Episode 40 | Voodoo, Murder and Human Sacrifices | A Death Cult in Mexico (PART 1)
April 9, 1989, was just another day on the field for Juan Benitez Ayala and his federal officers. Following a tip-off from U.S. Customs, that drugs had come into Brownsville from this part of Matamoros, they had stationed the days’ roadblock east of the city located in Tamaulipas. Ayala was spearheading an operation with the DEA that promised to be one of the largest drug raids the two agencies had executed. Since March they had been mounting roadblocks, searching cars, and making sure no drugs were crossing the border. It had been an uneventful day. That is, till a truck ran right through the checkpoint.
The policemen looked after the vehicle in perplexity and shock.
Did he not see them?
Quickly, the officers hopped into their vehicle and chased the truck till it to drew to a stop in a ranch. It was the Rancho Santa Elena, a property owned by the Hernandez family. Drugs were seized, people were arrested.
But what was supposed to be an ordinary drug bust took a turn for the worse when policemen spotted a lone wooden structure 400 feet away. The unmistakable stench of rotting flesh filled the air as they warily approached the building. They powered through it. At the entrance to the shed was a cauldron within it were sticks, a dead black cat, the head of a goat, and a human brain, all floating on a thick bloody fluid with chunks of flesh.
The men turned and ran, making the sign of the cross. In their wake, Ayala shouted, “Get me a curandero! No-one steps foot in here until this place has been cleansed by a curandero!”
To himself, he muttered, “God help us.
Across the border, in Brownsville, Texas. A young woman had hurriedly booked plane tickets to Mexico. “Are we ready?” An impatient handsome man demanded.
“I can’t find it! I can’t find my passport!”
The man exploded in a profanity-laced attack, “meet us in Mexico, we don’t have the time for this shit!” She watched them as they scuttled out of the Holiday Inn there in Brownsville. They had been laying low since the news broke, but the noose seemed to be tightening. Their options were limited but at least in Mexico, they had more followers willing to protect them.
A waiting car, took the men to the airport leaving the woman in its dust.
She looked down on herself, shaken. Just a few weeks before, her tall, athletic build had been the pride of Texas Southmost College, a darling honor student, and cheerleader. Now, years spent perfecting her double life were gone. Her long dark hair was cut and tinted blonde in an attempt to disguise her face. A face that the US and Mexican police were now on the lookout for… She was only known as one thing now - La madrina, THE GODMOTHER.
24 years earlier, long before being given the title of La Maderina, Sara Aldrete was born the first of three daughters to a catholic family in Matamoros, Mexico in September 1964. While still living in Mexico, Aldrete attended high school just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, USA. At the age of 14, she met her childhood sweetheart, Elio Hernandez Rivera. Remember the name, it’s very important. The teen romance didn't last- puppy love never does. By 19, Aldrete dated and married Miguel Zacharias on Halloween 1983. It was a short-lived affair, and in 5 months, citing irreconcilable differences, I’m citing a Halloween curse, Aldrete was back in her parent’s home in Matamoros. Now, an American citizen, thanks to her marriage. There, she constructed a special outside stairway to her second-floor room. For privacy, she had said.
At 21, She enrolled in college and became a student of Texas Southmost College through a work-study program that allowed her to attend school while working in the school. Ever the over-achiever, Aldrete took on two part-time jobs as an aerobics teacher and an assistant secretary in the school’s athletic department while majoring in Physical Education.
There, she excelled as an honor student with a top GPA. She was also President of the Women’s volleyball club and got listed in the school’s directory of who’s who. She had it goin’ on. She planned to complete the two-year study and then transfer to a 4-year school for a Physical Education Teaching Certificate. There’s an expression those who can't do teach those who can't teach teach PE. But Sara Aldrete was going places and no one would stop her. All that changed in the summer of 1987 when a shiny new Mercedes cut her off in traffic. She slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing a collision.
