They gather in the cemetery, sometimes by the dozens, kneeling in prayer, drinking liquor and smoking cigarettes as offerings to the small statue of the long-dead robber Ismael.

Ismael is a member of Venezuela's pantheon of "Santos Malandros" — or Holy Thugs. The faithful believe these former criminals are seeking to atone for their past lives by providing protection from today's lawbreakers who call on them in a country struggling with rampant crime and one of the world's highest murder rates.

The rising popularity of the cult has brought a proliferation of shops selling statuettes representing Santos Malandros, figures brandishing firearms and knives, or wearing sunglasses, jeans and colorful shirts.

Among the most popular is Ismael, whose statue stands in the General Cemetery. Showcasing his apparent cool, a baseball hat jauntily tilts to the side, a cigar juts from his lips and a .38 revolver pokes out of his pocket.

Many people believe Ismael killed dozens of people while robbing banks and cargo trucks in the 1970s, before he was shot down by police. These days, the faithful revere him as a sort of Robin Hood, saying he stole from the rich and protects those among the poor who are besieged by crime.

Ismael "stole food, meat, medicines for all the needy people of the neighborhood," said Ivan Eduardo, who cares for the statue in the cemetery.

These mystical figures are part of the two-century-old cult tradition known as Maria Lionza, the Venezuelan variation of Santeria — the faith that began in Cuba when African slaves blended Yoruba spiritual beliefs with Roman Catholic traditions. It's named for a beautiful Indian woman from the western state of Yaracuay who is considered to preside over various courts of spirits in Venezuela.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes the veneration of Santos Malandros, but it long ago gave up trying to stamp out the practice. And with the surge in violent crime in recent years, more and more Venezuelans seem to be turning to the "holy thugs" for help in dealing with a hazardous life that forces them to hurry home at the end of the workday and take refuge behind iron bars.

Himiob Almandoz, an author who has written about religious syncretism and archetypes in Latin America, said there had been a rebirth of primitive, syncretic cults in the region in recent years, "above all in times of crisis, like the economic, political and social crisis we are living through."

One of the dozens of daily visitors to the Ismael shrine, who would give his name only as Jefferson, said the saints don't just attract people afraid of crime. Some seek help for personal goals, like getting a home or healing an illness, he said.

But, he added, there are also those who come to pray that their "little job (crime) will go well and they don't go to prison."

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Associated Press writers Ariana Cubillos and Ricardo Nunes contributed to this report.