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Mexican Town Hosts Annual Congress of Witches

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Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, right, is 'cleansed' by Apolinar Guixpal i

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is "cleansed" by Apolinar Guixpal, a warlock in Catemaco, Veracruz. Jake Price for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jake Price for NPR
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, right, is 'cleansed' by Apolinar Guixpal

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is "cleansed" by Apolinar Guixpal, a warlock in Catemaco, Veracruz.

Jake Price for NPR

The Mexican town of Catemaco is hosting an unusual event this Friday: the annual International Congress of Witches. Politicians and businessmen come for power spells, and the lovelorn come for spells to entice a mate.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

On Friday, a town in Mexico is going to be teeming with healers and magicians and witches and warlocks. It's the site of the International Congress of Witches. It's in the town of Catemaco, already famed for soothsayers. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went there to Catemaco. Please be advised: Some of what she found may seem doubtful.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting on the shores of the Caldera Lake where monkeys and tropical birds live side by side, Catemaco is an area of stunning natural beauty, but most visitors come to consult the witches - and Catemaco doesn't hide its witchy background. One of their squares is called the Plaza of the Witches, which stands right next to the Witches Hotel. There's a Witches Bar and a Witches Restaurant, where you can hear strolling minstrels play a song about witches.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you enter the town, you're immediately accosted by boys on bicycles touting the mystical powers of the various resident bruhos(ph) or witchdoctors. In fact, witchcraft has become such a big business here that in the 1990s, a war between warlocks resulted in death.

In 2004, the party of the president, Felipe Calderon, tried to ban witchcraft here in the state of Veracruz only to have the measure struck down. Many politicians reputedly come here to put hexes on their rivals.

We go in search of a warlock and end up at the lair of Apolinar Guixpal, who says he possesses the power of the tiger, whatever that means. Mexicans believe there are three types of magic: white, red and black. Most of the bruhos in Catemaco claim to commune with the devil and practice the dark arts. These guys seem to be the heavy-metal contingent of the spiritual world.

Mr. APOLINAR GUIXPAL (Mexican Warlock): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask for a limpia(ph), the simplest procedure. It's a kind of cleansing that also protects you against curses. I'm off to Baghdad, and that's a curse in and of itself, I figure.

The warlock begins by splashing me with some kind of liquid and then smacking me repeatedly with herbs.

(Soundbite of flapping noise)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is unpleasant and soggy. That actually hurts. Yeah, it smells good, but it really hurts. And my eyes sting. And I'm sopping wet at this point, and my clothes are covered in I don't know what anymore. He's taking the egg, and he's about to crack it on my head. Oh, he's going to hit me in the head with an egg. Oh no.

It ain't cheap, either, $50 to get a protection spell. People come here to get cures for many, more serious, ailments too.

Mr. GUIXPAL: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says: I've cured people who have open wounds, crazy people, drunks, people who suffer from other vices. I've returned lost loves to people. I've helped calm anger. I've helped people with their business difficulties. All sorts of things, he says.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back on the street, one of the (unintelligible) hustles us to another shaman, who says he's the real deal, not like what he calls the fraud we just consulted.

Here are the offices of Adolfo Armidas(ph), who tells us that he inherited his gift from his grandparents. He says that Catemaco is a special place because of a grotto in a nearby mountain where dark powers reside.

Mr. ADOLFO ARMIDAS (Mexican Warlock): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This place is internationally recognized, he says, as a place of witchcraft because of the devil's cave. This is where we go to deposit all our completed spells, all our black works. It's enchanted, he says.

Theatrics aside, Mexico does have a long history of belief in magic. Even the Catholic Church tolerates it, and the local priest in Catemaco says he doesn't much mind the self-described devil worshippers, it's part of an indigenous heritage that still thrives today in big ways and small.

(Soundbite of insects)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For a lot less money than the warlocks are charging, you can get your fortune read on the walkway by the lake.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juan Jesus Gonzales(ph) stretches out his hand as a woman in long skirts whispers his future.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he's a believer, but his wife, Alelina(ph), says she thinks it's all a hoax.

Ms. ALELINA GONZALES (Catemaco, Mexico): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Unintelligible), I just have to agree. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Catemaco, Mexico.

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