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.
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.
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 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.