Matamoros, Mexico—an easy drive or stroll across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas—has been a popular hangout for vacationing college students since the 1930s. It is a typical border town, with all that implies: prostitution and sex shows, abundant alcohol and drugs, rampant poverty and crime. Each spring, some 250,000 students descend on Brownsville and Matamoros en masse, cutting loose after finals, relishing the extra kick of sowing wild oats on foreign soil. Those who came to celebrate in March 1989 didn’t know that Matamoros had logged 60 unsolved disappearances since New Year’s Day. If they had known, few would have cared.
One who made the scene that spring was Mark Kilroy, a pre-med junior from the University of Texas. Friends lost track of him in Matamoros, in the predawn hours of March 14, 1989, and reported his disappearance to police the next day. Unlike the others who had disappeared over the past 10 weeks, Kilroy was an Anglo with connections, including an uncle employed by the U.S. Customs Service. His disappearance conjured memories of the Enrique Camarena murder four years earlier, involving Mexico’s sinister “narcotrafficantes.” The heat was immediate and intense, spurred by a $15,000 reward for information leading to Kilroy’s safe recovery or the arrest of his abductors. American officials kept a close eye on the case, while Matamoros police interrogated 127 known criminals—a process frequently involving clubs and carbonated water laced with hot sauce, sprayed into a suspect’s nostrils.
It was all in vain.
Some of those held for questioning were fugitives, and so remained in jail, but none of them had seen Mark Kilroy. None could solve the mystery.
During the same time period Mexican authorities were busy with one of their periodic anti-drug campaigns, erecting roadblocks at random and sweeping border districts for unwary smugglers. The operations were designed to leave the wealthy druglords unscathed and to target their henchmen and runners.
Serafin Hernandez Garcia
One of those people lower on the totem pole, and well known in Matamoros, was Serafin Hernandez Garcia. The 20-year-old was the nephew, and lackey, of local drug baron Elio Hernandez Rivera. On April 1, 1989, Serafin drove past a police checkpoint outside Matamoros, seemingly oblivious to uniformed officers guarding the highway. They pursued him, their quarry still seeming to ignore, until he led them to a rundown ranch nearby. A quick search of the property revealed occult paraphernalia and traces of marijuana. Eight days later, returning in force, police arrested Serafin Hernandez and another drug dealer, David Serna Valdez. In custody, the pair seemed relaxed, even defiant. Police could not hold them, the prisoners insisted; they were “protected” by a power over and above man’s law.
Still, the two remained in jail while detectives quizzed a caretaker at the ranch. The caretaker readily named other members of the Hernandez drug syndicate as frequent visitors what was known as Rancho Santa Elena. Another one-time visitor was none other than Mark Kilroy, identified from a school photograph. In custody, Serafin Hernandez freely admitted participating in Kilroy’s abduction and murder—one of many committed over the past year or so at Rancho Santa Elena. The slayings were human sacrifices, he explained, executed to secure occult protection for various drug deals. “It’s our religion,” Hernandez explained. “Our voodoo.”
Hernandez identified the leader of his cult—El Padrino, the Godfather—as Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a master practitioner of the African magic called “palo mayombe.” It was Constanzo who ordered the slayings, Hernandez explained, and El Padrino who tortured and sodomized the victims prior to killing them and harvesting their organs for his ritual cauldron.
Black magic artifacts siezed by
Police returned to the ranch with Hernandez in tow. He readily pointed out the cult’s private graveyard and then when asked, used a shovel to unearth the first of 12 bodies buried in a tidy row. All the victims were men. Some had been shot at close range and others hacked to death with a machete. One of the bodies was Mark Kilroy, his skull split open, his brain missing. Detectives entering a nearby shed found the cult’s cast-iron kettle called a nganga brimming with blood, animal remains and 28 sticks—the “palos” of palo mayombe—which Constanzo’s disciples said they used to communicate with spirits in the afterlife. Floating in the pot with spiders, scorpions and other items that could scarcely be identified, they found Mark Kilroy’s brain.
