The Believers: Cult Murders in Mexico

They thought their rituals of human sacrifice would make them invincible. In the end, a much stronger force prevailed.


For Mark Kilroy and his friends, the nightmare began as a spring-break blowout. In the early hours of Saturday, March 11th, Kilroy, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Huddleston and Bradley Moore, both juniors at Texas A&M, and Brent Martin, a student at Alvin Community College, in Alvin, Texas, packed into Martin's car and hit the road bound for South Padre Island, a balmy stretch of sand and sea where the southern tip of the Lone Star State meets the Gulf of Mexico. The quartet — all former high-school basketball and baseball teammates from Santa Fe, Texas — were looking forward to a week of drinking, sunning and meeting girls on the beach. Blond and well built, a premed and a good athlete, Kilroy, 21, was the all-American boy next door, described by one of his friends as "an above-average kind of guy."

On Sunday the four youths decided to make a short trip to nearby Brownsville and then cross the Rio Grande to Matamoros, a scrappy, booming border town whose main attraction to thousands of spring-break students each year is Calle Alvaro Obregon, a wide avenue of bars and discos where you can get a cold Corona with lime for a dollar. Along the way the friends stopped at a hamburger joint and hooked up with a foursome of Kansas coeds who were looking for directions to Matamoros. Once across the border, they rendezvoused with their dates at a club called Sgt. Pepper's. "The line outside wasn't too bad," says Huddleston, "but it was pretty crowded." The boys drank and danced until about 2:30 a.m., then headed back to their hotel.

The following night, after dropping in at a party thrown by some of Kilroy's fraternity brothers, he and his friends decided to pay a second visit to Matamoros. This time, though, they parked their car on the American side of the border and walked across the bridge to Calle Obregon.

The first stop was El Sombrero, where they had a couple of drinks before moving a few blocks farther down the street to a joint that had recently been rechristened the Hard Rock, to attract American kids. There Mark left the group to talk to a woman that he knew. "Mark was hanging around with a girl who got third place in the tanning contest," says Huddleston. Eventually, Kilroy said goodnight to his female friend, and the four youths started walking back toward the bridge. Spirits were high as the friends traded banter about the day's events. About 200 feet from the American border, Huddleston ran ahead to urinate behind a tree in the small park that lies at the beginning of Calle Obregon. As he left Kilroy's side, Huddleston noticed a Mexican man motioning in their direction. "I thought maybe it was someone Mark might've known," says Huddleston. "I heard him say something like 'Didn't I just see you somewhere?' or 'Where did I last see you?'" When Huddleston joined Moore and Martin a few moments later, Kilroy wasn't with them. After backtracking to look for his friend, Huddleston crossed the border, expecting to find Kilroy at the car with Moore and Martin. The trio waited a few more minutes, then left, thinking that Kilroy had gotten a ride back to the hotel with somebody else. Says Huddleston, "When we woke up the next morning and we still hadn't heard from him, that's when we knew something was wrong."

The search for Mark Kilroy started as a routine missing-persons case. Students were often reported missing in Matamoros, only to turn up the next day with a ferocious hangover and no memory of the night before. But it soon became clear that Mark's case was different. Authorities on both sides of the Rio Grande suspected foul play, but the police were short on leads. Donald Wells, the U.S. consul in Matamoros, was contacted, and a description of Kilroy was circulated in jails and hospitals. Two days later investigators called in a hypnotist in the hope of turning up some clues. Under hypnosis, Moore told police that he had last seen Kilroy talking to a young Hispanic man with a cut on his face.

Meanwhile, Mark's parents, James and Helen Kilroy, flew to Brownsville to lead the search. Over the next few weeks the Kilroys mounted a determined campaign to locate their son. They circulated 20,000 leaflets throughout the Rio Grande valley offering a $15,000 reward for any information concerning his whereabouts. The Kilroys also met with representatives of several key Texas officials, including Attorney General Jim Mattox, Governor William Clements and Senator Lloyd Bentsen. On Sunday, March 26th, Mark Kilroy's case was featured on the television crime program America's Most Wanted. The show generated an outpouring of mail and telephone calls but no useful clues. A few days later the Kilroys returned to their home in Santa Fe but vowed not to give up their search. "It was very hard for us to come back because we wanted Mark to be with us," Helen Kilroy told reporters. "But the police promised us that they wouldn't lessen the intensity of their investigation."

