Leonardo Rodríguez Pérez (1)
Written specially to this site.
The following text reports two deaths recently announced in the Colombian press. This note has been built using national and local information released by the press, information from the web and interviews with Ayahuasca drinkers in Colombia during August 2011.
After an Ayahuasca ceremony organized by the Foundation Luz de María y Jesús (“Light of Mary and Jesus, in the rural area of Piedecuesta, Santander, near Bucaramanga city, 380 kms from Bogotá) on August 14, 2011, two men died. The head of the ceremony, named Pedro Elias Cortés, called himself “master”. This man was a former Ayahuasca drinker under the supervision of Robert Ramos, a mestizo taita who holds a healing center called Corona de Plumas (“Feather Crown”) in Piedecuesta. According to information collected, he asked Robert Ramos to be adopted as ayudante (assistant) in his ceremonies. However, Ramos did not accept, as Pedro Cortés allegedly could not handle the psychedelic experience well.
As I deduced from the website, Pedro Cortés decided to move ahead and create his religious foundation around 2008. This branch is difficult to classify, as it combined biblical preach, spiritualistic practices, environmental speech and Ayahuasca. Looking in the website, it appears to be a variation of what is known as “Catholic Charismatic Renovation”. This line promotes practices of liberation of demons/evil through exorcism and healing, speaking on other languages and so forth. Perhaps it is most famous for its practice of incorporation of the Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit) – the Holy Spirit gets inside the body of the follower and produces a kind of sleep of trance of mystical rapture. Surprisingly, the ceremonies also included the presence of Alfredo Vesga, “bishop” of Guadalupe Church in Bucaramanga city, who officiated a “mass” before the Ayahuasca consumption.
Alongside with these variations of contemporary form of Christianism, the Fundación Luz de María y Jesús adopted also an indigenous aesthetics, using the chumbe, a kind of long ribbon clothed traditionally by indigenous women from the south of Colombia (e.g. inga women) on the waist. It is important to note that in the Santander department where the Foundation had its headquarters there are not Indians anymore, the guanes Indians disappeared during colonization. In the last decade there has been a project of ethical revival which finally never took place. Other indigenous peoples in Santander disappeared with the development of oil industry. Maybe Elias Cortés copied an indigenous aesthetics following the example of mestizo taita Robert Ramos, who adopted elements from Coreguaje indigenous people in the Colombian Amazon.
As it is reported, although Elias Cortés offered Ayahuasca, he did not make the brew but bought Yagé (the name Ayahuasca receives in Colombia) from “cookers” in the Putumayo region. During the ceremonies, it is said, he did not drink himself. In this context, psychedelic experiences were imbued with images related to hell, purgatory, martyrdom, punishment, the devil, witches, salvation, the virgin, heaven, as we can read in the testimonials posted on the Foundation website.
After the ceremony held on 14 August the autopsies of dead men were carried out with delay, as relatives hoped men were still in trance and their souls would return to their bodies. It seems that Elias Cortes have moved to Venezuela in order to escape from Colombian justice.
The debate this terrible incident has generated in the Colombian public opinion, and particularly within Ayahuasca networks, have led Taita Querubin Queta, traditional authority of the Cofan indigenous people in the Colombian-Ecuadorian Amazon, to propose the elaboration of a list of authorized taitas in conjunction with other traditional authorities. This initiative takes up the proposal made by UMIYAC (Unión de Médicos Yageceros de la Amazonía Colombiana) in 2008, which gives Indian authorities the task of validating who can give ayahuasca in the country.
Considering the cases of Peru, Brazil, USA, Netherlands and other European countries where non-indigenous people lead successful Ayahuasca ceremonies, as it happens with mestizo taitas in Colombia, it does not seem to be appropriate or realistic to attribute exclusively to indigenous authorities the role to legitimize who can lead Ayahuasca ceremonies in Colombia. In any case, obviously, taking in account the national context, the indigenous authorities must have a very important place in this debate. At the end, perhaps the best way to avoid incidents like the one reported with the Foundation Luz de María y Jesús is to inform the public opinion about what Ayahuasca is through spreading academic works on the subject, which fortunately seam to begin to flourish.
(1) Leonardo is an associate researcher from the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History, Geneva – Switzerland; PhD candidate from The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland; M.A. in History from Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France; M.A. in Social Sciences from Université de Limoges, France; B.A. in History from Universidad Industrial de Santander, Bucaramanga – Santander, Colombia.