Every afternoon, thousands of Colombians, most of them women and the vast majority of them poor, gather outside the temple of Regina XI, located amid factories, warehouses and karate parlors in one of Bogota's industrial slums.
They wait for hours to enter the temple's meeting hall, a three-story auditorium where their "mother," Regina Betancourt de Liska, who calls herself Regina XI, will greet them.
The small, attractive 43-year-old woman, who claims to be a mystic, a faith healer, a seer and a prophet -- and who now clearly is a political force -- enters to the screams of delight from her fanatic followers. They count to 10 and then exclaim: "Regina Eleven! Viva Regina Eleven!" They rush to touch her, receive her blessing, press money into her hands, and begin an hour-long ritual of handholding, guttural chanting and bizarre rites which she says impart her "magnetic energy" to those who believe.
In just 10 years, she has gathered several hundred thousand followers throughout Colombia. A canny combination of Elmer Gantry, the guru Maharaji Ji and George Wallace, Regina XI outraged Colombia's Roman Catholic church three years ago when she drew at least 50,000 of her followers to a mass at the Bogota cathedral celebrating her 40th birthday.
Newspaper headlines the next day trumpeted "Scandal in the Cathedral" and began referring to her as "Regina the Witch." The sobriquet, which she says she finds amusing, helped her movement grow.
In local elections held last week, the irrepressible Regina again infuriated the political establishment by getting herself elected to not one but two city councils, in Bogota and Medelin, and two state assemblies.
The feat made her a political power to be reckoned with. As politician, she radiates the charisma and energy she claims to impart to the masses who enrich her by buying the magnetized olive oil, youth creams, perfumes, half-nude plastic Regina statuettes and T-shirts that she sells.
Two years ago, she ran for president and lost. But she pulled off a stunt that has earned her a place in Colombian history as the first aspirant for office to sell votes rather than buy them.
It is the practice in Colombian elections for political parties to provide their backers with ballots. Regina says more than 180,000 of her followers bought her ballots for 10 cents apiece, demonstrating their loyalty and helping to finance her campaign.
Although most political observers have yet to take Regina's latest strong showing seriously, a few are saying she has tapped a segment of potential voters, the working poor, who normally do not vote. The abstention rate fluctuates between 65 and 75 percent here.
Regina is the ultimate outsider who is using her religious following to create a political movement by promising to oust the entrenched, inbred traditional politicians and work on behalf of the poor.
"I don't have any sons or brothers who are government ministers. My husband isn't a former president," Regina said the other day as she sat on the throne she keeps in her temple office.
"All I am is an ex-witch," she says laughing at the newspaper which, because of her electoral victory, are now forced to refer to her as "the honorable" rather than "the witch."
The Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, summing up local voting results, headlined: "Nine liberals, six conservatives, four leftist and Regina." Clearly, neither the newspaper nor the politicians know what to make of her.
Regina's message is health, money and love, in that order. She give her poor followers the hope that they can improve their lives -- by believing in her and, through her, in themselves. Her temple contains a free dental clinic, an employment agency, a printing plant and a restaurant where subsidized hot meals are offered for less than a dollar.
"Our enemy is resignation," said Briceida de Rojas, a housewife and mother of five, who attended one of Regina's sessions. De Rojas credited Regina with saving her and her children from dying in a bus accident. "If we hadn't had her course and practiced, we wouldn't have survived. Her energy is with us and our energy is with her."
Regina XI says she made mental contact with Angelo Roncalli, who was later Pope John XXIII, in 1941 when she was 4. She claims that he endowed her with the "XI" of her title after telling her that he was 10th in a line of teachers and prophets.
She claims powers to cure and prophesey the future. In the quiet of her office, she says she ran for office because she believes Colombia's politicians "have never done anything for the poor. I don't like poverty. They have never done anything to bring education. They've closed the hospitals, they've permitted drugs to destroy the youth and they've stolen a lot."
Danny Liska, 51, her American husband, still owns a ranch in his native Nebraska and once worked as Yul Brynner's stand-in during the filming of "Taras Bulba." He says Regina is taking votes away from the left appealing to the peasants and urban working class who, if they voted, would probably have favored the communists and other leftist parties.
Liska, who now resembles Tiny Tim, with hair cascading down past his broad shoulders, says, "Regina is almost violently pro-American. She always holds up the United States as the example. Communism, she believes, is foolish."
Regina XI may best be described as a populist, appealing to the same voters who supported Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a military dictator during the 1950s who almost recaptured the presidency in the 1970 election.
While it is still too early to tell whether Regina XI is a political fluke or phenomenon, there is little doubt that she has been brilliant in convincing hundreds of thousands of Colombians to follow her into the occult world she inhabits. She now has five temples in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Pereda and Manecales. She says her monthly budget is $20,000.
Liska says she sometimes earns $30,000 on a single weekend from the courses she teaches Thousands more come in from the plastic dolls, clothing and toiletries she sells. She is driven around in a big Buick, has a luxurious home in Bogota and a residence in Miami like other wealthy Colombians.
"We learned early on that we had to travel first class to be taken seriously," Liska explained. "I thought, when she first started out, that she would be lucky to break even. What has happened is phenomenal."