The break in the case ultimately resulted from an unrelated effort. A few days before the Kilroys flew home, the United States and Mexico announced the implementation of a massive drug interdiction program along the border. The antidrug operation included 1200 agents, a dozen helicopters and thirty airplanes, and it was described by one official as "possibly the largest of its kind."

In early April, some three weeks after Mark Kilroy had vanished from the streets of Matamoros, Elio Hernandez Rivera, 22, a resident of Matamoros, was arrested for running a routine police roadblock and possessing marijuana. Under questioning, Hernandez Rivera identified several drug dealers and revealed that his family owned a small ranch in the parched hinterlands about twenty miles west of Matamoros. On April 11th, Hernandez Rivera was taken in handcuffs to the Santa Elena Ranch. The area had long been known by the police as a favored staging area for a ring of marijuana smugglers. So it was no surprise when the group, led by Comandante Juan Benitez Ayala of the Mexican Federal Police, found seventy-five pounds of marijuana on the property.

But the federales were unprepared for what happened next. In what had become a routine procedure, they showed a photograph of Kilroy to the ranch caretaker and asked if he had seen the missing American. Yes, Kilroy had been there, the caretaker told them, pointing to a corral and a tin and tarpaper shack on a rise about 400 yards away. As the lawmen approached the corral, they were engulfed by the sickening stench of decaying flesh. Buried in several shallow graves in the immediate area were the remains of twelve males, including the mutilated body of Mark Kilroy. Some of the victims had been slashed with knives, others shot. At least one had been burned, another hanged. Many had been savagely disfigured, their hearts ripped out, their ears, eyes and testicles removed. One had been decapitated. Eventually three more bodies would be found in the area, bringing the count of corpses to fifteen.

Inside the windowless shack the federales were confronted with another ghastly sight. On the blood-smeared floor, amid a battery of still-glowing candles, stood an iron kettle filled with iron and wooden spikes, a charred human brain and a roasted turtle. Other urns contained a grisly stew of congealed blood, human hair and animal parts. Scattered about the room were coconut shells, cigars and cane liquor, an iron bed frame, heavy electrician's tape, a blood-caked machete and a hammer. Police also discovered a large oil drum that seemed to have been used to boil some of the victims. One witness described the scene as "a human slaughterhouse." One of the first Americans to arrive at the site was Lieutenant George Gavito of the Cameron County Sheriff's Department, whose jurisdiction includes Brownsville. Says Gavito, "I've been on the force fifteen years, and there are no words to describe what I saw there."

The police also found it difficult to believe their ears. According to testimony by Hernandez Rivera and four other confederates, the victims had been ritually slain in the belief that human sacrifices would make the gang invincible and protect their drug business from the police. Two of the cultists were rumored to have been wearing necklaces made from human vertebrae when they were arrested. They said that their rites made them invisible and impervious to bullets. At one point a member of the cult pulled back his shirt to show a series of marks on his arms and back. The symbols, he explained, "marked" him as a killer.

But when the suspects were asked who had murdered Kilroy, they answered, "El Padrino," the Godfather. Based on their testimony, warrants were issued for the arrest of five more members of the cult, including Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, 26, the mastermind and religious leader of the group, and Sara Aldrete, a twenty-four-year-old student at Texas Southmost College, in Brownsville, who came to be known as Constanzo's "godmother" or "the witch."

The suspects, who showed no sign of remorse during their confessions, said that Kilroy was kidnapped after Constanzo ordered the sacrifice of an Anglo student. Kilroy, they told police, had almost escaped, but he had been wrestled back into the car and taken out to the ranch. After being bound and gagged with heavy tape, Kilroy had been imprisoned in the shack. He was told that nothing would happen to him, and he was fed a meal of eggs, bread and water. Twelve hours after he had been captured, Kilroy was led outside, and Constanzo executed him with a chop to the back of the neck with a machete. When the police found Kilroy's body in one of the graves at the ranch, his legs had been severed at the knee and his brain and spine had been removed.

