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In the past, Couto has alerted authorities to illegal slaughterhouses by going undercover to film them for months at a time. Couto tells New Times that just last week he was investigating one such site when he saw a man stab a horse in the heart. The horse's tail was removed, which means it will be turned into a wand, he says. Couto's website calls Palo the "darkest and most feared of all the black magic practices" and claims practitioners rob graves, murder people, and nab household pets.
"From what I've seen on some of the Palo sites, the torture inflicted on the animals is much greater than any of the other religions," Couto says.
Whom to believe? Oscar Guerrero runs PaloMayombe.com, a website with articles and translations of Palo texts that were previously unavailable in English. He sees himself as one of the few dissenting voices in the misinformation being spread about Palo. "I think [Couto] is giving Palo a bad and misinformed name," says the salesman, whose parents pushed him toward Palo when he was caught tagging graffiti as a kid on the Upper East Side of New York City. "He's pulling out a dog and saying, 'Look at the little puppy,' and pulling people's heartstrings."
Guerrero explains paleros sacrifice only fowl and goats, and only in dire circumstances, such as when someone is dying and needs serious intervention from the ancestors.
Excepting emergencies, prendas need to be fed blood once a year, on the anniversary of their creation. "It's definitely not an everyday thing," he adds. Human remains are occasionally used, but they can be purchased online. The bones that are used are important to the spirits who inhabit the clay pots because they attract ancestors, he says.
Of course, Palo can be used in a negative fashion, he explains, describing a hypothetical situation in which someone comes to him seeking refuge from an abusive boyfriend. A palero wouldn't tell the spirit occupying his prenda what to do, but rather to intervene for the desperate woman seeking his help. Now, if the jerk gets hit by a car, is that morally right or wrong? "I'm not telling [the ancestor] how to take care of it, just to take care of it.
"The worst type of harm can always be done by a palero," he adds.
But he insists Palo is part of a beautiful, rich tradition that can be used to heal. Violence, however, is never advocated. There is still a fight for recognition and visibility, though. "There are still many people afraid to say this is what they practice, this is what they believe," he says. "Paleros are everywhere, but they're just afraid to come out into the light."