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Mexico Massacre : Potent Mix of Ritual and Charisma

Times Staff Writers

Other members of the cult called her their witch, a high priestess in a world of evil.

Her name is Sara Aldrete Villareal, and she, like the others still alive, is accused of murder.

She is a tall, athletic woman who, in one half of her life, was an honors student at a Texas college. But in the other, the one few people saw, she was a lover and follower of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, whose legacy is a trail of grotesque violence almost beyond imagination.

She said this man, through the sheer force of his personality, held her in his grip, just as he did the others who killed for him.

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Force of Personality

“If he tells you to do something right now, if he orders you, you will do it,” she said last week. “I don’t even know why, but you will do it.”

Ultimately, it would be Aldrete who ran screaming from a besieged Mexico City apartment, telling the police that Constanzo was dead, that he had ordered his own execution.

It was a lurid ending to a yearlong saga of death precipitated by Constanzo, who had convinced his followers that killing was the key to protection from being caught smuggling drugs.

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U.S. and Mexican police believe that members of the cult killed 15 people in Matamoros, just across from the Texas border city of Brownsville. Among them was Mark Kilroy, a college student on spring break whose disappearance began a manhunt that eventually led to the discovery of the cult and of the bodies.

On Monday, Aldrete, Alvaro de Leon and three other cult members were indicted in Mexico City on charges of homicide and related counts in connection with the slayings.

Grisly Trademark

Police believe that Constanzo and his sect may also be responsible for nine Mexico City deaths that bore what has become a sect trademark: the removal of spinal columns to make good-luck necklaces.

In one sense, the horror resembles the Tate-La Bianca murders by Charles Manson’s followers 20 years ago and the mass suicide by the followers of the Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978. In both those cases, one man mesmerized others into believing that evil is good and into committing diabolical acts as a result.

But this case goes further. Constanzo practiced his magic in Mexican high society, winning adherents with his ceremonies to drain away evil. And he took a religion born in the Congo and changed it to meet his own needs, including offering its protective spell to drug dealers.

The religion, called Palo Mayombe, embraces animal sacrifice. Constanzo convinced his followers that human sacrifice was even more powerful.

From the moment he saw the grisly scene at an isolated ranch outside Matamoros, Rafael Martinez knew he was looking at Palo Mayombe. The cauldron, the human remains and the bow and arrow were all part of the rituals of the religion that was brought to the Caribbean during the slave trading days.

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At first, police used the terms “voodoo killings” and “satanic murders” after discovering the mass graves early last month. But it fell to Martinez, a cultural anthropologist from Miami, to tell officials that they had encountered Palo Mayombe, to which human sacrifice was added.

With Palo Mayombe in the background, Constanzo must have been used to sacrificing goats, chickens and pigs, said Martinez. “To him, sacrificing humans was the next logical step,” he added.

By Martinez’s estimate, there are roughly 40,000 Palo Mayombe followers in the United States. Most practice the religion in their homes, where it will not be seen by others. And, Martinez said, it is also the religion of choice for many drug dealers, who use it to protect themselves and to put curses on their enemies.

“Palo Mayombe is mostly malevolent and evil,” he said.

As Martinez walked through the murder site, he saw all the things associated with Palo Mayombe: the iron cauldron, called a nganga; the cigars and cheap liquor called “firewater”; the candles. Then, too, there was Constanzo’s diary, in which notations were made in both Spanish and Bantu, the language of the Congo tribes that originated the religion.

“He really knew his Palo Mayombe,” said Martinez.

Constanzo grew up in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, where neighbors said there was always something eerie about his family’s home. The back yard was filled with animals, the yard was often knee-high in weeds and decapitated animals were sometimes found on neighbors’ front steps after an argument with one of the Constanzos.

His mother was once arrested when police found her living in a tiny apartment with several children and 27 animals. The floor was covered with blood, urine and feces.

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Constanzo grew up handsome, with reddish hair and light skin and found occasional work as a model. In 1984, he moved from Miami to Mexico City, beginning a portion of his life that changed him from an ambitious, good-looking young man to an immensely wealthy drug dealer who drove an $80,000 Mercedes-Benz and bought cars for friends on a whim.

Not much is known about Constanzo during those early years in Mexico City. But he is remembered as someone who swiftly developed a reputation as a sorcerer skilled at ridding the body of evil.

An Egg and Fragrant Water

Constanzo performed limpias, or “cleansings,” an ancient rite from Mexico’s Indian and Spanish cultures that is still in use today, even among some members of the well-educated Mexican middle class. In one form, the sorcerer passes an egg over the client’s body, sometimes accompanied by fragrant water or the leaves of a plant. Then the egg is cracked into a glass of water, and the sorcerer claims to read the patterns of evil that are being absorbed from the client’s body.

As his fame grew, Mexican movie stars, musicians and other notables turned to him for cleansings. Florentino Ventura, the former Mexican head of Interpol, the international police agency, has been identified as one of Constanzo’s clients. Ventura committed suicide last year.

At the other end of the spectrum, drug smugglers would pay him $50,000 to provide them mystical protection from the law. And then, at some point, Constanzo himself moved into the world of drug smuggling.

