BY TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
Nelson Carrasco works inside a cavernous Hialeah warehouse, under the unblinking figures of Catholic saints and African gods, surrounded by his stock in trade: hollowed bull's horns, cast-iron cauldrons and blocks of virgin beeswax, said to curry good fortune.
But the tools of his trade are decidedly less mystical: a sleek Compaq laptop and the Internet
For years, Carrasco's parents catered to a clientele of local shops, or botánicas, and Santero priests who dropped in to purchase the elaborate trappings required by their Afro-Cuban religion.
Then Carrasco, a self-confessed computer geek, decided to take the family business online.
''We've gone global. Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Spain, Texas,'' said the Cuban-born Carrasco, 31, scrolling through a lengthy list of orders for ceremonial machetes, batá drums and burnished brass crowns, available at his website www.auctions609.com.
``You'd be surprised where these things end up.''
It's no surprise that even the most obscure commodity can be ordered on the Web. But the advent of online botánicas are a sign that Santería's reach is traveling far beyond Cuban exile enclaves like Hialeah and Little Havana, where brick-and-mortar versions have long been neighborhood fixtures.
''This is a religion that has been spread without missionaries or militaries,'' said Terry Rey, a professor of religious studies at Temple University.
Cuban Santería, like Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomblé, combine the Yoruba culture of West African slaves who were brought to the New World with the Christian beliefs imposed by colonial masters.
While definite numbers are hard to come by, scholars have noted the number of people participating in these related religions could top 70 million and is on the rise.
''It's an incredible story of a once-persecuted local faith that has turned into a world religion,'' said Rey.
And that, in turn, is good for business -- if your business happens to be selling smoked possum powder for ritual offerings, or cowrie shells for divination.
''All of a sudden, I'm selling to Europe. That took me totally by surprise,'' said Silvia Wehe, a mother of two who lives in Country Walk and sells her Santería wares through eBay or on her own website, www.dakasicorp.com.
She specializes in low-cost imports like cone-shaped ''thunder stones.'' Said to be created when lightning strikes deep beneath the earth's surface, they're believed to serve as a conduit for the powers of the orisha, or god, Chango.
Cost on eBay: $16 for a small black thunderstone; $60 for the more exotic white variety.
''Right now, I don't have the big-ticket items. I want to expand eventually, maybe import the larger statues from Africa,'' Wehe said.
An Argentine of German descent, Wehe became enamored of Santería while accompanying a friend to a spiritual consultation in Hialeah.
''I'm a blond-haired, blue-eyed Santera,'' she said.
Adherents, and botánicas, can be found as far away as Japan and Italy, Rey said.
No less a pop-culture bellwether than YouTube features video of Santería rituals. Jennifer Lopez has been spotted visiting a well-known Santera priest in Los Angeles. Even Tori Spelling -- the Beverly Hills 90210 alum -- worked a Santeria plotline into her semi-autobiographical VH1 show, So NoTORIous, in April.
But despite these mainstream moments, ''there is still a stigma, and people can tend to be secretive because of that stigma,'' said Rey. ``You have people mistakenly portraying them as devil worshipers, or bloodthirsty.''
Online shops offer buyers some measure of privacy, adding to their popularity, Rey said.
Still, as with most Internet transactions, buying ritual supplies online comes with certain caveats.
''There are definitely plenty of racketeers,'' said Miguel Ramos, who teaches history and religious studies at Florida International University and who is a practicing obá oriaté -- meaning he performs the ordination of Santero priests, or babalaos.
False advertising tops his list of online sins, like vendors trying to pass off mass-produced, generically African statues as sacred objects.
''If you don't know any better, you'd think it's orthodox,'' he said. ``But it's really the same Zulu warrior they sell all over Busch Gardens.''
Ramos keeps a list of what he considers reputable botánicas -- online and otherwise -- on his website, www.eleda.org.
Virtual divinations, performed via e-mail, have also created a cottage industry possible only in a digital age -- although traditionalists scoff at the practice.
''It would be like a therapist or psychiatrist selling their services on eBay,'' said Ernesto Pichardo, a local Santero priest best known for his successful lawsuit against the city of Hialeah to allow animal sacrifices, an integral part of his religion. That resulted in a landmark supreme court decision in 1993.
What he is not so famous for: Being one of the first babalaos to create an online botánica in 1997, inspired by the dot-com boom. He aimed for an Amazon.com-style, one-stop shopping experience for Santeros, but shut it down within a few years.
''I think we were maybe ahead of our time. There weren't that many people online,'' Pichardo said. ``Now, of course, it's a whole new world.''
That new world belies certain misconceptions, he said.
''There's this stereotype that people who practice this religion are backwards and brainless. I'm always going to be that guy who wants to sacrifice chickens,'' Pichardo said. ``No one talks about my business sense.''
After shutting down his web-based store, Pichardo decided to concentrate on another online venture closer to his heart: a ''distance counseling'' service through his website www.church-of-the-lukumi.org, which puts worshipers in touch with a network of priests across the country.
While he objects to e-divinations, Pichardo says Carrasco and other vendors fill a niche in the spiritual marketplace -- especially for devotees who can't drop by their local shop in person.
Convenience isn't the only benefit available for the online Santero.
Carrasco, the young entrepreneur, offers gift certificates and a loyalty reward program, allowing customers to accumulate points with each purchase. Points can be redeemed for discounts on items. ''It's like frequent-flier miles,'' he said.
Still, even the most modern online botánica has its limits.
''People are always e-mailing, asking if I ship live animals. Chickens, goats, things like that,'' said Carrasco, who rejected the idea after considering the logistics.
''It's not worth it,'' he said. ``How do you send a chicken through UPS?''