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Drug Cult Killings Cast Pall of Fear, Superstition Over Rio Grande Valley

April 29, 1989

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) _ Attendance has soared at this city’s Roman Catholic cathedral as unease and superstition haunt the border valley where authorities say 15 people were ritually murdered by a drug smuggling cult.

Parents here and across the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, keep closer watch on their children. An ecumenical prayer service scheduled for Sunday in Brownsville is billed in fliers as intended to ″heal our land.″

And police, in a puzzling action most witnesses refused to discuss, burned down the blood-splattered shack at a ranch where four suspects say the gang practiced human sacrifice in hopes of protecting their drug trafficking.

″Now, people are saying, yes, evil exists,″ said the Rev. Ruperto Ayala Espinoza, a priest at Our Lady of Refuge, the Catholic cathedral that towers over Matamoros’ main plaza.

The priest said there has been a marked increase in attendance at services, communion and confession since the first 12 bodies were exhumed at Santa Elena ranch April 11.

″People who may have been indifferent toward the church have moved closer to the church,″ he said.

He said many parents no longer leave their children unattended or let them walk to and from school, out of fear of the ″narcosatanicos″ - a term coined by Mexican newspapers to describe the cult members.

Investigators believe that only a few of the victims were sacrifices and that the others were killed in retaliation for soured drug deals.

The prevalence of traditional Mexican mystic healers and herb shops selling magic paraphernalia moved the population to take seriously the threat of occult sacrifices, said the priest.

″Here, there’s a lot of belief in witchcraft, spells, superstition,″ said Ayala, whose church denounces such practices.

At Texas Southmost College in Brownsville last week, three days of seminars on the occult and Satanism - scheduled before the 15 bodies were discovered - had to be moved to larger rooms because of overflow attendance.

Investigators say the ranch sacrifice did not involve Satanism but a deviant form of the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Mayombe, known for using human body parts in its rituals.

Nelda San Roman, 27, of Brownsville, who attended one of the seminars, said it does not matter what name the evil practices go by.

″They all add up to the same thing,″ she said. ″The devil is behind it, no matter what you call it.″

At the Santa Elena ranch last Sunday, Mexican and U.S. police watched the incineration of the wooden shack where the cult held bloody rituals.

Nearly two weeks after the first bodies were exhumed in a field next to the shack, police had photographed the area but left in place evidence including cauldrons of human brains, blood, sticks, goats’ heads and a mutilated rooster.

Police would not discuss reasons for the shack burning. The only U.S. journalist present was Frank Ordonez, a Brownsville Herald photographer. Upon arriving, he said, he saw a man circling the shack. He said Sheriff’s Lt. George Gavito of Brownsville told him the man was performing an exorcism.

The man went inside the shack and made some hand gestures before his face, then the sign of the cross, before torching the building, Ordonez said.

″While it was burning, he threw bags of white powder on the fire,″ he said.

Gavito said Wednesday there was no purification exercise. He said a man ″threw something, but I don’t know what it was. It might have been something for the smell.″

One witness, who would not be identified, said the powder was salt. In ″white magic,″ salt often is used to drive out evil, Ayala Espinoza said.

Tony Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the college who specializes in Mexican folk beliefs, videotaped the burning but refused to discuss what took place.

″When I stepped on that ranch last week for the first time ... to me in my mind, there was a feeling of evil,″ Zavaleta said. ″I could just feel it. After it was burned, I felt better about it.″

Zavaleta, who also is a Brownsville city commissioner, said two of the suspects had taken his classes.

″I asked myself if there are any other mass-murderers in my classes,″ he said. ″I’m a little bit paranoid whether I should speak frankly about these things with the students or worry about finding someone waiting for me out in the parking lot.″