NORTH LOOKING SOUTH - THE DARK SIDE: Palo Moyombe, Santeria, Drugs and Death

                                        The Matamoros Murders of 1989

                        A Second Column on Curandismo, Brujeria & Border Culture


Spring break in South Texas centers on the beaches of South Padre Island, where annually more than 100,00 students, largely from Midwestern and Southern colleges and universities, make the month of March one of the busiest times of the year for area hotels, restaurants, bars, resorts and condo rentals.

With a steady progression of concerts, contests, and promotions by such college-age-centered corporations as Miller, Coors and Trojan prophylactics, the dominant mood for the month is more than a little sybaritic, as young people cavort in activities that were, at least publicly, off limits to most students of my day, when Connie Francis was eager to find out where the boys were.

I vividly recall flying out of Brownsville for St. Louis during March about eighteen years ago when I naively asked the young woman seated to my left if she had enjoyed her spring break; and, if so, what had been her favorite experience of the week.  In a matter of fact manner, she answered my question by stating that she taken great pleasure in pairing off for intimate physical activities on the beach, an answer that rather quickly saw me blushing and returning to my copy of the Houston Chronicle.

Some of the more tame activities that are available for those not inclined toward total dissipation during spring break are bungee jumping, surfboarding, horseback riding, kiteboarding, windsurfing, fishing, bay cruises and beach buggy rentals.  And the cash registers at businesses which provide these services and recreational opportunities ring up sales that are not matched by any other month..

Over the years, advertising has been utilized to lure young people south to “Party  at Padre” by placing great emphasis on South Padre Island’s proximity to Brownsville’s sister city of Matamoros in Mexico.  Consequently, Spring Break usually sees a steady stream of traffic of the under-21 crowd on Highway 48, heading to the bars and clubs across the Rio Grande, where 16 is considered the legal drinking age.  Sadly, each March is marred by accidents, some fatal, caused by inebriated drivers returning to the island from Mexico.

March of 1989 saw another spring break arrive that initially appeared no different than those that had preceded it.  As usual, hundreds of students crossed the bridge in Brownsville to prowl the bars and clubs of Matamoros.  However, a 21-year-old University of Texas student named Mark Kilroy, who had crossed the bridge with his friends, was reported missing sometime after 2 AM on March 14.

For weeks, authorities on both sides of the Rio Grande were bewildered as to Kilroy’s whereabouts, despite the posting of a sizeable reward by Kilroy’s family and interrogations of hundreds of individuals.  Finally, on April 11, law enforcement officials announced that a mass grave containing the body parts of at least 12 persons was found west of Matamoros, at Rancho Santa Elena, where the Rio Grande rounds the southern tip of Texas.  Mexican federal police stated that Mark Kilroy was one of the victims whose remains were discovered.

The most shocking revelation was that all evidence pointed to the victims having been ritually slain and body parts being used in grisly rites carried out by a ring of drug smugglers who were convinced that their bloody practices would confer protection as they plied their illicit trade across the US-Mexican border.

It was eventually disclosed that the leader of the ring was Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a 26-year-old Cuban-American, who had imbued his followers with a perverted form of Palo Moyombe and Santeria, which had originated in West Africa and had been introduced in the Caribbean during the time of the Spanish slave trade in the 16th century. Constanzo, who regularly sported a necklace of human vertebrae, was backed up by 24-year-old Sara Aldrete, a resident of Matamoros, who functioned as the “madrina,” or high priestess of the ring.  A perplexing character, Aldrete led a double life, crossing the river each day to attend Texas Southmost College, where she was an honor student and an accomplished volleyball player.  It was the statuesque Aldrete who, after Constanzo called for a gringo to sacrifice, probably lured Kilroy into the hands of his captors.

On the run, Constanzo was eventually killed at his own behest by a follower during a shootout in Mexico City with federal police.  As for Aldrete, she is today in a women’s prison in Mexico City, where she will be eligible for parole from her 50-year sentence in 2014.

In considering the Kilroy episode, a major point to keep in mind is that religion in Mexico has been intensely syncretic. That is to say  it has had a long history of combining and bringing together what seem to be dissimilar beliefs.  Aztecs, Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas and others shared and borrowed deities from one another, and many elements of indigenous religion were eventually folded neatly into Roman Catholicism after the arrival of the Spanish.  Gods and goddesses, for example, were replaced by saints, and, over the centuries, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two in Mexican folk religion.

Religion, like all things of this world, is constantly evolving and changing.

And borders, by their very nature, are porous.  Not only are they characterized by a blending of people, but also by a mingling of cultures, ideas and beliefs which cross from one side to the other. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand how, in the hands of a charismatic charlatan, alien and diasporic beliefs in such regions may be distorted to the point where impressionable people are led into such nightmares as the Matamoros murders of 1989.  Those who naively venture off the beaten path in such an environment may do so at their own peril.

Byline:  John Barham, formerly a dean at the University of Texas at Brownsville, retired from the University of Missouri in 2006.  He is a frequent lecturer in the International Elderhostel program in Mexico and divides his time between San Miguel de Allende and Brownsville.