A man suspected of leading a cult that performed human sacrifices on a Mexican ranch was exposed to secretive Afro-Caribbean religions that ritually slaughter animals and rely on magic.
But a Santeria priest and others familiar with the practices of Santeria, voodoo and other obscure religions likened the Mexican drug-smuggling cult more to the mass suicide in Jonestown led by Jim Jones.At least 13 bodies have been found this week in shallow graves in Matamoros, Mexico. Suspects in the slayings have said they killed at the demand of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, whom they called "godfather."
They said Constanzo, 26, and Sara Maria Aldrete, 24, called the "witch," believed human sacrifices gave the members of the cult protection from harm and helped them in a drug-smuggling operation.
Constanzo, a Cuban-American who grew up in suburban Miami, is still being sought.
"He's had some sort of exposure to Santeria, I wouldn't deny that, but I wouldn't say he's a Santeria priest," said Willie Ramos of Miami, a Santeria high priest.
Santeria is a largely underground religion that melded the beliefs of slaves from present-day Nigeria with Hispanic culture in the Caribbean and parts of South America.
"Let's compare it to Jonestown in the sense that the guy in Jonestown was deranged and demented. He got all these people to follow him to the extent that he got these people killed," Ramos said.
Human sacrifice has never been practiced "in the approximately 400 years that the Afro-Caribbean cults have survived in the New World," he said.
Mercedes Sandoval, a professor at Miami-Dade Community College who has studied Santeria for four decades, said religious beliefs could not be blamed for the slayings.
"It was not the religion that got them into drugs. It was the drug dealing that led them to try to get protection through religion," Sandoval said.
Dr. Charles Wetli, Dade County deputy chief medical examiner who has studied the religions for a decade as part of his work, agreed.
"The drug-smuggling activities and the homicides are totally unrelated to the religion," Wetli said. "If you're a drug smuggler, you can pray to some of these gods to help you with your drug smuggling."
Blood from Santeria animal sacrifices can form an alliance with gods of nature and protect the believers, a reason offered by Mexican authorities as a motive for the killings at the ranch across the border from Brownsville, Texas, Sandoval said.