Sacrifice Zone

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Gonzalez, too, is an Espiritista. He prays to his "guardians" every week, he says, and they don't need permission to visit behind bars.

"When you become a santero, you have to have one," he says of the spiritual guides. "In this case, I have Ochun. She's like a guardian angel. The spirit is different. Santeria deals mostly in the material. The spirits deal mostly with the soul.

"I have my spirits guiding me," Gonzalez continues. "There was a guy here a few years ago -- he was this black guy, not involved in the religion, and he told me that he saw something by my cell door. A male and a female. He described them perfectly to me, and he had never seen them. Some people can see and other people can't. It's a gift from God. Not everybody has it."

And not everyone listens. "My spirits don't feel good seeing me here in prison," Gonzalez admits. "They advised me not to do some things, but I didn't listen. I have learned a lesson the hard way."

Alexis Aguila has been a santero for thirty years and has owned Botanica Ochun, just south of downtown, for fifteen. He offers spiritual consultations -- about $70,000 worth a year.

"You can curse someone, but those curses don't go anywhere," he says. "It only works if you're into satanism or if you see a palero or someone like that, then you can do some bad things." A palero is a person who works with the darker forces of Santeria.

"Witchcraft is very mental," Aguila continues. "The mental state of someone makes the curse or spell come true. For example, someone might tell you that such and such has placed a spell on you. And then some people may come here and will say that another adviser has told them that such and such placed a curse on them. But I will use the caracoles to tell them that they don't have a curse on them. I can very easily charge them a lot of money to remove that alleged curse, but I won't do that. There's nothing wrong with them. It's all in their head."

He excuses himself to greet a woman carrying a small, sickly child in her arms. He directs her to the back of his shop. "There are some things the religion can control, but other things that it cannot control," Aguila says as he steps out of sight.

During their morning session with the chaplains, Ramirez and Garcia talk about everything from saints to curses. "If you want somebody to die, somebody to disappear, you go see a palero," Ramirez says. "There are no paleros here." But he leaves no doubt that if one were needed, he could find one.

Kennedy, who has been consulting the training manual he brought with him, has another question. At his prison, santeros are demanding to wear white and only white for one year. "Can they wear something else?" he asks.

Even non-reformist Garcia is willing to bend here. He tells Kennedy that the santeros can wear white for several hours, then change into their inmate uniforms.

According to DU professor Raschke, the secretiveness of Santeria has caused many of its followers problems; because of its emphasis on sacrifices, Santeria is often confused with demonic religions and black magic. But the more people learn about Santeria, the more it's recognized as a legitimate religion.

"It is growing because people want to know what it is," Garcia says. "They think it's witchcraft, but it's not. "That's why they're here, to learn about it," he adds, pointing at the chaplains.

As the session ends, Ramirez hands out business calendars and cards to the class, the first of three BOP groups that will pass through his store this year. Santeria is a religion, but for him, it's also a business.

A chaplain has one last question. Does Ramirez accept government credit cards?

Ramirez smiles. "Oh, yes."

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Steve Alvarez

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