LA PAZ (Reuters) - Meet Captain Victor, the cigarette-stained skull of a former policeman that sits among bananas, candles, soda bottles and coca leaves on a folding table in Bolivia's highland capital.
Victor is a celebrity in La Paz, where students, policemen and even members of Congress visit him year round to ask favors and shower him with flowers, cookies and cigarettes.
"Look, he just finished that lollipop ... there's barely anything left. He's so fond of sweets!" said Victor's owner, Virginia Lara, a middle-aged street vendor who says she was given the skull 22 years ago by a stranger.
All the stranger told her was Victor's name and that he had been a police officer, asking her to "always give him candles and flowers ... and never let him go."
Victor is what is known as a Natita, which means "small skull" or "flat nose" in the Aymara indigenous language. Thousands of Bolivians revere the Natitas and believe they protect them from evil and help them attain goals.
Natitas spend most of the time indoors but were paraded in the city's main public cemetery on Saturday, a week after All Saints Day, before thousands of Indian followers.
"He specially likes gladiolus," says devotee Sofia Fernandez, who has been hosting Victor for a month in a tiny room crammed with paraphernalia such as a black-and-white banner emblazoned with his name and a skull and crossbones.
Victor gets dozens of weekly visitors and local television appearances make him one of the most revered Natitas in La Paz. Lara says she recently felt compelled to ban followers from placing lit cigarettes in Victor's mouth because years of "smoking" have stained the skull.
The Natitas tradition is a mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs and has roots in ancient rituals practiced by the country's Indian groups.
The traditions and cultures of the Aymara, Quechua and other groups remain strong in Bolivia, where indigenous people are a majority in a country set in the heart of South America.
"Despite this being a celebration censored by Catholic (leaders), the (November 8) feast starts with a mass and I know that the priest asks for money to mention the names of the Natitas aloud," said Milton Eyzaguirre, an anthropologist working for the Ethnography and Folklore museum in La Paz.
Fernandez, a die-hard fan for 18 years, says Victor has helped her overcome health and legal problems and even "broke the legs" of someone who made her cry.
"In my dreams he's a tall, young police officer. He's always looking after me," said the 42-year-old mother of three. "I often come home at 3 a.m. and nothing ever has happened to me. That's why I have blind faith in the Natitas."
Editing by John O'Callaghan