Several times during their interrogation, the suspects made references to the 1987 horror film The Believers. Starring Martin Sheen and directed by John Schlesinger, the film is about a cult in New York City that conducts human sacrifices to gain money and power. Elio Hernandez Rivera and the others said that Sara Aldrete had organized screenings of the movie and that they had watched it "many times." A subsequent search of Aldrete's bedroom in her parents' house in Matamoros turned up a makeshift altar of black candles, beaded necklaces and cigars near a blood-splattered wall.

Experts identified the objects found in the killing shack and in Aldrete's room as accouterments of Santeria, an underground Caribbean religion in which African gods are identified with Roman Catholic saints, and of Palo Mayombe, a darker mix of voodoo and African gods with origins in the Congo. Philip Carlo, a New York writer and expert on the occult, is certain that Constanzo was dedicated to a specific spirit of the Palo Mayombe cult known as Oggun, the patron god of criminals and criminal activity. According to Carlo, the presiding priest, or mayombero, becomes possessed by the spirits and blows cigar smoke and spits liquor at his victim before killing him. "Constanzo had all of Oggun's implements, i.e., a horseshoe, a chain, railroad spikes, things of metal," says Carlo. "Constanzo traveled to Haiti about fourteen or fifteen months ago. People who make human sacrifices are practicing with negative energy. Constanzo was a sadistic psychopath, a very, very dangerous individual."

While both Santeria and Palo Mayombe can include offerings of animal sacrifice and exhumed human bones, neither religion, as commonly practiced, involves the killing of humans. "The last recorded case of human sacrifice was in the Caribbean around the turn of the century," says Anthony Zavaleta, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Texas Southmost. "Constanzo had already gone to the dark side of Santeria in his Palo Mayombe practices, specifically for the magical purposes of protection, of power and so forth. And then he became even more deviant in terms of human sacrifice."

Santeria, in fact, ran in Constanzo's blood. Constanzo's mother and grandmother were both known santeras, or priestesses, who worshiped the spirits at altars in their Miami, Florida, homes. Neighbors of the Constanzos remember that as a boy, Adolfo would sometimes leave dead animals on other people's doorsteps. A known homosexual who frequented Mexico City's Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone, Constanzo had lived in the capital for several years before moving to Matamoros. There he was able to establish himself as a drug lord and a feared mayombero who commanded respect from other drug dealers and total obedience from members of his cult. "His use of ritual and so forth clearly served as a point of fascination to people around him and the people he brought in," says Zavaleta. "But he also had to be extremely charismatic. He was the Pied Piper of death."

The bustling four-lane bridge that links Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, seems more like a congested freeway than the frontier between two countries. The steady flow of international traffic is integral to both towns, as timeless and inevitable as the Indian women and black-eyed boys who hawk candies and Chiclets chewing gum to the passing motorists.

Nearly every day until her sudden disappearance, Sara Aldrete crossed the bridge to attend Texas Southmost, a two-year institution with a mixed student body of about 6000 Anglos, Hispanic Americans and Mexicans. At Texas Southmost, where both Spanish and English can be heard in the halls and many of the professors are bilingual, Aldrete not only fit in but also excelled. Attractive and, at just under six feet, uncommonly tall for a Mexican, Aldrete was in every way a model student — bright, gregarious and hard-working.

"She was an excellent student, friendly and unfailingly polite," recalls one of her instructors. "I could have used a lot more like her." A physical-education major who worked several hours each week performing clerical chores for the athletic department, Aldrete also found time to shine in extracurricular activities. In 1988, Aldrete, who was president of the soccer booster club, was named Outstanding Physical-Education Student and listed in the school's student who's who. The same year Aldrete's picture appeared in four different places in the school yearbook, and she was a recipient of the National Collegiate Health Physical Award. Recalls a fellow student, "She was the kind of person who always said hi to you."