Police unearthing bodies at Rancho
Santa Elena (AP)
Santa Elena (AP)
Police knew they were looking for a madman now—a wealthy one at that, surrounded by disciples who were cunning and well armed. The only thing they didn’t know about Adolfo Constanzo, was where in the world they could find him.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Born in Miami on November 1, 1962, Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo was the son of a 15-year-old Cuban immigrant, the first of her eventual three children by three different fathers. When he was six months old, Delia Aurora Gonzalez del Valle had her son blessed by a Haitian priest of “palo mayombe,” accepting the father’s judgment that her son was “a chosen one” and “destined for great power.” Adolfo was still an infant when his mother moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and while he was reputedly baptized a Catholic, serving briefly as an altar boy, the family’s true faith remained a dark secret. Gonzalez immersed herself in palo mayombe and taught her son likewise, trusting his magic education to practitioners in San Juan and nearby Haiti. In 1972 the family returned to Miami for good, Adolfo starting his full-time apprenticeship with a Haitian priest in Little Havana.
Constanzo’s home in Miami
His mother, for her part, was a habitual criminal, arrested 30 times on various charges ranging from trespassing to shoplifting, convicted of check fraud, grand theft and child neglect. But the charges never seemed to stick, and she always escaped with probation, crediting the law’s failure to her mystical religion. She left a string of rented houses in Miami vandalized, bloodstained and littered with the remains of sacrificial animals. Neighbors whispered that Delia was a witch, and those who angered her were likely to find headless goats or chickens on their doorsteps.
Delia Gonzalez Del
Constanzo followed in his mother’s footsteps, cruising Miami gay bars in his teens, indulging in petty crime. A poor student of anything but black magic, he graduated near the bottom of his high school class and dropped out of junior college after one embarrassing semester.
His interests lay elsewhere, learning the secrets of witchcraft from his mentor. Together they robbed graves to stock the priest’s caldron and spilled blood over voodoo dolls to curse their enemies. palo mayombe is an amoral religion, drawing no line between “black” and “white” magic, leaving each practitioner to choose his own path without prejudice. Drug dealers frequently trusted its tenets to protect their outlaw enterprise, but Constanzo’s godfather had stern words of advice for his protégé. “Let the nonbelievers kill themselves with drugs,” he counseled. “We will profit from their foolishness.”
Adolfo de Jesus
Constanzo as young
Constanzo as young
By 1976, his mother later claimed, Constanzo had begun to display psychic powers, predicting future events with amazing accuracy. Months before the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Constanzo reportedly predicted the event and proclaimed that Reagan would survive his wounds. Constanzo didn’t have as much luck foretelling his own future, which included two arrests for shoplifting in 1981, one case involving the theft of a chainsaw.
By early 1983, Constanzo had chosen his patron saint, pledging himself to Kadiempembe, his religion’s version of Satan. With his padrino’s blessing, he devoted himself to the worship of evil for profit. His final initiation included ritual scarring, his mentor wielding the knife to carve mystic symbols into Constanzo’s flesh. “My soul is dead,” he proclaimed, at the climax of that ceremony. “I have no god.”
The apprentice was ready to lead.
A modeling assignment took Constanzo to Mexico City in 1983, and he spent his free time telling fortunes with tarot cards in the city’s infamous Zona Rosa, a popular hangout for prostitutes. Before returning to Miami, Constanzo recruited his first Mexican disciples, including Martin Quintana Rodriguez, homosexual “psychic” Jorge Montes, and Omar Orea Ochoa, who had been obsessed with the occult from the age of 15. In short order, Constanzo seduced both Quintana and Orea, claiming one as his “man” and the other as his “woman,” depending on Adolfo’s romantic whim of the moment.
Martin Quintana Rodriguez & Omar
Martin Quintana Rodriguez & Omar
In mid-1984 Constanzo moved to Mexico City full-time, seeking what his mother referred to as “new horizons.” He shared quarters with Quintana and Orea, in a strange ménage à trois, collecting other followers as his “magic” reputation spread throughout the city. It was said that Constanzo could read the future, and he also offered limpias—ritual “cleansings”—for those who felt enemies had cursed them. Of course, it all cost money, and Constanzo’s journals, recovered after his death, document 31 regular customers, some paying up to $4,500 for a single ceremony. Constanzo established a menu for sacrificial beasts, with roosters going for $6 a head, goats for $30, boa constrictors for $450, adult zebras for $1,100, and African lion cubs listed at $3,100 each.
