Mexico in thrall to sorcery as 11 die

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Nearly a dozen deaths were traced to the practice - or malpractice - of witchcraft in central Mexico last week, yet there was no public outcry against charlatans.

Nearly a dozen deaths were traced to the practice - or malpractice - of witchcraft in central Mexico last week, yet there was no public outcry against charlatans.

The botched exorcism of a troubled teenager in Tetla, a town in the central state of Tlaxcala, left seven people suffocated, including the exorcist. Days later, four more people were found dead on the floor of a witches' chamber in Toluca Valley, an easy drive from Mexico City.

Veronica Velazquiez, 43, was convinced that a spiteful neighbour had put a curse on her. She sought out her town's most powerful curanderas and requested a ritual cleansing. Her brother-in-law was intrigued and came along last Monday to watch what proved to be her final session with the Gutierrez sisters of San Bunaventura.

For the sisters, Blanca and Adriana, the scented smoke from the herbs they tossed on the embers was as essential for the rites as a black fowl or holy water. But they apparently miscalculated how air-tight their room was on a thundery night, and no one survived.

Police attributed all 11 deaths to carbon monoxide poisoning. In both cases the source was a charcoal brazier used in a shuttered room.

In his grief, Veronica's widower is uncertain whether asphyxiation wasn't the message selected by his late wife's unvanquished demon.

Before long, he is likely to tap the power of another one of the thousands of seers, shamans, healers and witches who ply their magic in market places across Mexico. Believers are seldom dismissed as cranks, and the irrational is embraced by the educated and by devout Catholics alike.

Edna Hernandez, a cyber surfer, admitted sheepishly,: "Witches bite your flesh. Sometimes when you get up in the morning, and you look at your body, you have a mark. Sometimes that happens to me."

She said the healer's remedies have become important cultural underpinnings. "Using these remedies is another way of curing yourself without having to go to the doctor," she said. "It is more common in older folks - young people tend to believe in science."

Almost every market place has at least one healer. One might expect to find a contemporary version of Carlos Castaneda's wizened shaman Don Juan, but in town markets pudgy Mestizo women pedal magic soaps alongside jimson (thorn apple) weed and dirt clods taken from crossroads.

Aztec witches were notorious in the 16th century for concocting unguents from special plants to fortify or anaesthetise their bodies in ways that confounded the Spanish Conquistadors.

Special soaps which promise to help the user to "Dominate My Man" or "Shut Up The Voice" or summon "Seven Macho Men" sell for six pesos each (about 40p) and are a direct link to such Aztec ointments.

They are easy enough to unwrap and slip into an unsuspecting victim's soap dish, but most buyers use the suds themselves. There also is an all purpose anti-witchcraft bar, but the most popular one promotes love.

Since shape-changing Mexican witches supposedly can appear as vultures, owls, butterflies, whirlwinds, comets, or incandescent red balls, identifying them poses a problem. But if a market stall has a queue of preoccupied people idling in front, it could well be run by a curandero.

In Catemaco, a lakeside town in Veracruz state, 13 sorcerers now tout themselves as "The Brotherhood", and even the regional tourist office extols their powers.

Dressed like Las Vegas crooners in lurid nylon and gold chains, "The Brotherhood" insist they are guardians of secret rites. Acolytes call them masters, and local inn owners, reaping a bonanza of bookings with so many New Age revivalists and tourists flocking into town, have grown to respect their black magic.

But it can have sad consequences. After 15-year-old Jose Lopez Vazquez died during his attempted exorcism, his mother is inconsolable. "The only thing we want is to clear up the death of Jose," Agustina Vazquez said.

But this distraught family is likely to consult a witch to find the answer.