MATAMOROS, Mexico -- Mexican police Thursday forced a suspect to dig up a 13th body buried at a border ranch where drug smugglers sought to protect themselves by sacrificing humans in cult rituals, and U.S. officials predicted more victims would be found.
U.S. and Mexican authorities, meanwhile, reported some progress in the search for the couple said to be the key members of the marijuana-smuggling ring, which is now believed to be much larger than first suspected. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also joined the investigation.
The suspects, adherents of the Caribbean cult Santeria, sacrificed chickens and goats, and expanded their quasi-religious rituals to kill and mutilate humans in their quest for immunity from arrest and even death, officials said.
Mexican Federal Judicial Police ordered suspect Sergio Martinez, 23, of Matamoros, to point out the location of the 13th body, then dig three feet into the earth as two armed guards stood by at the Rancho Santa Elena outside the border city of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.
It took Martinez 90 minutes reach the body, believed to be that of a 14-year-old boy. When Martinez did so, two workers from the medical examiner's office in Matamoros gently pulled the body from the earth. The 13th grave was about 30 feet from the group of eight graves unearthed Tuesday.
Martinez acknowledged that he helped bury the boy, but denied killing him.
The four suspects already in custody have indicated that 14 bodies were buried at the ranch, but U.S. Customs agent Oran Neck said officials now think a higher number will be found.
'Now we're not even going to put out a number,' Neck said. 'We're just going to dig until we clear the area. At dawn we will be taking heavy equipment and we intend to excavate the entire area.'
The chief members of the drug gang were identified as Adolfo De Jesus Constanzo, 26, known to the ring as El Padrino, or 'godfather,' and Sara Aldrete Villarreal, 24, both of Brownsville and Matamoros. Constanzo, a native of Miami, was also called El Cubano because of his Cuban lineage.
Neck said Aldrete Villarreal's station wagon was found Thursday in Brownsville. He said the couple was last seen in a 1989 Silver Mercedes-Benz at a Brownsville hotel Monday. While both are believed to be in the United States, authorities do not know whether the two are together, Neck said.
Four suspects, who publicly confessed Wednesday to their role in the group's rituals, were being held in Matamoros, and Mexican authorities searched for at least six more suspects, including Constanzo and Aldrete Villarreal.
Aldrete Villarreal, described as a statuesque blonde, apparently led a double life as a drug smuggler and religious cultist in Mexico and as an honors student in Texas. One of three altars recovered in the investigation was found at her Matamoros home.
But Neck emphasized, 'Her actual role in the heirarchy of a group has not been determined. ... The key to the whole thing is these two subjects -- El Padrino and the lady. When we have those two, we can unravel a lot more.
'It looks as if (Aldrete Villarreal) was leading a double life,' the Customs agent said. 'One life was the one in Matamoros. In the United States, she was a student at Texas Southmost College (in Brownsville), involved in sports, an honor-roll student. She made straight As.'
Neck said investigators now believe the ring smuggled at least a ton of marijuana into the United States each week. 'It's probably a larger drug trafficking ring than we initially thought,' he said. 'There could be two or three dozen members.'
But Neck said authorities still believe only 10 or 12 members were involved in the murders. The victims were killed and their brains and blood boiled in an iron caldron in a shack on the ranch. The shack also contained an altar, pots containing goat heads and chicken feathers, as well as votive candles bearing the images of Christian saints, black cigars and Mexican liquor.
These finds are consistent with Santeria, a religion brought to the Western Hemisphere by African slaves that took on some outward signs of Christianity. Despite some comments by police and the suspects themselves, Santeria is an entirely different cult from Voodoo and is in no way related to Satanism.
Tuesday's discovery ended the much publicized search for Mark Kilroy, 21, of Santa Fe, Texas, a University of Texas pre-medical student who disappeared in Matamoros March 14 during a spring break trip to the border.
Most of the victims were believed to be Mexicans, including a former Matamoros police officer.