True to the teachings of his Florida mentor, Constanzo charmed wealthy drug dealers, helping them schedule shipments and meetings on the basis of his predictions. For a price, he also offered magic that would make gangsters and their bodyguards invisible to police, bulletproof against their enemies. It was all nonsense, but smugglers drawn from Mexican peasant stock and a background of brujeria (witchcraft) were strongly inclined to believe. According to Constanzo’s ledgers, one dealer in Mexico City paid him $40,000 for magical services over three years’ time.
At those rates, the customers demanded a show, and Constanzo recognized the folly of disappointing men who carried Uzis in their armor-plated limousines. Constanzo was well established by mid-1985, when he and three of his disciples raided a Mexico City graveyard for human bones to start his own bloody caldron. The rituals and air of mystery surrounding Constanzo were powerful enough to lure a cross-section of Mexican society, with his clique of followers including a physician, a real estate speculator, fashion models, and several transvestite nightclub performers.
Adolfo Constanzo aka El
Padrino in 1986
Padrino in 1986
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Constanzo’s new career was the appeal he seemed to have for high-ranking law enforcement officers. At least four members of the Federal Judicial Police joined Constanzo’s cult in Mexico City: one of them, Salvador Garcia Alarcon, was a commander in charge of narcotics investigations; another, Florentino Ventura Gutierrez, retired from the federales to head the Mexican branch of Interpol. In a country where bribery permeates all levels of law enforcement and federal agents sometimes serve as triggermen for drug lords, corruption is not unusual, but the devotion of Constanzo’s disciples seemed to run deeper than simple greed. In or out of uniform, they worshiped Constanzo as a minor god, their living conduit to the spirit world and ambassador to Hell itself.
In 1986, Ventura introduced Constanzo to the drug dealing Calzada family, then one of Mexico’s dominant narcotics cartels. Constanzo won the hard-nosed dealers over with his charm and mumbo-jumbo, profiting immensely from his contacts with the gang. By early 1987 he was able to pay $60,000 cash for a condominium in Mexico City and buy himself a fleet of luxury cars that included an $80,000 Mercedes Benz. When not working magic for the Calzadas or other clients, Constanzo staged scams of his own, once posing as a DEA agent to rip off a Guadalajara cocaine dealer and then selling the stash through his police contacts for a cool $100,000.
At some point in his odyssey from juvenile psychic to high-society wizard, Constanzo began to feed his nganga, or caldron, with the offerings of human sacrifice. No final tally for his victims is available, but 23 ritual murders are well-documented and Mexican authorities point to a rash of unsolved mutilation-slayings around Mexico City during the same period, suggesting that Constanzo’s known victims may be only the tip of a malignant iceberg. In any case, his willingness to torture and kill total strangers—or even close friends—duly impressed the ruthless drug dealers who remained his foremost clients.
In the course of a year’s association, Constanzo came to believe that his magical powers alone were responsible for the Calzada family’s continued success and survival. In April 1987 he demanded a full partnership in the syndicate and was curtly refused. On the surface, Constanzo seemed to take the rejection in stride, but his devious mind was plotting revenge.
On April 30, 1987 Guillermo Calzada Sanchez and six members of his household vanished under mysterious circumstances. They were reported missing on May 1 and police noted melted candles and other evidence of a strange religious ceremony at Calzada’s office. Six more days went by before officers began fishing mutilated remains from the Zumpango River. Seven corpses were recovered in the course of a week, all bearing signs of sadistic torture: fingers, toes and ears removed; hearts and genitals excised; part of the spine ripped from one body; two other corpses missing their brains.
The vanished parts, as it turned out, had gone to feed Constanzo’s nganga, building up his strength for greater conquests yet to come. By July 1987 he already had his next targets in mind.
