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Los Narcosatánicos: Drugs, Cults, Voodoo & Human Sacrifice

An effigy of Santa Meurte is burned during an occult ceremony in Tepito, Mexico City

“The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?”

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The occult and the criminal make for sinister, if not entirely unfamiliar, bedfellows. Talk of magic, necromancy and even Satan’s hand (or should that be hoof?) in violent crimes goes back centuries. In fact, ‘history’s first ever serial killer’, the incredibly bloodthirsty French nobleman Gilles de Rais, spoke constantly of fallen angels and is believed to have murdered - or ‘sacrificed’ - hundreds of children across Europe in the 13th Century. Most, he claimed, were offerings to the various demons he was attempting to summon.

Lithograph of the Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials

People have been known to kill for the devil, but also because of him too. Satanism, devil worship and other darker forms of occultism can stir up some really quite strong feelings in folk. Even just the faint whiff of the Antichrist can be enough to send entire communities into a murderous frenzy. 17th Century colonial Massachusetts gave the world the most infamous example of that. The Salem Witch Trials saw hundreds of women unfairly accused of being Lucifer’s minions, with dozens tragically hanged and drowned due to the baseless panic.

Mass hysteria, paranoia and widespread fear - often grounded in fundamentalist religious beliefs - can quickly set in, but these tales of sorcery, alchemy and devil worship aren’t always the most reliable. It’s true to say that a certain amount of exaggeration haunts many occult-tinged crimes, with urban legend, rumour and folklore blending uneasily with reality. Yet it would be naive, and just plain wrong, to dismiss the idea that black magic, witchcraft and diabolism can’t become enmeshed in serious crimes.

And crimes don’t come much more serious that luring, beating, torturing, sodimising, mutilating and ritualistically killing 15 innocent people.

Los Narcosatánicos were feared. With a name like that, it’s no surprise. The drug game was a competitive one in Central America in the 1980’s and yet with a fairly modestly-sized outfit, Adolfo Constanzo and his crew were feared and respected by everyone. While the larger cartels out of Mexico operated almost on the scale of small armies or military factions, Constanzo and his partner Sara Aldrete took a different approach to gain a fearsome reputation… They went loco.

Half drug-peddlers, half black magic cult, Los Narcosatánicos practised occult rituals in order to ‘bless’ their deals (and anyone else’s deals for the right price). Becoming an adept witch doctor is how Constanzo climbed up the drug world ladder. The Cuban-American was originally just a petty thief until he used his childhood fascination with the dark arts to become an expert in casting good luck spells. Using a syncretic fusion of practices borrowed from Haitian Voodoo, Congolese Palo Mayombe and Cuban Santería, Constanzo was able to work as something of a freelance witch doctor, blessing major deals for gangs and even hits for the sicarios, the cartel-hired assassins.

Half drug-peddlers, half black magic cult, Los Narcosatánicos practiced occult rituals in order to ‘bless’ their deals.

The blessings needed blood, though. Blood or at least body parts. Snakes and chickens were often used for smaller scale spells, while larger offerings were required for more involved blessings. Cats, dogs, goats… Even lion cubs would be sacrificed on occasions. Eventually, Constanzo convinced himself that he needed human body parts to conduct more involved rituals. So he started grave robbing and using human remains in the homemade brews he would cook up in his nganga, or cauldron. 

Constanzo was a smart, ambitious and utterly ruthless man. While local dealers would reward him quite generously for his ‘consultancy’ work, he had soon learned enough about the drug trade to know where the real cash was to be made - with the cartel bosses and corrupt officials that worked with them. So he and Sara Aldrete (who, by this time, had assumed the role of ‘high priestess’ of the cult) decided to scale up. There was to be no more cutting off of snake’s heads in outhouses and digging up graves for handfuls of cash. There were going to do things properly.

