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Skull Cops and the Cult of the Ñatitas

Fighting crime and working miracles on the streets of La Paz

Skull Cop

Illustration by Etienne Gilfillan


Early on the morning of Sunday, 8 November, the Quinones family of La Paz, Bolivia, was preparing to go to church. Standing alongside their battered Toyota Cressida, Maria Quinones (right) scolded her husband. “No, remember, Tuco likes the front seat!” She opened the back door and moved little Tuco to the front, then announced that she would ride in the back with Juancho and Dieguito. With everyone in place, the old car lumbered down a cobble­stone street destined for the chapel. In predominantly Catholic Bolivia there is nothing particularly unusual about such a Sunday morning ritual, except that on this particular Sunday the family in question was more dead than alive: Tuco, Juancho, and Diegito are all human skulls, the mortal remains of Maria’s paternal grand­father and two of her uncles.

The skulls in the Quinones’s car are known as ñatitas – the term literally means “the little pug-nosed ones”, but it refers to human skulls which house the souls of the deceased, and act as protectors, helpers, and intermediaries for the living. The skulls – sometimes of known identity and passed down through the family, other times anonym­ous, and taken from cemeteries – are adopted by individuals or families who perform rituals in their honour in exchange for the supernatural assistance of the soul. In the home, they are typically kept in shrines and communicate through dreams or visions. Offerings involving candles, coca leaves and cigarettes are made to them every week – Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays are common ritual days. Reviled by local Catholic authorities, the cult of ñatitas has nonetheless not only persevered but grown substantially over the last two decades, gaining devotees at all levels of local society.

For most adherents, ñatitas provide luck and help ensure domestic tranquillity. Small businessmen and street vendors are fond of them as an aid to economic success; they might even double as a kind of bank, with money placed within the jaws to protect curr­ent assets and ensure future growth. Many in La Paz consider a ñatita to be the best form of private security. Maria Paz Mezillones used to own a store, and recalled how a door was accidentally left unlocked one night, and prowlers entered – when she returned the next morning it was pushed all the way open. “But nothing was taken or disturbed, because we kept our ñatita Pedro there as a guard,” she recalls. “Pedro is much more effect­ive than a guard dog!” The relatives of Jorge Olmedo also used a ñatita, Jose Maria, to protect their home. He recalls that they told him how the ñatita did not recognise his uncle once when he tried to enter the house, and the spirit seized him and he almost died of fright. “I thought it sounded silly. They said, ‘You don’t believe us? OK, we’ll send him to you, two nights from tonight, at 3:00 am.’ Two nights later, I woke with a sudden start. I didn’t know why, and then in the distance I suddenly heard three faint chimes from the bells of the church.”

Such examples demonstrate only the more quotidian powers of the ñatitas. There are also numerous testimon­ials to the miraculous effects of some skulls. Ana Guzman is a hospital nurse who recalls that years ago an older nurse owned a powerful ñatita with healing abilities. “In critical cases, when the treatment of the physicians was ineffective, the ñatita would be brought to the hospital and we made offerings and asked it to give aid. Frequently people who were thought to be lost were cured – it was considerably more effective than the doctors.” Event­ually, image-conscious administrators ordered that the skull be kept off the premises, “but many of the physicians still requested it be brought in secretly to assist them.”

In a barrio of La Paz, Doña Ana is renowned for her collection of 10 miracle-working ñatitas, each expert in different fields. One, Angel, is famous for his ability to cure illness and help people with insoluble problems – his prowess is substantiated by a collection of letters of thanks not just from Bolivia, but from all over the world: “I have letters from Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and the United States,” she reports with pride, “from people who have come here, or have had friends come and pray to Angel on their behalf.” Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, an anthropologist at the Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore, began believing in the skulls’ powers after four ñatitas housed at the museum were moved due to a construction project, but without proper rituals. Afterwards, in the room from which they had been taken, there was an accident – and four construct­ion workers were killed. The museum staff then held a ceremony on behalf of the quartet of skulls, offering food and drink as appeasement; there have been no problems since.

Despite its prominence, this cult of miraculous skulls is of mysterious origin. The ñatitas are confined to Bolivia – the term itself is a local one – and even here they are associated almost exclusively with La Paz. Most Bolivian anthropo­logists believe its roots are pre-Columbian, but there are no ancient precedents which exactly correlate to the present belief system. The earliest records which conform to the current practices date to the early 20th century, and imply that the emergence of the ñatitas is in fact due to a syncretism between indigenous beliefs and a local fixation on the more magical aspects of Catholicism. Indeed, the adherents of the ñatitas uniformly insist they are Catholic and, despite the condemn­ation of the Church, see no conflict in the use of their skulls.

Some within the Church acknowledge a relationship exists. Julio Cesar Quenta Llanes, the Secretario de la Capilla del Cementerio General whose chapel is in many ways ground zero for the phenom­enon, adopts an apologetic attitude towards the cult. “You cannot call them pagans – if they were, they would not come to the church, they would not also be devoted to Christ and the Virgin,” he explains. “They have no ill intentions, but perhaps have mistaken the object of their faith.” He sees the phenomenon as rooted in the local fabric of religious life. Even if it is problematic for the Church, “one has to place the ñatitas in the religious reality of the region. While the essence of doctrine is the same everywhere, local customs create this syncretism… the Catholic religion, particularly in Bolivia, is very symbolic… we need palpable symbols here, and for many people the ñatitas fill this need.”