Sara Maria Aldrete Villareal was born on September 6, 1964, the daughter of a Matamoros electrician. She crossed the border to attend Porter High School in Brownsville, where teachers remember her as a model student and a good kid. She maintained her star-pupil status in secretarial school, instructors urging her to attend a real college, but romance intervened. On Halloween Day in 1983 Aldrete married Brownsville resident Miguel Zacharias, 11 years her senior. The relationship quickly soured and five months later they were separated, moving inexorably toward divorce.
Late in 1985 Aldrete applied for and received resident alien status in the United States. Her next step was enrollment at Texas Southmost College, a two-year school in Brownsville. Admitted on a “work-study” program that deferred part of her tuition, Sara began classes in January 1986 as a physical education major, holding down two part-time jobs as an aerobics teacher and assistant secretary in the school’s athletic department
By the end of her first semester Aldrete stood out physically and academically. Standing at 6-foot-1, she was unusually tall for a Mexican woman and her grades were excellent. She was one of 33 students chosen from TSC’s 6,500-member student body for listing in the school’s Who’s Who directory for 1987-88. Aside from grades that placed her on the honor roll, Aldrete also organized and led a Booster Club for TSC’s soccer team, earning the school’s Outstanding Physical Education Award in her spare time.
Sara Maria Aldrete
With the breakup of her marriage, Aldrete had moved back home with her parents in Matamoros, constructing a special outside stairway to her second-floor room in the interest of privacy. She was home most weekends and during school vacations, looking forward to completion of her studies and the transfer to a four-year school that would bring her a P.E. teaching certificate. Attractive and popular with men, in 1987 she was dating Gilberto Sosa, a drug dealer associated with the powerful Hernandez family.
Aldrete was driving through Matamoros on July 30, 1987 when a shiny new Mercedes cut her off in traffic, narrowly avoiding a collision. The driver was apologetic, suave and handsome. He introduced himself as Adolfo Constanzo, a Cuban-American living in Mexico City. There was an instant chemistry between them, but Constanzo made no sexual overtures. He noted with pleasure that Aldrete’s birthday was the same as his mother’s.
In fact, the meeting was no accident. Constanzo had been watching Gilberto Sosa, weighing his connections. The meeting with Sara Aldrete was carefully stage-managed, as was their burgeoning friendship and her gradual introduction into the occult. Two weeks after their first encounter, Constanzo met Aldrete and Sosa in Brownsville, pointedly refusing to shake Sosa’s hand. Days later, an anonymous caller told Sosa that Aldrete was seeing another man. Jealous, he refused to accept her denials and broke off the relationship. She turned to Constanzo for solace, surprised when he told her he had seen the break-up coming in his tarot cards.
Constanzo finally took Aldrete to bed, but their sexual union was short-lived. He made no secret of his preference for men, and Aldrete grudgingly accepted it, already hooked on the religious aspect of their relationship. By summer’s end, Aldrete’s TSC classmates found her dramatically changed, an overnight expert on witchcraft and magic, eager to debate the relative powers of darkness and light. In private, Constanzo called her La Madrina, the “godmother” of his growing cult. He probed her links to the Hernandez clan, predicting that leader Elio would soon approach her for advice about a problem. When Elio did so, in November 1987, Sara introduced the dealer to El Padrino.
Season of the Witch
As it happened, the Hernandez family was ripe for a takeover, torn by internal dissension and threatened by outside competitors. Using every “magic” trick at his disposal, Constanzo persuaded Elio and the rest that palo mayombe could solve all their problems. Enemies could be eliminated in the course of sacrificial rituals; those rituals, in turn, would keep the family and its employees safe from harm. If they were faithful to Constanzo, his disciples would become invisible to the authorities and bulletproof in combat. In return, all he asked was 50 percent of the profits and effective control of the family.
Shed Constanzo used for black
Constanzo’s rituals became more elaborate and sadistic after he moved his cult headquarters to Rancho Santa Elena, 20 miles outside Matamoros. There, on May 28, 1988, Constanzo shot drug dealer Hector de la Fuente and a farmer named Moises Castillo, but the sacrifices didn’t satisfy him. Back in Mexico City, on July 16, he supervised the torture and dismemberment of Raul Paz Esquivel, a transvestite and former lover of cult member Jorge Montes. The gruesome remains were dumped on a public street, found by children who ran shrieking to summon police.
