Skeletons of the Week, June 24: Juanito and Juanita in La Paz, Bolivia

SKELETONS OF THE WEEK, JUNE 24: JUANITO AND JUANITA IN LA PAZ, BOLIVIA




This curious pair of skulls is similarly attired in knit caps and sunglasses, and sit enshrined in an interrogation room of the homicide division at the police headquarters in El Alto, the largest barrio of La Paz, Bolivia. They are named Juanito and Juanita, and they are considered among the division’s officers, the same as the detectives who use the room to question suspects. Juanito, in fact, is considered the “longest-serving officer on the force” and has been affiliated with the local police for over a century, while Juanita has been on the job for perhaps three decades.

From the outset, this is no doubt already confusing to outsiders, so let me explain: Juanito and Juanita are ñatitas—a local term meaning literally “the little pug-nosed ones,” but specifically referring to human skulls which house souls of the deceased, and act as protectors, helpers, and intercessors for the living. The veneration of ñatitas is a localized Bolivian phenomenon. It evolved from certain indigenous rites involving human remains, and then underwent a syncretism with the Catholic cult of the dead. It is common among yatiri, or local witchcraft practitioners, but also found among everyday, average people–and, as testified by the presence of Juanito and Juanita at police headquarters, even found among the law enforcement community. For more information, the best I can do is offer an article I wrote on the topic a few years ago: http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3130/skull_cops_and_the_cult_of_the_atitas.html

As for Juanito and Juanita, in difficult cases where clues are hard to find, homicide detectives traditionally write requests for information on slips of paper, which are placed in the shrines of the skulls. If need be, prayers may also be offered to them–I have been to visit them and interview people on the police force on multiple occasions, and have myself witnesses detectives prostrated in front of the skulls, offering prayers and asking for assistance. Their shrines are surrounded by items left in thanks for their services. These include coca leaves, cigarettes, votive candles, and candy.

It’s not easy to get people on the police force to talk discuss this topic. They are aware that foreigners are likely to find it to be some kind of freakish superstition. Some of the staff have in the past been open with me about it, however. Among them are Colonel Fausto Tellez, a retired commander of the department, who estimated that the skulls helped solve hundreds of cases during his tenure there, and says that as a general rule, the use of the skulls cuts investigative time in half. He is aware that many people might claim that their effect is mostly psychosomatic–that perhaps the faith in the power of the skulls creates a positive attitude and sense of assurance which is of far greater benefit to the detectives than the skulls themselves. While he admits that honestly he cannot say that is untrue, he does know that the use of the skulls in police work brings tangible results. And, in the end, isn’t that all that matters?

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

Find the Empire of Death on Facebook:Facebook:
Facebook link http://www.facebook.com/empireofdeath