A svelte, handsome form exited the Mercedes. He was apologetic and contrite. “His name,” he said, “was Adolfo Constanzo, could he buy her lunch as an apology?” Aldrete was curious, intrigued, and attracted to the charming stranger. They got to talking and he seemed to know so much about her. He knew she didn’t drink and even told her that her then boyfriend, Gilberto Sosa, a drug dealer associated with the Hernandez family, would break up with her. How could he be so sure? Through, of all things, tarot cards. And boom, just like he had said, 2 weeks later her boyfriend Sosa dumped her. He had received a mysterious call that she was cheating on him. Her denials fell on deaf ears. Distraught, she turned to her new friend for solace the one who had predicted it all- Constanzo.
One of the topics that intrigued her the most was his demonstrated ability in the occult. She had taken an anthropology class in college and was desperate to know more.
By the end of the summer, her schoolmates started to notice a slight change in behavior with Aldrete. She had seemingly become an expert in all things witchcraft. She started to wear black and got a new car, one of the pricier ones at the time that had a phone in it. Her parents would only discover that her room up on the 2nd floor had become an occult wonderland, complete with a blood-splattered altar when her crimes were revealed and the search for her began. Aldrete had mastered how to maintain her two separate lives perfectly. Detectives would say that she had two distinct personalities: the innocent-faced girl she put on for the camera and the one she bared for the interrogations.
But her mask slipped from time to time, once, after a fun night out drinking while in school Sara persuaded three male friends to watch a movie together called ‘The believers’. A 1987 horror movie about a cult with Palo mayombe origins that believed in child sacrifice to gain money and power. After the movie, the friends said she stood up and started preaching in a strange tone about the occult. They had thought maybe she just had a little too much but, Aldrete had been trying to recruit members into the cult.
The movie was instrumental to Aldrete and Constanzo and they often watched it with their followers as some sort of visual bible of their practices.
Eventually, Constanzo and Aldrete would end up in bed together. But, Constanzo told her he was not a one-woman-man (or a one-man-man for that matter). Aldrete didn’t care, she had already fallen hard and was bound to him by the ties of their shared interest in his religion.
Aldrete felt this was fate. She and Constanzo were meant to be.
What Aldrete didn’t know was that that fate was a carefully orchestrated sequence of events planned by Constanzo. He wanted to enter a partnership with The Hernandez family and Aldrete had the key.
The Hernandez family ran a massive drug operation ring in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. The leader of the operation, Saul Hernandez had recently been killed in a drive-by shootout and the group was tearing themselves apart. This was Constanzo’s opportunity. Which was why he needed Aldrete. She had had a relationship with one of the Hernandez brothers – Elio Hernandez, the one that was her amour when she was 14. I told you not to forget the name. And, if he played his cards right, he would have the Hernandez’s at his boots. If there was one thing Constanzo knew, it was how to pull the right cards.
Constanzo was the first of three boys born to Delia Aurora Gonzalez del Valle aka Aurora Gonzalez Constanzo, aka Delia Posodo (yeah she had a few aliases) After immigrating from Cuba at age 15 she settled in tropical Dade county, Miami, Florida.
Constanzo was still an infant when his father died and Delia took her young son and moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. There, she met and married her second husband, with whom she had her second son. Constanzo was baptized in the catholic church and even served as an altar boy at mass on Sundays. When he was 10, Delia moved the family back to Miami, Florida where they lived in little Havana where husband number 2 soon died leaving a comfortable inheritance behind.
Delia remarried. Again. oh no! who’s gonna warn him! Fortunately, (or unfortunately), this father lived. He was a drug trafficker and practitioner of Palo mayombe. He became Costanzo’s guide into the religion. Up until then, Delia had guided her son in the teachings of Santeria.
