico City”, Latin American Perspectives, March 2013: 53-76
  5. Nancy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992
  6. See Mercedes González de la Rocha, The Resources of Poverty: Women and Survival in a Mexican City, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994; Hernández and Roush, op. cit.