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Nina rarely ventures outside of her house in Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, Abidjan, since her 5-year-old son, Benitier, was kidnapped and mutilated in November. She won’t let her oldest son go to school.

“When I see cars with tinted windows or people who look a bit odd passing in the street, I start to panic,” 30-year-old Nina, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family, said in an interview in Yopougon, a sprawling municipality in north Abidjan. “I imagine an abduction.”

As many as 20 children have been killed, four of whom were found mutilated, in Cote d’Ivoire in the past three months in what some academics and government officials say may be crimes related to elections or organ trafficking. The authorities responded by deploying 1,500 soldiers and police officers to schools, public places and forests and setting up emergency phone lines, including one named “Allo Child in Distress.”

Cote d’Ivoire is holding a presidential vote in October, and pre-election periods often see a spike in ritualistic killings, according to government officials and analysts. President Alassane Ouattara is running in the first ballot since a disputed vote in 2010 sparked a five-month conflict that claimed the lives of at least 3,000 people.

“We are in an election year and this may generate this kind of ritual crimes, passion crimes,” Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi told reporters Feb. 2 in Abidjan. Some people may carry out “sacrifices to be well liked by the bosses, to win approval from a candidate, to keep one’s job or make money,” he said.

Benitier disappeared on Nov. 29 after he left home at 4 p.m. to get a snack, Nina said with her arms crossed, her fingers gripping her skin. When he hadn’t returned in two hours, the family realized he was missing.

After Nina and other family members searched the area for days and went door-to-door with his photograph, Benitier was found on Dec. 9 in the neighborhood near a naval base. His head, his right arm, his right leg, and other parts of his body were missing, she said.

“I’m trying to deal with it, I’m making efforts to face it,” she said at the house of a friend where she agreed to meet. “I have to be strong as I have another kid.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund last month urged the government to do more to protect children from the kidnappings and mutilations. Ouattara called for calm and urged people not to take the law into their hands.

At least three people suspected of trying to abduct children have been lynched by angry crowds, according to the defense minister. After rumors of new kidnappings in Yopougon surfaced in late January, parents rushed to pick up their children from school.

“It looks organized, neighborhoods where kids hang out in the streets seem to be targeted,” Francis Akindes, a sociologist at the Bouake-based Alassane Ouattara University, said in an interview in Abidjan. “It looks like there is a mechanism set up to supply a network with children and this is what creates panic.”

Perpetrators of ritual murders are seeking to affirm their power and ability to master their surroundings, according to Joseph Tonda, an anthropologist at Omar Bongo university, based in Libreville, the capital of the Central African nation of Gabon, where such crimes have also been perpetrated. Sensationalist newspaper stories and some popular movies help reinforce these beliefs, according to Tonda.

“It refers to power as the people’s ability to act, or to pretend to act, on the course of things,” Tonda said in a phone interview. “They want to transform, change things to their own advantage.”

Akindes said that belief in mysticism crosses all social classes.

“Even if people have a high level of education, we are into this sort of tautology that makes some people think: ‘If everyone believes, why wouldn’t I?’ Everyone is also scared of being the victim of others,” he said.

Nina, an evangelical Christian, said that she was relying on prayer to help her deal with Benitier’s loss. He loved soccer and dreamed of one day emulating his idol, Didier Drogba, the Ivorian striker who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League.

“He kept saying that one day he would be like Drogba,” she said.

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