Santeria and Palo Mayombe are both Afro-Cuban religions. Palo Mayombe is believed to have arisen in the early 1500s from the Kongo religion of the Bakong people, a region across Central Africa spanning parts of Gabon, Angola, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While Santeria rose in the 1900s from the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
Though different in their ways there are a lot of similarities between Santeria and Palo Mayombe; They are both amoral, in that worshippers have no distinctive moral compass of wrong and right. They both involve the ritual use of animal remains. But, Palo Mayombe went a step further. They use human skeletal remains in order to possess the soul of the dead. These are usually retrieved from graves and would be placed in an iron or clay pot called an nganga. The nganga was an altar to contact the spirit realm and pray to deities. It is believed to hold the essence of the spirits and by sacrificing certain items to the cauldron, its priest could attract various blessings. The priest could then contact the spirit realm and worship deities through the nganga using the items placed in it. Earthly items like sticks, earth, and bones go into the nganga. But that’s not all that goes in. Human hair, nails, animal parts, scorpion parts among others have all been found in ngangas.
In all, about a million enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba to work on the many plantations, across the Island. Even though Roman Catholicism was the only religion that could be practiced openly, the slaves clung to their religious traditions as best they could even with being forced to practice catechism. After all, it was all they had connecting them to home. It also definitely helped that they could use it to curse their masters. As time passed, both religions got mixed with parts of Catholicism and Espiritisimo.
The religion became widespread in the 1960s after the Cuban revolution, with millions of Cubans migrating to the Americas; Latino communities, black and white Americans were all receiving of the religion. Especially in New York and Miami.
Delia didn’t neglect her Cuban roots. As early as 6 months old, she had had Constanzo blessed by a Haitian priest of the Palo mayombe religion while they lived in Miami. Even while in Puerto Rico, she would take 9-year old Constanzo with her on trips to Haiti, where she and her son learned from its practitioners and priests of Santeria. Often making young Constanzo kill animals and rewarding him with praises when he did so.
In 1972, the neighbors in Little Havana started to notice strange things going on in their neighborhood; headless goats and chickens on doorsteps, right beside your Miami Herald newspaper. The streets would be littered with corpses of geese and the discarded carcasses of dead animals. A woman rented a house on the street and found an altar and remains of sacrificed animals and ritualism scattered all around the residence. Its previous owner: Delia Constanzo. Neighbors whispered that Delia was a witch and a lot of the houses that woke up to dead headless animals at the doorsteps were people she had quarreled with and attempted to curse. So the neighbors avoided her and little Constanzo never had anyone to play with.
Delia was also a habitual criminal. She had been arrested close to 30 times from numerous charges ranging from trespassing to shoplifting, check fraud, grand theft, and child neglect. Numerous as these charges were, the charges just never seemed to stick. She credited this to her religion.
The apple did not fall too far from the tree and Constanzo, for his part, spent his teens cruising gay bars and indulging in petty crimes.
Aided by his mother, in 1976 Constanzo started walking the path from the Santeria to Palo Mayombe. As a teenager, he became a full-time apprentice to a Haitian priest in Little Havana. He had no interest in school and graduated near the bottom of his class. Constanzo’s real interest lay elsewhere; learning the secrets of witchcraft from his new step-father and palero. Together, they would rob graves for bones and spill the blood of animals over voodoo dolls as they cursed their enemies. One counsel constantly told him: ‘Let the non-believers kill themselves with drugs. We will profit from their foolishness.’ At 21 , his mother performed the final initiation on him and presented him with his very own nganga. Mystic symbols were carved into his flesh as he proclaimed for all to hear: “My soul is dead. I have no god.”
After school, and with little else to go on, Constanzo started life as a male model. He was a charismatic, attractive man and quickly scored some good-paying gigs. In 1983, a modeling assignment took him to Mexico. There, he spent his free time in Zona Rosa, a popular hangout for prostitutes; telling fortunes with Tarot cards. It was there, he recruited his first disciples: Martin Quintana Rodriguez, a psychic, Jorge Montes, and Omar Orea Ochoa who was obsessed with the occult before leaving for Miami. He was 21, they were all 15.
