NACOZARI, Mexico — It was a family people took pity on, one the government and church helped with free food, used clothes, and farm animals. The men were known as trash pickers. Some of the women were suspected of prostitution.
Mexican prosecutors are investigating the poor family living in shacks outside a small town near the U.S. border as alleged members of a cult that sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure adored mostly by outlaws but whose popularity is growing across Mexico and among Hispanics in the United States.
The killings have shocked the copper mining village of Nacozari, on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.
Authorities say the throats and the wrists of the victims were cut with knives and axes, and their blood was spread on a Santa Muerte altar. Their bodies were then buried near the shacks where the alleged cult members lived.
"We never knew they were part of a Santa Muerte cult," said Jorge Sanchez Castillo, a 54-year-old hotel owner who has a corn field next to the house of the woman believed to lead the group. "This has been tragic for all of us."
Nacozari has been spared the grisly violence of drug cartels fighting for lucrative corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border, said police chief Jose Miguel Espinoza.
"It was a peaceful town. We'd never seen such violence," he said.
When a 10-year-old boy went missing in July 2010, his mother and her boyfriend told police that acquaintances had seen him begging in the streets of nearby Agua Prieta across the border from Douglas, Arizona, and that they would go find him, said Espinoza.
"We had no reason to suspect it was a homicide," he said.
A second 10-year-old boy went missing in early March, prompting Sonora state's missing persons unit to send agents to Nacozari, said the police chief. That boy's mother and her boyfriend reported it to state authorities, who discovered weeks later that the two boys knew people in common.
The missing boy Martin Rios was the son of the ex-girlfriend of a man named Eduardo Sanchez. The second boy, Jesus Martinez, was the step-grandson of Eduardo Sanchez's new girlfriend Silvia Meraz.
- Audio experts: Screams were not Zimmerman's
- Santorum slams Romney, Romney raps Obama
- Forget the house, buy the entire town
- Was 15-year-old's death a result of bullying?
- About-face for Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt election
- Egypt: Inside the pharaoh's secret tunnels
- New twists emerge in Powell case
The police chief said both boys would often visit Meraz's home in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the town of 11,500.
Espinoza said his officers suspected the house was being used for prostitution after seeing different men from out of town visiting, but never gathered enough evidence to arrest anyone.
Agents on Wednesday unearthed the body of the boy Jesus Martinez buried in the dirt floor in the bedroom of one of the Meraz daughters. They then began arresting family members, who led them to what agents believe are the remains of the other boy, as well as the grave of 55-year-old Cleotilde Romero, a close friend of Meraz who disappeared in 2009.
Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for the Sonora Attorney General's Office, said the 44-year-old Meraz, who police suspect was the cult leader, and seven people related to her, were detained pending further investigation: her boyfriend Eduardo Sanchez, father, son, three daughters and a daughter-in-law. No formal charges have been filed pending further investigation.
"They thought that by offering the blood, they would be protected for some time," Larrinaga said. "According to them, Santa Muerte was going to tell them where the money was. They all identify themselves as fanatic followers of Santa Muerte."
R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint," said there have only been unconfirmed reports of human sacrifices related to the figure in Mexico in recent years.
Chesnut said the 2007 shooting deaths of three men appeared to be related to Santa Muerte because the bodies were abandoned at a shrine to the figure outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But they showed no signs of being sacrificial killings.
He said that although most Santa Muerte devotees consider killing a "Satanic aberration of devotion," and that books about the Santa Muerte don't mention human sacrifice, some followers are extreme.
"With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals," Chesnut said.
Police paraded the eight people arrested in the case of the cult killings into the prosecutor's offices in the state capital of Hermosillo on Friday to allow journalists to view and question them, a typical practice in Mexico.
Meraz told reporters she has believed in Santa Muerte for more than two years.
"Santa Muerte was going to offer us money," Meraz said.
Asked if she thought she had received anything, she answered with a profanity, her voice breaking: "What can she give you? Nothing."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Headlines Newsview all
US president Barack Obama has praised outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan, for conceding defeat in the recently concluded presidential elections. USA Today reports that Obama gave the ... Full story
The winner of Nigeria's presidential poll, Muhammadu Buhari, has hailed his victory as a vote for change and proof the nation has embraced democracy. Mr Buhari ... Full story
Rate this article
- INEC chairman officially declares Buhari winner of Nigeria's 2015 Presidential Election
- Georgia gang launch attack on her son in prison cell then pose for Facebook photo
- BUHARI VICTORY: 'We should be celebrating rather than mourning' - Jonathan tells PDP
Former Tottenham Hotspur player and wales man has been name as the fastest player on earth, beating Rinaldo, Theo Walcott and others …. See full list ... Full story
Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders ...
Triple MG first lady, Emma Nyra has congratulated Nigerians for a peaceful conduct for the attainment of another democratic era in 2015. Emma who joins the ...
An artiste, Mr Aginam Benjamin, says the use of the internet to promote songs is better than using marketers. Benjamin told the News Agency of Nigeria ...
A super wealthy family Indeed. Former governor of Osun State, Isiaka Adeleke has won the Osun West senatorial district, reports National Mirror. Adeleke, who is also ...
As the chairman of the Independent National Electorial Commission (INEC) finally announced the winner of the 2015 Presidential elections, many encomiums have continued to come ...
How many Nigerian celebrities would like to be Mrs Elliot? Well, it seems the tone of Nolllywood actors who supported the President Jonathan led administration ...
Nollywood producer and social commentator, Charles Novia, has hailed President Goodluck Jonathan for strengthening democracy in the country. The controversial showbiz personality said he never regretted ...
Many Nollywood actors have began accepting their fate on the outcome of the 2015 Presidential election result by INEC as they gradually sum up the ...