Grave Robbing Bone Collectors: Is it a Cult?

Earlier last month there was a story about an ongoing investigation into a gang of human fat harvesters who were murdering victims in order to steal the fat from their bodies to sell to cosmetics companies.  After that turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by the police in Peru, a new crime spree appears to be hitting South America -this time in Venezuela.  It seems someone is going around digging up corpses and stealing their bones, raising the question: why on Earth would someone need the bones of someone who died long ago, but not long enough to be archaeologically significant?

Normally grave robbers do so in order to take jewelry buried with the deceased.  It’s strange to note, however, that in these cases the bones of the victims were stolen, often leaving behind jewelry, gold teeth, and even money.  As a result, many are blaming either the black market or a group of lone individuals.  And the religious Palo population is most certainly not considered above suspicion.  It is, however, unfortunate that these allegations are coming out without evidence.  The political climate in Venezuela is still tumultuous as Hugo Chavez is being blamed indirectly for the grave robberies.  It’s said that Chavez brought in several thousand Palo, or Palero advisors when he came to power.

Palero borrows heavily from several religions, and is a mixture of Christianity and voodoo with influences from many countries across the globe.  It has gained in popularity in Venezuala, particularly.  The rituals involved in the religion do sometimes call for human remains, but many Palero leaders are speaking out against the baseless claims that they are responsible.  Even so, it’s following a cultural shift that may be at once hostile and sympathetic to the growing Palero population.

Several religious leaders of the Palero community have declared that blaming their religion for the acts of a small minority who have not even been confirmed yet is, to say the least, irresponsible.  They contend that the demonization of the Paleros is largely a political move by opponents to the current regime.  In the Palero religion human bones are sometimes placed in a cauldron, or nganga, and sacrificed to a mpungu or spirit along with earth and sticks for some specific rituals.

So what alternatives are there?  Anything short of human remains being used by a different group for religious ceremonies or another cosmetics claim requires a bit of imagination.  After the fallout of the Peruvian fat harvester hoax perpetrated earlier this year, morbid stories of human remains being harvested and sold are being scrutinized much more closely than they previously were.  Still, it is clear that bones are turning up missing and the graves of many previously revered political figures are turning up exhumed.  And the trend is showing no signs of slowing down.  Even authorities are finding it difficult to solve this one as ghoulish remnants of the robberies are the only clues they have been able to ascertain.  A crowbar in one location rests next to a completely bent and torn open crypt door where several skeletons are missing bones and the remains are scattered throughout the room.  A skull on the Venezuelan black market reportedly can sell for as much as $1,600.