The ñatitas are indeed palpable symbols, and at no time more so than on 8 November – the Quinones family was not the only one loading skulls into their car that Sunday morning. This is the annual Fiesta de las Ñatitas, the highest holiday for those who believe in the powers of the skulls. The adherents were going to local ceme­teries, and for most the destination was Llanes’s Chapel in the Cemetery General. The Fiesta is held a week after All Saints and All Souls Days, at the end of the Octave of the Dead. Adherents do not commem­orate the deceased, however; rather, they celebrate the power of the deceased to affect the living, and give thanks to their ñatitas with special offerings and rituals. Most important is the desire that the skulls be able to hear a Mass and receive a benediction. The rituals associated with this day are essential. “This is our chance to show gratitude for the services provided by our ñatitas,” Maria Quinones explains. “To not take them to the cemetery chapel would be disrespectful. But this gives us great joy, since it is an opportunity to both thank them and celebrate the special relationship we have.”

The result is a truly remarkable relig­ious service: several hundred people push their way into the chapel at 8:00am, jockeying for position, with their skulls placed either next to the altar or in rows in front of the pews, and await the reluct­ant appearance of a priest to lead them in prayer. Afterwards, the crowd files out and sets up camp on the cemetery grounds, creating a vibrant panoply of altars dedicated to their skulls, at which further offerings are made. Up to 10,000 may congregate at the Cemetery General; many do not own their own ñatita but hope, on this day, to beg assistance from the skulls of others. During the Fiesta, the ñatitas arrive in style, in carved shrines or carried in litt­ers. They are crowned by wreaths of flowers, and cotton is pressed into their eye sockets to provide them with sight. Some are given wool hats to ward off the morning chill, or dark glasses to protect them from the sun. Devotees offer cigarettes and candles, and some stroll among the crowd with bags of flowers, dropping handfuls among the skulls as homage. The ñatitas might also be displayed with images of Catholic saints or other esteemed personages – in the case of Gonzalo Ruiz-Morales, a street vendor in La Paz, his two ñatitas are carried in alongside photos of Che Guevara, Saddam Huss­ein and Osama bin Laden. “On this day of offering, I hope that the skulls will remember and assist the people in the world who fight against oppression,” he explains. As this tableau unfolds, entertainment is provided by musicians who stroll the grounds, playing songs to edify the skulls.

Back at the Diocese office, on the other hand, the skulls are anything but a cause for celebration. Archbishop Edmundo Abastoflor has attempted to curtail the belief in their powers, and officially declared the ñatitas to be a “non-Christian cult”. Such declarations have given him, according to Maria Quinones, “an aspect of Uncle Scrooge”. Nonetheless, “the position of the Church is clear,” Llanes explains, “it does not recognise the Fiesta de las Ñatitas as a Catholic practice, and therefore it is not officially celebrated here.” Moreover, he insists that despite conceptions to the contrary, Mass has never been offered to the skulls, nor is it allowable. “The chapel does not provide Masses, but rather only a standard bene­diction and a lecture on the scripture” intended to educate people on more acceptable Catholic forms of venerat­ion for the dead. Llanes claims that the belief that Masses and blessings are available for the ñatitas during the Fiesta has caused people to mistakenly believe that the cult is condoned.

To counter this misconception, the Church took definitive action in 2008 – resulting in a dramatic showdown with the ñatitas and their adherents. The Archbishop’s office issued a statement prior to the Fiesta that the veneration of skulls was not in accord with the Faith; it was further decreed that neither Masses nor blessings would be given in either the cemetery chapel or any parish church. Undeterred, the faithful assembled in the cemetery on 8 November, only to find the chapel empty of personnel, and notices posted about the blasphemy in which they were participating. The crowd waited in the hopes that the Church would reverse its stand, but by 11:00am things started to get ugly. “They took this as a condemnation of their faith,” Llanes recalls. “Realising there would be no celebration, they blocked the chapel and the avenue in front of the cemetery in protest.” An estimated 5,000 people event­ually took to the streets, hoisting human skulls in the air, blocking traffic, and chanting the battle cry, “We want Mass!” Police reinforcements were called in to confront the skull-toting mob.  “I thought there was going to be a riot,” recalls Ruiz-Morales, who was among the instigators of the protest. “Troops were arriving. But the power of the ñatitas showed itself that day – the personnel of the chapel relented, and chose to appease the souls.”  Besides, he adds with irony, “how could the police stand against the ñatitas when they themselves use them!”