A devotee of Santa Muerte, Mexico City
A devotee of the occult figure, Santa Muerte, Mexico City, 2012, Getty

The pair bought Rancho Santa Elena, which would quickly become known as ‘The Devil’s Ranch’, in the  Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. They began to recruit members to the group and started buying and selling marijuana and cocaine themselves. Plus, of course, Constanzo was offering his very special service of sacrificial blessings. Only he introduced a new premium version of them. He started kidnapping and killing young men as part of the ritual…

So far, so bizarre, right? But while Los Narcosatánicos’ dark antics may sound like the plot of a grim horror film, this tale is - sadly - only too true. It may be difficult to believe that huge criminal networks and organisations would pay some smooth-talking huckster types huge sums of money to boil up a pot of blood and guts like something out of a Grimm fairytale. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that Central America is a part of the world that’s still very much in touch with its ancient traditions and cultures, with superstition there extending much further than just avoiding walking under ladders. In fact, a recent survey suggests that more than a third of all Mexicans believe in magic and many regularly consult with Brujería-practising witch doctors.

The Murder of Mark Kilroy

Mark Kilroy was a med school student studying at The University of Texas in Austin when he and a few friends decided, for Spring Break, to take the short trip over the border to Matamoros from the neighbouring city of Brownsville. The boys enjoyed an evening of partying, drinking, dancing and talking to local girls. Just as they were leaving though, Kilroy disappeared around a corner to relieve himself of some of the cheap cervezas that the four of them had been sinking all night. He never returned. 

Adolfo Constanzo felt untouchable. He and his burgeoning cartel/cult were growing. In number and in resources. He wanted to up the ante and so decided that a special human sacrifice for his latest ritual was required. An uneducated kid from a local village wouldn’t cut it for his latest spell. He wanted someone educated. Someone athletic. Someone American. So he’d sent some of his men out to Matamoros’ bars and clubs with a shopping list of just one item: A fit young American college student out celebrating Spring Break. Hours later, Mark Kilroy was stripped, bound and gagged in a barn on The Devil’s Ranch. Adolfo Constanzo felt so untouchable that he laughed off suggestions that Kilroy’s murder would bring heat on him.

He was wrong. 

Constanzo’s men, overseen by El Padrino himself, beat, tortured and raped the young American. Kilroy bravely struggled with the men, though (perhaps explaining his particularly violent treatment). He was eventually killed while trying to escape, Constanzo ending Kilroy’s life with a machete blow to the back of the neck. The body was mutilated, eviscerated and ‘used’. The cult assumed, as before, that burying the remains would be the end of it. But killing a local teen runaway from poor Mexican stock was one thing. Killing a rich kid from influential Texan family, though? That was quite another. People took notice and an investigation was quickly launched.

Within four weeks, Mexican authorities had solved the case and discovered the ranch. The first of the body parts and dismembered corpses discovered was that of Mark Kilroy’s. His brain and spinal column were found in a scorched black nganga, after having been boiled down in blood along with a horseshoe and a turtle. Teams turned the ranch upside down and discovered the grisly remains of the other 14 young men. Adolfo Constanzo was a wanted man.

He’d gone on the lam, though. To use parlance borrowed from the book and movie that his nickname was based on, The Godfather of Matamoros had ‘hit the mattresses’ and holed up in an apartment in Mexico City. A fortnight later, Mexican police, geed up by their counterparts across the border, hunted him down besieged the residence. Panicked, sleepless and crazy, Constanzo burnt money on the stove, shot at passers-by through the window and, as the siege stepped up, he ordered one of his men shoot him dead to avoid the ignominy of police capture. 

Aldrete was later arrested and sentenced to 40 years after an allegedly forced confession. All but two of the cult’s members were caught and convicted. Rumours persisted for years that Costanza had faked his death. His reputation and the fact that police put so many bullets into his soon-to-be unrecognisable face to ‘make sure’ he’d died probably helped fuel those particular whispers. 

Had he managed to somehow pull off an impossible vanishing act, perhaps he would have truly proven his magical credentials. But while Adolfo Constanzo was many things - witch doctor, feared drug dealer, cult leader and murderer among them - he was still, ultimately, just a man.

Not all crimes that involve mention of dark occultism and the devil are to the scale of the Matamoros cult though, obviously. Talk of killing as sacrifice and tribute to demons and spirits isn’t as uncommon as we hope. Just as the focus of the fourth episode of I am a Killer, Miguel Martinez...

Watch I am a Killer, Tuesdays at 9pm.