The day after the graves were discovered at the Santa Elena Ranch, Aldrete did not show up at school. "She called and said she wouldn't be coming in anymore," recalls a student who worked with her in the physical-education office. "She said she had to work out some personal problems." When news reports identified Aldrete as a cult witch, the reaction among students and faculty members was one of complete shock. It seemed impossible that the bright, industrious girl they knew could be involved with an evil gang of murderous drug dealers. "We never suspected anything," says one student. "It seemed incredible." To this day there are many people at the school who think that Aldrete is innocent or, at worst, an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

The more likely explanation, however, is that Aldrete was leading a double life of mind-boggling cultural contradiction. One life took place in the urban world of English, sports and academic achievement; the other in the rural terra incognita of Santa Elena, drugs and black magic. "It's not unusual for Mexican students to leave their social lives on the opposite side of the border," says Roberto Cortina, who was Aldrete's Spanish professor. "People would figure that your friends are on the other side and vice versa." In the bicultural society of Brownsville-Matamoros, Aldrete must have found it relatively easy to keep her two lives separate, switching back and forth as easily as she crossed the border, until events outside of her control forced her finally to choose between two incompatible realities.

Since Sara Aldrete's abrupt departure from Texas Southmost, an atmosphere of unease has descended on the college. When Aldrete's name is mentioned, most students respond with blank stares or quickly walk away. Meanwhile, blemishes have begun to appear on Aldrete's once-pristine image. In the aftermath of the murders, some students have begun to remember things about her that, while innocent enough at the time, now seem like clues that Aldrete was not who she seemed to be.

Some students wonder how the daughter of a retired electrician was able to afford a 1989 car with a built-in telephone. Others recall that she had a penchant for wearing black. Most significant, perhaps, is a story making the rounds that tells of the night Aldrete persuaded three male friends to screen a video of The Believers. After the film, say the students, Aldrete stood up and began to preach in strange tones about the occult. "They had been drinking, and they just thought she was trying to be spooky," says one student who knows the boys, "but they look back at it now and think, 'She must have been serious.' "

Beyond the campus, graphic media reports of the Santa Elena killings drew attention to Satanism and the occult. Throughout the Rio Grande Valley, town meetings and university seminars on voodoo and witchcraft drew overflow crowds, and attendance at churches swelled. A false rumor that Satanists were planning to kidnap children in retaliation for the Matamoros bust caused hundreds of nervous Texans to pull their kids out of school. Geraldo Rivera capitalized on the hysteria with an edition of his show titled "Drugs, Death and the Devil: South of the Border."

In Mexico, meanwhile, the search for Constanzo and Aldrete took on the dimensions of a holy war. At stake was not only the reputation of the Mexican Federal Police but also a superstitious people's faith in the ability of good to ferret out and vanquish evil. A fortnight after the last bodies were exhumed from the killing grounds at Santa Elena, the federales burned the death shack to the ground and laid a wooden cross on the ashes. While the Mexicans offered no official explanation for their action, they did have a supernatural motive. Says Lieutenant Gavito, who was in charge of the Matamoros investigation for the Cameron County Sheriff's Department, "They knew that the shack meant a lot to Constanzo, and they felt that by burning it down, they would hit him where it hurts."

Two witnesses, Anthony Zavaleta and Frank Ordoñez, a photographer for the Brownsville Herald, confirm that the destruction of the shack was accompanied by a purification rite performed by a curandero, or healer. "The process had already started when I got there," says Ordoñez. "He was going through these hand motions, gesturing, then he closed his eyes and made the sign of the cross. Later, when the shack was burning, I saw him throwing bags of white powder on the flames. I was told that it was to drive away the evil spirits."

Two weeks after the burning of Constanzo's shrine, the police surrounded a rust-colored apartment building on a quiet residential street in Mexico City. Inside, the black-magic priest realized that the end was near. In a final, desperate act of defiance, Constanzo began throwing wads of money out of the window and firing his gun at passersby. "He went crazy, crazy," recalls cult member Alvaro de Leon Valdez, 22.

