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Nature Reclaiming Death Ranch a Year After Bodies Found

April 10, 1990

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) _ A year ago, the smell of death clung to the Rancho Santa Elena, where police dug up 13 mutilated corpses, victims of a cult of drug smugglers who sacrificed humans for magical protection.

Two more bodies were found at a nearby farm.

More a farm than a ranch, Rancho Santa Elena is returning to the rural obscurity it enjoyed before it was a ″human slaughterhouse″ that sickened even experienced lawmen.

The land is still pockmarked with shallow grave excavations and people have been seen digging recently, perhaps in search of missing relatives.

But nature has started to reclaim the land. Grass and bright yellow wildflowers are doing their best to fill them in. The pungent odor of decomposing human flesh that hung for days after the exhumations on April 11, 1989, has long blown away in the prevailing Gulf Coast breeze.

Even a shack where the cult reportedly sacrificed 21-year-old University of Texas student Mark Kilroy, a 14-year-old Mexican boy and others has burned to the ground. Mexican Federal Judicial Police brought a ″curandero,″ or witch doctor, to perform a purification ceremony on the grounds before they torched the building last spring.

All that remains is a concrete slab, piles of trash, rusting farm machinery, sheets of corrugated metal from the roof.

Residents of the farming area 13 miles west of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, say they don’t think much about the horrifying events that took place there. But others remind them from time to time.

″When you mention you live near Rancho Santa Elena, people get nervous,″ said Fidel Trevino Villarreal, who has lived at an adjacent farm since birth in 1926.

He said he never heard or saw anything unusual at the Santa Elena before the grisly discovery, even on the many nights he spent irrigating his fields.

Cameron County Sheriff Alex Perez in Brownsville, who described the scene as ″a human slaughterhouse,″ said he also lost sleep for a while after observing the bodies, some with their hearts and lungs removed.

The case broke, Mexican police said, when Helio Hernandez, believing he was invisible, ran his pickup through a checkpoint. Police then searched the rancho, owned by his family, expecting to make a marijuana seizure.

What they found instead were the bodies and signs of human torture and bizarre rituals.

Hernandez and three other suspects led police to the graves and to the Matamoros apartment of Sara Aldrete Villarreal, an honor student at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. In her apartment, police found an occult altar.

She was not arrested until a month later at a Mexico City apartment. Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, the alleged ″godfather″ of the cult, ordered himself and a male companion killed as police closed in on the apartment.

Experts concluded that they practiced a variation of the Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Mayombe, in which believers use human bones, but do not normally kill to obtain them.

Seven people, including Aldrete, remain jailed in Mexico awaiting verdicts on charges including homicide, illegal burial and weapons and drug violations. One defendant, ranch caretaker Domingo Bustamante Reyes, has been charged only with cover-up.

Some holes at the rancho appear recently dug. Police speculate that Mexicans desperate to find missing loved ones go there seeking graves.

Trevino said he sees people digging from time to time at the ranch, ″but I don’t go over there. I don’t want anybody to think I’m helping them.″

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