BY DAVID OVALLE
Authorities are investigating a Hialeah man who allegedly smuggled illegal Giant African Snails into Florida and convinced his followers to drink their juices as part of a religious healing ritual.
State and federal authorities in January raided the home of Charles L. Stewart after learning he had a large box full of the snails -- which grow to be up to 10 inches long -- according to a search warrant filed recently in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
The investigation is ongoing. No charges have been filed.
Stewart, 48, who court documents describe as ``El Africano'' or ``Oloye Ifatoku,'' said he practices the traditional African religion of Ifa Orisha, which is often confused with the Cuban Santería, a blend of Yoruba and Catholic practices.
``I did not invent this. It's something that is part of our religion,'' he told The Miami Herald. ``It's not something meant to hurt anybody.''
He declined to comment further.
Federal and state authorities declined to comment on the investigation. Stewart could face a host of smuggling or customs violation charges in additional to civil penalties.
The snails, of the species Achatina fulica, can be imported into the United States only with special permits, and for scientific research only.
The case is being investigated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Federal authorities began their probe in November after receiving complaints that the so-called ``healing'' practice ``is not an accepted practice of the Santería religion,'' and worshipers were falling ill after drinking the snail mucus.
According to the search warrant, Stewart claimed to have smuggled the snails into the United States in his luggage. He kept them in a three-foot-by-two-foot wooden box in the backyard of his house in the 100 block of East 19th Street. He fed them lettuce.
The snail ritual was supposed to cure worshipers with medical problems.
One witness told investigators that during the ritual, Stewart grabs a snail from the cage, then would ``hold it over the devotee, then cuts the [snail] and pours the raw fluid directly from the still live [snail] into the mouth of the devotee.''
Several followers became violently ill, losing weight and developing strange lumps in their bellies, the warrant said. Witnesses told investigators they saw at least 20 snails in his backyard box and several black-spotted eggs.
One witness, the warrant said, told the feds that Stewart himself eats the raw snails.
Stewart was aided by a woman known as the ``Godmother'' or ``Yeye Ifafunke,'' who claimed to a priestess from Africa who smuggled in snails under her dresses on flights to Miami, the warrant said.
Stewart and the ritual were later discussed on the Spanish-language news show Arrebatados, which airs on Miami's MegaTV.
Consuming snail mucus or eating snail meat as part of a Santería ritual is ``unheard-of,'' said prominent Santería priest Ernesto Pichardo, who prevailed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 to get the religion officially recognized.
``I'd never seen that kind of snail in my lifetime -- anywhere I have practiced this religion,'' said Pichardo, who was panelist on the MegaTV show.
Small snails bought at pet supply stores are sometimes used in Santería rituals, their bodies pulverized and combined with herbs to make a medicinal bath, he said.
``I've never heard of any ritual where you drink the snail water,'' Pichardo said.
Stewart insisted his religion is traditional to Africa, and should not be confused with Santería.
``What I practice is somewhat different, and that's what caused the backlash against me,'' he said.
The search warrant does not say how many snails were seized at the Hialeah house. A joint state and federal press release warning of the snails described only a ``recent interception.''
The snails, native to East Africa, are considered highly dangerous because they can consume up to 500 species of plants. They even eat plaster and stucco. They contain both male and female reproductive organs, and can lay up to 1,200 eggs a year.
Authorities are warning South Florida residents to report any sightings of the giant snails, which are considered an invasive species harmful to people and Florida plants.
The snails are ``one of the most damaging in the world in regards to plants and agriculture,'' federal plant pathologist Frederick J. Zimmerman wrote in an affidavit filed in court.
In 1966, a boy visiting Hawaii brought back three giant snails to Miami, and his grandmother released them into her garden. Seven years later, there were 18,000 of them. State authorities said it took almost 10 years and $1 million to eradicate them.
``This is the only known successful giant African snail eradication program on record,'' according to the press release.
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Tags: religion, charles l. stewart, giant african snails, cult,
Location: Hialeah, Florida, United States (load item map)
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