Mutilation and pain were essential to palo mayombe. Blood and viscera fed the nganga, manipulated with sticks as Constanzo tuned in the spirit world. The demons he served were more likely to smile on a sacrifice that died in agony. “They must die screaming,” El Padrino told his flock. As for the point in nearly every sacrifice where Constanzo sodomized his victims, that was simply a fringe benefit of playing god.
On August 10, 1988, in reprisal for an $800,000 drug rip-off, rival narcotics dealers kidnapped Ovidio Hernandez and his 2 -year-old sons. Constanzo’s ghoul squad kidnapped a stranger two days later and tortured him to death at Rancho Santa Elena, chanting prayers for the safe release of Hernandez and son. When the hostages were released on August 13, without a peso’s ransom changing hands, Constanzo claimed full credit for the triumph. His star was rising, and Constanzo paid little attention to the suicide of his disciple Florentino Ventura in Mexico City on September 17. (Ventura also killed his wife and a friend with the same burst of gunfire.)
In November 1988, after 35-year-old ex-cop and cult member Jorge Valente de Fierro Gomez violated El Padrino’s ban on using drugs, Constanzo made him the group’s next offering to Kadiempembe, a bloody object lesson in obedience. Competing smuggler Ezequiel Rodriguez Luna was tortured to death at the ranch on Valentine’s Day 1989; two other dealers, Ruben Vela Garza and Ernesto Rivas Diaz were added to the grisly list when they wandered into the ceremony uninvited. Nine days later, the cult kidnapped another stranger, never identified, but he put up such a fight that Constanzo ordered Elio Hernandez to shoot him without the customary rituals. On February 25 the prowling cultists accidentally kidnapped Jose Garcia, Elio’s 14-year-old cousin, slaying him before they recognized the error.
Adolfo de Jesus
By that time Constanzo was sitting on 800 kilos of marijuana stolen from another gang, but felt he needed one more sacrifice to guarantee safe shipment across the Rio Grande. Another ritual was staged on March 13, 1989, but the victim’s suffering was insufficient for Constanzo’s taste. “Bring me someone I can use,” he told his minions. “Someone who will scream.”
The next morning, they brought him Mark Kilroy.
Constanzo’s psychic powers must have failed him in March 1989, for he was stunned by the reaction to Mark Kilroy’s disappearance. Not even the Calzada family slaughter had produced such an outcry, most observers concluding that drug dealers and their lackeys were beyond protection of the law, a violent death their just reward. Some of Constanzo’s victims had never been reported missing; three of them, later unearthed with the rest at Rancho Santa Elena, have never been identified.
But Mark Kilroy was different. He came from an affluent family with political connections. More to the point, he was an Anglo tourist whose fate threatened to become an international incident. Local police wanted to solve the case quickly, before their tarnished reputation suffered any further damage.
Constanzo, for his part, still had 800 kilos of marijuana to move across the border. To safeguard the shipment, he staged one final sacrifice at the ranch, choosing Sara Aldrete’s old lover as the guest of honor. Gilberto Sosa died screaming on March 28, 1989, and the dope was safely transported on April 8, despite Serafin Hernandez leading police to the ranch one week earlier. Constanzo’s mules collected $300,000 for the load, while El Padrino congratulated himself on his magical powers.
Elio Hernandez Rivera,
arrest at ranch
arrest at ranch
The protective shield of magic was lifted the next day. Four members of the Hernandez family were arrested on April 9, before they could give Constanzo the cash from his last big deal. The ranch began surrendering its buried secrets on April 11, the butchered remains of 15 victims unearthed over the next six days. (Besides the first 12 buried in the cemetery, three more were found in a nearby orchard.) Constanzo went on the lam, traveling with Sara Aldrete, male lovers Martin Quintana and Omar Orea, and a Hernandez family hit man named Alvaro de Leon Valdez—”El Duby” to his friends. Miami beckoned, but informers told the DEA Constanzo might run home to mother, and the heat in Florida persuaded him to remain in Mexico City, shuttling from the home of one disciple to another.