In 1984, he moved back to Mexico City and opened shop as a tarot card reader, quickly moving up the career chain to Palo Mayombe priest. His good looks and charisma instantly made him a hit in the city. He attracted the rich, the famous, and the high-ranking law enforcers, including a commander in charge of narcotics investigation, head of the Mexican branch of Interpol, and three members of the federal Judicial police.
Constanzo would offer to read their future, and cleanse them from curses for sweet, sweet cash. Bad as he was at school, he kept a record of his transactions. He had 31 regular customers who would pay as much as $4,500 for a single ceremony. On the menu for the sacrifice: rooster heads for $6, Goats for $30, boa constrictors for $450, Zebras for $1,100, African lion cubs for $3,100.
He had wealthy clients from high society: celebrities including actors, a famed hair-dresser, and most notably singer Yuri. As well as wealthy drug dealers, helping them schedule shipments based on his predictions, making their bodyguards invisible to the fuzz, making their bodies bulletproof - who needs Kevlar. In reality, Constanzo constantly bribed law enforcement officials to protect his clients. But, the dealer who paid him $40,000 for his magical services for three years didn’t need to know that.
But you don’t score such clients without a little pizzazz and Constanzo rose to the occasion. He would raid the Mexico City graveyard for human bones to start filling his nganga.
The publicizing of his rituals in the dark underworld drew in the crème de la crème of the crime world.
In 1986, Constanzo scored his biggest client yet! The drug-dealing Calzada family. They were one of Mexico’s dominant narcotics cartels at the time. They were his big break! By ’87, Constanzo paid $60,000 cash for a condo in Mexico; decorating it with a fleet of luxury cars. Including an $80,000 Mercedes Benz. But Constanzo didn’t relegate himself to witchcraft, he was a criminal entrepreneur. Once, he made $100,000 by posing as a DEA agent to cease cocaine from a Guadalajara cocaine dealer and then selling the stash using his police contacts.
Soon, to impress and retain his followers, Constanzo began to add his mix to the ritual ceremonies. The raiding of graveyards was not enough, Constanzo wanted actual human sacrifices to be made to his nganga. Victims ranged from rival dealers, ex-lovers, cult members who disobeyed him, kidnapped strangers, and even children.
It wasn’t long before Constanzo started to believe his own hype, forgetting all the under-the-table monies he paid for inside information and bribing police to look the other way. He started to believe that his magical powers were responsible for the wealth and success enjoyed by the Calzada family… the family that had dominated the narcotics space even before his arrival. In April of 1987, Constanzo demanded to be taken on as a full partner in the powerful syndicate. He was curtly denied. Being paid to dribble blood around and make incantations was one thing, a full-on partnership quite another.
The following month in May, police received reports that Guillermo Calzada Sanchez and six members of the Calzada family had gone missing. At the scene of the crime, the Calzada office, police noted melted candles and other strange items. It all pointed to a religious ceremony. It would be six days before police would be drawn to the Zumpango river where they fished out mutilated remains of human bodies. In a week, seven bodies of the missing Calzadas were recovered. The bodies showed signs of violent torture: with fingers, toes and ears removed. Two bodies were missing their brains and, in one case, part of a spine had been ripped out.
It turns out the missing parts had gone to feed Constonza’s nganga. He was fortifying himself for a new possible cartel partnership with the Hernandez brothers.
A decade before, The Hernandez brothers were poor farmers near the village of San Fernando, 20 miles from Matamoras. Serafin Senior, Saul, Ovidio, and Elio had all grown and lived in poverty in the village. And, they would have stayed that way if not for the second of the four brothers. Saul Hernandez Rivera.
Saul had the moxie, the skill, the connections to push one simple idea: why didn’t they farm marijuana? Ten years later, the family was swimming in it . They drove expensive cars and owned ranches and villas all over Mexico. The family had grown too and there were dozens of Hernandez’s living on both sides of the border, in Mexico as well as in Brownsville, Texas. The eldest Hernandez, Serafin Senior, managed operations in the US but Saul was the man in charge.
