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Mexico Massacre : Potent Mix of Ritual and Charisma

May 16, 1989|MARJORIE MILLER and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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