Yes, in La Paz even the police use ñatitas. Fausto Tellez is a colonel in FELCC (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen, the national police agency), and the former commandant of the Homicide Division in the El Alto district. He freely explains that it is typical for police divisions to possess at least two ñatitas; it is even claimed they own the skull of former president Mariano Melgarejo, who died in 1871, which serves as a special advisor. In the case of the homicide division, the skulls are named Juanito and Juanita. Tellez calls Juanito “the longest serving officer” in homicide. “He has been there for so long that I don’t think anyone knows exactly when he arrived. I believe he has been there for at least 100 years.” Juanita, meanwhile, arrived in the 1950s. The pair are kept on an altar in the office of the current commandant, Jose Saavedra Cruz, where they wear knitted caps, and wideband sunglasses to protect them from being bothered by glare from the window on the other side of the room. Together, they have the ability to gather evidence that a human detective may not have access to.

“The use of the skulls varies according to the division and commander,” Tellez says. “In the past, some commanders were more inclined to use them and some less; at one time, Juanito and Juanita were deposited and not used at all. Presently, officers in homicide make offerings and perform rituals to the skulls daily, and on Tuesdays and Fridays they are asked for assistance and information.” It is worth noting that photos of Juanita for this article were taken on a Friday, and indeed they were briefly interrupted when a detective came in and, on his knees, said a prayer in which Juanita was invoked by name. Some divisions, according to Tellez, employ mediums who can communicate directly with the skulls, but in homicide Juanito and Juanita provide aid which might be considered psychosomatic. “The skulls are asked for specific assistance but do not give a verbal reply; they use their powers to set up conditions whereby important clues which would otherwise be hidden can be found.”

Tellez estimates that the use of the skulls cuts investigative time in half, and they are also of incalculable aid in interro­gations. “They are brought in during the questioning of difficult people; even if they want to lie, they cannot if the skulls are present. When the skulls are involved, people always tell the truth.” Debunkers, obviously, claim that especially during interrogation the success of the skulls is due to a psychological effect rather than supernatural power. “Of course, many local people are afraid of the skulls and would not lie in front of them,” Tellez acknow­ledges, “so there is a psychology involved – even the threat of the skull can cause them to confess.” But he believes their effect is ultimately a matter of something more. “Scientifically, I cannot know if it is more psychology or the supernatural. I believe it is a mixture of both, and people here agree that there is power in the skulls. The simple fact is that when the skulls are used in police work, cases are solved faster.”

The power of the skulls owned by the police is especially necessary because the criminals employ their own, which could render normal investigative tools useless. “There can be good and bad uses of the same phenomenon, even the use of the ñatitas,” Tellez explains. “It is the same as white magic versus black magic. The criminals also use the skulls to ask for supernatural help; in their case, to throw us off their tracks.” An article from 5 July 2009 in local newspaper La Prensa reported on a band of car thieves. When they were arrested, the police found in their hideout a room with four skulls on an altar and an old woman who was charged with making offerings to them on behalf of the thieves. Tellez calls such rites among local criminals “typical”. In fact, “some have even attempted to turn the skulls of the police to their own ends. When I was in homicide, there were instances when people would sneak in, and we would find them burning black candles and praying in front of our ñatitas, and we would have to chase them out.”

As commander of homicide, Saavedra Cruz has continued the use of Juanito and Juanita, and agrees that the rituals dedic­ated to them should be continued. Asked if there are officers assigned to take them to the annual Fiesta, he indicates that the holiday is instead celebrated at head­quarters, with a priest coming to offer a private Mass. Doña Ana, faced with moving 10 miraculous skulls, says the same: a priest comes to her residence and offers a private Mass for her ñatitas among a crowd of their followers. She even shows off printed invitations to the event. Private Masses offered to select skulls are, in fact, in total violation of the Archbishop’s decree – they occur nonetheless.

Local priests who cater to the ñatitas prefer not to be publicly identified, to avoid the ire of their superiors, but there are several among even the clergy who believe in the miraculous power of the skulls. Among them is “Padre P”, who is aware of the diocese’s stance, yet still performed four private Masses on 8 November. “No, I don’t see a conflict between the Church and the ñatitas – for centuries in Europe, there have been confraternities dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, praying to them, receiving communications, and even recording miracles. To me, this is exactly the same phenomenon; I just associate the souls inhabiting the skulls as those from Purgatory.” So even he, a Catholic priest, believes in the power of the ñatitas? “Yes, how could I not?” he laughs, and reveals with a smile: “I have one of my own – it helped me through the seminary!”

Back at the Diocese office, it seems that Uncle Scrooge is in a fight he just can’t win.

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Skull Cop - fiesta 3

All decked out for the Fiesta de las Ñatitas

  Skull Cop - fiesta 2

All decked out for the Fiesta de las Ñatitas

  Skull Cop - fiesta 1

All decked out for the Fiesta de las Ñatitas

Skull Cop - maria

Maria Quinones

  Skull Cop - church

A ñatita on its way to the church

  Skull Cops - dona ana

Just three of Doña Ana's miracle-working skulls

Skull Cop - in church

Celebrants with their skulls at church for the annual special service

  Skull Cop - cemetery

A ñatita at the cemetery for the celebrations

Skull Cop - skull cop

Juanita, used by the police to solve crimes

Author Biography
Paul Koudounaris lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches Baroque Art History. He has spent recent years preparing material for a book about surviving charnel houses and bone-decorated chapels in Europe and South America.


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