For the purposes of this category, the occult refers to occultism, which is a belief in supernatural powers and the possibility of bringing them under human control by way of secret practices, arts, or rituals. Occult practices which are part of a recognized religion included within the World Religions category should be listed within the specific religion category.
Ritual Murder at Santa Elena Ranch
In the spring of 1989, I was living in the small city of Los
Fresnos, north of Brownsville,
in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
I was a paramedic instructor with Texas Southmost College, just finishing
up a class for the Brownsville Fire Department's EMS department, when a
former student, a reporter for the Brownsville Herald, asked if I wanted
to accompany him to a mass murder scene in Matamoros,
Tamaulipas State Highway 2 runs west from Matamoros to Reynosa, a route that I had traveled many times. Highway 2 is narrow, two-lane highway and, once you leave Matamoros, the land is rural and agricultural. Rancho Santa Elena, our destination, was about twenty miles from Matamoros, along a dirt road north of the highway. Just short of one mile in is the ranch itself, with some barns, other outbuildings, and agricultural equipment. Further down the road, separated from the ranch by a corn field, was a small shack, once used for storing hay or feed.
Hundreds of people were there, including reporters from as far away as Japan. The stench of death was heavy in the air, but I couldn't see anything because of all of the people who were crowded everywhere. Someone was speaking through a loudspeaker but I couldn't understand any of it. Apparently, my friend was able to get enough information and a few photos, enough to run his story on the incident, and he was able to fill me in on the drive back to Brownsville.
Fifteen or sixteen bodies were being dug up from shallow graves in a corral just behind the shack. One of the killers, Sergio Martinez, was at the scene at the time, being forced by the Mexican police to do the digging. They were the victims of ritual occult murders, committed over a long period of time. Some of the killers were American citizens, and one of the victims was Mark Kilroy, a twenty-one year old college student from Santa Fe, Texas, whose disappearance had been a common theme in the press at the time.
Led by Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a Cuban-American from Miami, and Sara Aldrete Villarreal, a Brownsville resident, the group practiced a religion that was a mixture of Voodoo, Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Santismo, Satanism, and the writings of Carlos Castaneda, all supported by a massive drug smuggling operation.
Santeria, an offshoot of Voodoo, is common in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and wherever there are heavy concentrations of Hispanics, although the religion is generally interwoven with Catholicism, with Santerian saints being represented by Catholic saints. Palo Mayombe is sometimes described as the dark side of Santeria. Carlos Castanada came to the United States from Peru, and became the author of a series of books on shamanism that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
Adolfo Constanzo was raised in Santeria and, from an early age, he was thought to have powers that were sought out by many, including the ability to foretell and affect the future, and to cleanse a client's soul of evil. His clientele came to include government officials, police offers, drug dealers, and people from all walks of life, especially after he moved to Mexico City in 1983.
Sara Aldrete was a student, and part-time employee, in Texas Southmost College's physical education program. A friend of mine, an instructor with the TSC physical education department, knew her well, but only in the setting of Texas Southmost College, describing Sara as being a little odd, but was shocked to learn that she had been involved in mass murder. Some of her fellow students recalled that she wore a necklace that appeared to be made of bones, but they never considered that these bones were even real, and certainly not that they were the vertebrae of murdered victims.
Among the other members of the cult were members of a large-scale drug smuggling family, including Serafin Hernandez, Jr., who was also enrolled in the law enforcement program at Texas Southmost College.
The crimes were discovered after David Serna Valdez, and three other members of the group, ran through a narcotics interception roadblock near Rancho Santa Elena, believing that, because of their magical powers, they would be invisible to police. The authorities followed the silver Chevrolet onto the property, where they found marijuana and a revolver in the car.
After thirty-six hours of questioning by Mexican police, the four men confessed, and led the police to the shack where the ritual killings took place. They told how Constanzo had brought them together using Santeria practices until about nine months before, when he began using the rituals of Palo Mayombe, which called for human sacrifices. In return, members of the cult hoped to receive strength, riches, and protection from the police.
There were other victims besides those unearthed at Rancho Santa Elena. An uncertain number of victims are believed to have been murdered by the group near Mexico City, where the cult's leader, and other members of the group were later killed or captured, and a search of Aldrete's home revealed an altar with bloody clothing belong to children, although no bodies were discovered. It is believed that the group's victims numbered around one hundred.
A few days after my first visit to the shack at Santa Elena Ranch, I returned, this time with another friend of mine, who was then a dispatcher for the South Padre Island Police Department. We expected to be turned away but, as we passed the ranch, we could see one Mexican police car in the driveway, but there was no one at the shack or the area around it.
The collection of evidence in Mexico differs from what we might expect in the United States. As we approached the shack, we could see that the murder weapons, a machete and a very large screwdriver, had been returned to the scene, and were lying on a porch area just outside the shack. The ground outside the shack was covered with used small caliber shell casings.
Just outside the doorway to the shack was a large caldron, known as a nganga, which had several bloody mesquite sticks protruding from it, and contained a bloody mess that, I later learned, include a goat's head, turtle parts, portions of Mark Kilroy's brain, and dozens of gold-colored beads. Alongside the nganga were some wooden bowls, one of which contained what appeared to be several pennies, lying in blood. A metal drum was filled with empty corn liquor bottles.
A large cross, constructed from what appeared to be the branches of a tree, was leaning against one side of the building. The cross was not there on my previous visit.
If anything, the stench was worse than it had been a few days earlier. Inside, the floor of the shack was badly stained with blood. Placed along the floor were partly-burned votive candles, and a few boxes of unused black and white candles. Strewn along the floor were cigar butts, peppers, corn liquor bottles, and broken glass.
On a back porch was an altar made of concrete construction bricks. The altar, and the wood floor beneath it, were covered with blood.
Behind the shack was the corral. The graves had not been recovered, and bone fragments were left lying about, along with a few Texas license plates. We didn't stay long, in part because of the smell, but also because we were afraid that the Mexican police would be along at any time.
Only a few days after my second visit to the shack, I read in the newspaper that it had been burned. While not reported in the newspaper, from local knowledge the murder weapons had been returned so that the area could be cleansed by fire. The cross that we found leaning up against the wall was a part of the cleansing ceremony, and the fire completed it.