All of that came to the point of vanishing when Saul found himself on the receiving end of a rain of bullets after dining at his favorite place to eat, the Juan Guerrerra’s restaurant, in January of ’87. The family fell apart. Serafin Senior tried to assume leadership, but he was clueless. Just a month after Saul’s murder, he was arrested after a failed attempt to land dope on an airstrip. On the Mexican side, Elio, the youngest brother, seized power. Members of the Hernandez family were torn between staying loyal to Serafin or falling in with Elio. Other problems began to rise in the family. A cousin kidnapped another cousin in the family for pocketing $800,000 that belonged to him, police were circling another family member for his part in a shoot-out. Everything seemed to be falling apart for the Hernandez clan and it all pointed to one thing: someone had hexed them.
In the world of drugs and money in Mexico, there was only one solution that would work: protection, and not the Kevlar kind. There was one person in Elio’s life who knew the kind of magic protection Elio might need and her name was Sara Maria Aldrete Villareal.
Which was why one month before, in a move that Aldrete thought was fate, Constanza had wiggled his way into her mind, heart, and chikuhchikuh bow bow bed.
And so, when in November of 1987, Elio Hernandez reached out to Aldrete to get some advice about his problem. She introduced him to Constanzo.
Constanzo persuaded the Hernandez family that all their problems would be solved by Palo mayombe. He offered to act as the Hernandez gang’s high priest in exchange for 50 percent profits and control of the family. JESUS! Constanzo was a greedy fcuk! Elio, awed by the charismatic, wealthy, educated Constanzo agreed. Note to self get Palo mayombe kit on Ebay and extort STAT!
Now, with his very own murder headquarters at Rancho Santa Elena, Constanzo’s rituals took on a whole new dimension. He started to make up the religion as the mood struck him; a dash of Santeria here, a cup of Palo Mayombe there, a sprinkle of voodoo everywhere. The members of the cult would smoke ritual cigars, drink ritual rums and pray to deities. The rituals themselves entered a new level of elaborateness and sadism. He demanded victims to scream and plead for their lives. Constanzo claimed that mutilation and pain were essential to be an acceptable sacrifice to his nganga. They must die screaming,” he would tell his flock claiming that the nganga fed on their screams of terror. And Constanzo would do anything to get them to scream, including raping them before the kill. He took on a new persona, he was to be called, El Padrino -the godfather.
In reality, Constanzo used his rituals for much more than power or protection. He used them as an excuse to eliminate anybody who crossed him as well as competitors: rival drug dealers, dirty cops who didn’t fill their part of the deal. This had the added effect of inspiring fear of his wrath. As there is no record of ngangas needing screams, we can deduce that at this point, Constanzo had attained a new level of depravity and derived pleasure from the screams himself.
Between May 1988 to March ’89, Constanzo would shoot drug dealer Hector de la Fuente and a farmer named Moises Castillo, He would Supervise the torture and dismemberment of the former lover of one of his cult members, a transvestite called Jorge Montes. The remains were dumped in the streets and discovered by some children playing nearby. A stranger would be kidnapped and tortured as retribution for the safe release of Ovidio Hernandez and his two sons. Ex-federales and Cult member Jorge Valente de Fierro Gomez would be sacrificed for using drugs; 14-year old Jose Garcia was kidnapped by Elio Hernandez’s own cousin. It was an error that was only found out after the boy had been decapitated. That did not stop the sacrifice though, they still proceeded to remove his heart and lungs… the list of killings goes on and on, leading up to the murder of American college student Mark Kilroy.
Constanzo had stolen 800 kilos of marijuana from a rival gang. His first sacrifice to guarantee the safe shipment of the package had been a bust because to Constanzo a victim needs to scream and he hadn’t. “Bring me someone that will scream,” he told his minions.
12 hours later, Mark Kilroy was tied up and handcuffed on Rancho Santa Elena.
END PART 1