Mexican wanted poster of Constanzo & cult member
The discoveries at Matamoros were tailor-made for tabloid television circa 1989. Geraldo Rivera aired a special prime-time segment on the case, while TV journalists flew in from the United States, Europe, and even Japan. Constanzo was “sighted” as far north as Chicago, where rumors placed him in league with the Windy City Mafia. Sara Aldrete was “seen” lurking around schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, word-of-mouth reports claiming she had threatened to kidnap and murder 10 Anglo children for each of her disciples jailed in Mexico. An alternative church at Pharr, Texas, was burned by nightriders after tales spread that its congregants were witches in thrall to Constanzo.
Still lawmen scoured the border in vain for El Padrino and his entourage, barely mollified by the April 17 arrest of gang patriarch Serafin Hernandez Rivera in Houston. Searching the house where he had been hiding, they seized weapons and cash, but found no occult paraphernalia. Constanzo and his closest aides, meanwhile, had simply disappeared.
‘They’ll Never Take Me’
Constanzo read betrayal in his tarot cards on April 18, 1989. He knew informers must have sold out Serafin Sr., and now he eyed his friends more warily. He kept an Uzi close at hand and rarely slept for more than a few minutes at a time. Increasingly, he threatened those around him with a power exceeding that of the police. “They cannot kill you,” he insisted, “but I can.”
On April 22, nocturnal arsonists struck at Rancho Santa Elena, burning Constanzo’s bloodstained ritual shed to the ground. The next morning he flew into a rage, watching on television as police conducted a full-dress exorcism at the ranch, sprinkling holy water over the graves and smoldering ashes. Constanzo stormed about the small apartment where he slept with Aldrete and the others, smashing lamps and overturning furniture, a man possessed.
Black magic shed burned by police
On April 24 police arrested cultist Jorge Montes, raiding his home three blocks from the site where the Calzada family was slaughtered in 1986. Like the others arrested before him, Montes spilled everything he knew about the cult, naming Constanzo as the mastermind and chief executioner in a string of grisly homicides.
Three days later, Constanzo and his four remaining cohorts settled into their last hideout, an apartment house on Rio Sena in Mexico City. Aldrete, fearing for her life, penned a note on May 2 and tossed it from a bedroom window to the street below. It read:
Please call the judicial police and tell them that in this building are those that they are seeking. Tell them that a woman is being held hostage. I beg for this, because what I want most is to talk—or they’re going to kill the girl.
A passerby found the note moments later, read it, and kept it to himself, believing it was someone’s lame attempt at humor. Upstairs, in the crowded flat, Constanzo began laying plans to flee Mexico with his hard-core disciples, perhaps starting fresh somewhere else. “They’ll never take me,” he assured his followers.
Those plans unraveled on May 6, 1989, when police arrived on Rio Sena, going door-to-door and asking questions. As luck would have it, they were searching for a missing child—a completely unrelated case—but when Constanzo glimpsed them from a window he panicked, opening fire with his submachine gun. Within moments, 180 policemen surrounded the apartment house returning fire in a fierce exchange that lasted some 45 minutes. Miraculously, the only person wounded was an officer struck by Constanzo’s first shots.
When Constanzo realized that escape was impossible, he handed his weapon to El Duby and issued new orders. As the hit man later told police, “He told me to kill him and Martin. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he hit me in the face and threatened that everything would go bad for me in hell. Then he hugged Martin, and I just stood in front of them and shot them with a machine gun.”
Constanzo & Quintana dead in
Constanzo and Quintana were dead when police stormed the apartment, slumped together in a closet, Constanzo dressed in shorts as if for a day at the beach. The three survivors—El Duby, Orea and Sara Aldrete—were promptly arrested and rushed off to jail. In custody, El Duby admitted shooting Constanzo, but he cheerfully informed police, “The godfather will not be dead for long.”