A mass grave has been discovered in Panama with officials believing the bodies are from a religious sect where members were allegedly performing exorcisms.
The seven bodies include a 32-year-old pregnant woman and her five children, aged between one and 11 years, while the sixth body was a 17-year-old child of a neighbor. A further fifteen people have been released while ten people, believed to be members of the sect in the Ngäbe-Buglé community -one of the largest communities on the Caribbean coast and that has high numbers of illiteracy and poverty – have been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Senior Prosecutor of the Bocas del Toro province of Western Panama, Rafael Baloyes, confirmed that three villagers were able to escape the ritual and alerted authorities at a local hospital that there were more families being held captive by the indigenous-run sect.
Police headed to the community – which is situated in north-west Panama in a jungle area around 155 miles away from the capital Panama City – and carried out the raid where they discovered the grave.
Mr Baloyes confirmed: “They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated. All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn’t repent their sins.”
It is believed that the victims had been subjected to torture including being hacked with machetes, burned, and beaten.
The sect had created a “makeshift” church, which was around 1.5 miles away from the mass grave, and police officers found knives, machetes, a naked woman, and a goat that had already been ritually sacrificed. It is understood that the religious sect who were controlling the region – the New Light of God – took over the area around three months ago.
However, the kidnapping and torture of some of the members only started recently when one member claimed to have been given “a message from God.” The leaders went to the victims homes where they were kidnapped and subsequently beaten and killed. All the suspects were due to appear in court over the weekend and include a minor. Another suspect is the father of the pregnant woman who was killed.
While it is still unclear what the beliefs of “The New Light of God” church had, or which religion it was affiliated with, the Luz del Mundo evangelical church has already issued a press statement confirming it has no connections to those who have been arrested.
Exorcism is a spiritual or religious ritual that believers carry out in an attempt to “cure” people who appear to be possessed by the devil. However, thanks to the way it is portrayed in horror and culture films, it’s always been controversial.
It can also be seen as something that signifies freeing a place, person, or even object from some form of negative spiritual influence. Although nearly every faith or culture has some form of rituals or beliefs that are similar, very few perform them to such extreme lengths.
Meaning “oath” in Greek, exorcisms are frequently carried out in the Islamic and Christian cultures with around 250 priests from 50 countries attending an annual exorcism course in the Vatican in 2018.
The Catholic Church has seen an increase in the demand for exorcisms, which sees a priest recite prayers and passages from the Bible in an attempt to remove any demonic beings. However, some priests may “bound” the possessed person while the priest sprinkles holy water over them while tracing the sign of the cross.
Panama has always been seen as a country that may not make the top ten safe destinations to visit list thanks to a high level of crimes including armed robberies, rape, muggings, shootings, car thefts, and express kidnappings from ATM machines. While these are rife in the metropolitan areas – especially the capital Panama City and the “no go zone” of Colon – crime is also high in the jungle regions.
The Darien Gap, a 100 mile remote area of impassable jungle that borders Panama and neighboring Colombia, is a well known drug smuggling corridor and outsiders are advised to stay away.
Panama’s elite border police “Senafront” are the only people who can give permission for you to visit the region and it is difficult to gain this, due to the high risks in the area. The Panamanian government are working on reclaiming the jungle from the paramilitary groups, bandits and smugglers that are working the area and checkpoints are positioned the mostly road-less area.