He joined up with a smuggler named Elio Hernandez from Matamoros, then slowly became a larger player in the operation, police on both sides of the border said. He initiated Hernandez into his bizarre sect of animal sacrifice. By this time, Aldrete was already a part of the cult, and she acted as the godmother in Hernandez’s initiation ceremony.

Cult members, in their confessions, have said that the first two murders had nothing to do with religion but were acts of revenge for drug deals gone bad. Lt. George Cavito of the sheriff’s department in Cameron County, Tex., said that until 10 months ago, Constanzo was merely a drug dealer with a propensity for cheating and killing.

He was also someone who demanded strict obedience. Oran Neck, a U.S. Customs agent who worked on the case, described an incident in which one of Constanzo’s followers disobeyed orders by snorting cocaine. “They wasted him right there,” Neck said.

The ritual killings began early last year. In all, five people were murdered and mutilated in cult sacrifices; the other 10 found in the Matamoros graves were drug-related murder victims.

“When they needed someone for human sacrifice, they would just go get him,” said Cavito.

Mark Kilroy and his pals were out late, drinking and carousing in the Zona Rosa section of Matamoros. It was spring break, and revelry on the Mexican side of the border was something of a rite of passage for Texas college students vacationing on nearby South Padre Island.

The group was making its way back to the International Bridge when Kilroy, a junior at the University of Texas, fell behind. Mark Huddleston, one of the other students, watched from nearby as a pickup truck approached and the men inside offered Kilroy a ride.

As the truck sped off, Kilroy jumped out, trying to escape, but was immediately run to ground by men in another car that was following the truck.

According to cult members, Kilroy was brought to the Santa Elena Ranch outside Matamoros, where caretaker Domingo Reyes gave him a drink of water while one of the cult members called Constanzo at the Holiday Inn in Brownsville. He was told that his orders had been carried out, that a gringo had been captured.

Kilroy was killed with a machete blow to the back of the head. Later, Constanzo ordered cult member De Leon to cut off one of Kilroy’s legs.

“He told me that each time you do this, you lose a little of your fear until you aren’t afraid of anything anymore,” De Leon said later.

Kilroy was buried, along with the rest of the drug and cult victims, in a shallow grave outside the shanty that was the cultists’ “temple.”

Before Mark Kilroy’s murder, the disappearance of the other victims had raised hardly a ripple. But this one was different. Kilroy came from a white, middle-class family that lived in the tiny community of Santa Fe, Tex. James Kilroy, Mark’s father, was not willing to sit home and wait for the Mexican police to turn up news of his son.

He want to Brownsville and stayed there, first offering a $5,000 reward, then raising it to $15,000. U.S. officials joined the search, with U.S. Customs doing so, in part, because young Kilroy’s uncle was an agent in the Los Angeles office.

As is often the case in investigations, luck played a major role in uncovering the cult murders. On the night of April 1, Mexican police saw a late-model pickup pull off the road to avoid a police checkpoint. They followed the truck to Elio Hernandez’s Santa Elena Ranch.

Tracking Phone Records

The police began tracking cellular phone records and interviewed the ranch’s caretaker. On April 9, the police made four arrests. Confronted with a picture of Kilroy, the cult members confessed to his murder, saying they had been ordered to do so by Constanzo.

The grim task of digging up the bodies began. Constanzo and Aldrete and three others went into hiding. The police in Mexico City also began working the case.

Juan Armando Ponce, one of the capital police officers assigned to the case, noticed similarities between the Matamoros murders and another killing he had investigated in Mexico City in 1987. A young house servant had disappeared, and pieces of her clothing were later found in front of an altar similar to the one at the ranch. Later still, her tortured body was found along with seven others in the Zumpango River.

World of Witchcraft

Ponce returned to the world of witchcraft and sorcerers that he had investigated in 1987. There, he got his tips. Someone had seen Constanzo in the nearby Cuauhtemoc neighborhood. Someone else had an address in the adjacent Anzures neighborhood.

Assistant Police Chief Rodrigo Martinez Ramirez put 16 officers on the case to comb the area. They turned up a shoemaker who had seen a woman matching Aldrete’s description. Then, at a supermarket, the police spotted a man trying to buy large quantities of groceries with American dollars.

They followed him to an apartment on Rio Sena Street. By the end of the week, they knew that De Leon had been the man buying groceries and that Constanzo was inside. They surrounded the building and waited for the traffic to thin out before making a move.

Tossed Gold Coins

Again, fate played a role. A black Chrysler New Yorker pulled up to the apartment building. When police walked over to investigate, Constanzo saw them from his apartment window. He opened fire. During the gun battle that followed, Constanzo heaved gold coins out the window, while inside, huge sums of paper money burned on the stove.

The shoot-out lasted 45 minutes before Constanzo ordered his own execution and that of his lover, Martin Quintana.

“He said he wanted to be killed, that everything was finished,” said Aldrete. “He said, ‘Let’s all die.’ But I didn’t want to die.”

While police mounted the stairs toward the smoke-filled apartment, De Leon did as he had always done: He obeyed Constanzo. He shot both men. And Aldrete ran from the apartment.

“Sara ran out the door screaming,” Ponce said. “She screamed: ‘He’s dead! They killed him! He’s dead!’ ”


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