Constanzo's ability to bend weaker minds to his will was a talent that served him right up to the moment of his death. As the cops closed in, Constanzo ordered Alvaro de Leon Valdez to shoot him and his longtime companion, Martin Quintana Rodriguez. "He was telling him, 'Do it, do it. If you don't do it, you're going to pay with circumstances in hell,'" said Aldrete afterward. "He said that he wanted to die with Martin."

When the federales burst into the apartment a few moments later, they found black candles, two swords, a skull made of white wax and a blindfolded doll holding another doll. Constanzo and Quintana were found slumped together in a small closet, their bodies riddled with bullets. De Leon Valdez, Aldrete and three other members of the cult were arrested on charges of homicide, criminal association, wounding a police agent and damage to property.

Aldrete denied that she had participated in the ritual slayings and said that she had only learned about them from televised news reports. "It was like hell," Aldrete said of the cult. "They treated me like a prisoner. It was hell." But police remain convinced that Aldrete was a willing member of the group and that she had lured at least one of the victims, Gilberto Sosa, to his death. "I wonder which one came on TV, the student or the witch," says one American law-enforcement official close to the case. "I think she's a witch, a crook, and she's guilty as hell."

While Constanzo's death marked the close of a hideous case, the effects of his dark doings continue to reverberate. The disquieting notion persists that some of Constanzo's confederates may still be at large and that there may be others like him waiting to take his place. Sources close to the investigation have hinted that the cult's ties extended far beyond Matamoros and into the highest echelons of Mexican society. The Dallas Morning News reported that Constanzo used his good looks and claims of clairvoyance to charm Mexico's elite and attract drug traffickers and cultists willing to do anything for him. His clients — including top-ranking police and government officials, as well as popular entertainers — reportedly paid as much as $8000 a session for Constanzo's predictions and ritual "cleansings," which promised good luck.

Still, for people on both sides of the Mexican-American border, the news that the cultists had been captured was like waking up from a bad dream. "It won't be as tranquil as before," said one Matamoros resident. "Never, or at least not for a while." For weeks after the discovery of Mark Kilroy's body, El Sombrero and other clubs that catered to American students remained eerily empty, with rock music pounding out the beat for nonexistent dancers. Farther down Calle Alvaro Obregon, a bar frequented by the locals was packed with bodies, but the revelers were noticeably skittish, traveling only in groups of three or more. "After the massacres," said a cab driver, "everything went to hell."

There is a widespread feeling among the citizens of Brownsville and Matamoros that the reputations of both towns have been unfairly maligned. When Jim Mattox, the Texas attorney general, said on Geraldo that despite the killings, Brownsville remained safer than Washington, D.C., or New York, the local studio audience burst into applause. Donald Wells, the American consul in Matamoros, is among those who are optimistic that the tourist trade will recover in time for next year's spring-break crowds. "Quite frankly, beer is cheap in Mexico, and the Mexicans make some of the finest beer in the world," says Wells. "Matamoros is a decent, hard-working Christian community. If there is any message, it is this: If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere."

James and Helen Kilroy have turned their grief into action by establishing a nonprofit antidrug foundation in Mark's name. "We're definitely putting our energy into the fight against drugs," said Mr. Kilroy after hearing that his son's killer was dead. "For that reason, we don't look back. We try to look forward."

The ghost of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, however, would not be so easily put to rest. Two days after the shootout in Mexico City, there came a final bizarre twist in the case. On May 9th the New York Times ran an item that raised the possibility that Constanzo's death might have been faked and that he might still be at large. Armando Ramirez, the resident agent in charge for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Brownsville, was quoted as saying that the faces of Constanzo and Quintana had been so badly mutilated by bullets that positive identification was impossible. The final verdict would have to wait until fingerprints and dental charts could prove whether or not the story of Constanzo's death was not merely a clever trick engineered by the cultists to give their leader time to make his getaway.

The next day Ramirez confirmed that he had received assurances from the Mexicans that Constanzo's death pact was no ruse: El Padrino had been his own last victim. Said Ramirez: "When you get right down to it, Constanzo was a killer, he was a madman, and he proved it right up to the end. We had to be sure he was dead."