Nobody could make sense out of what happened to Mark Kilroy. It was all mixed up with black magic, white magic, drugs, mestizo superstition, gringo hedonism, coincidence, and random selection. We had warned ourselves about this sort of thing many times and still didn’t believe. It was the curse of el otro lado — the other side. Antonio Zavaleta, an expert on curanderismo who teaches at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, was sometimes called to the other side of the border to supervise ghostbusting. “Look,” said Zavaleta, who had taught sociology and anthropology to two members of the murderous gang responsible for Kilroy’s death, “I’m a scientist. I have a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas. But when I went over there, I put a cross around my neck.”
By the time Mark Kilroy’s body was found on April 11 at Rancho Santa Elena, his disappearance had been the subject of fascinated media speculation for a month. The 21-year-old junior at the University of Texas had gone to South Padre Island along with thousands of other students during spring break and had simply vanished one night in the border town of Matamoros. From the beginning his disappearance seemed like an eerie and arbitrary event — a true mystery. When Kilroy’s fate was finally known, the mystery was even greater, because few of us were conditioned to accept the reality of human sacrifice to Satan.
Officials on both sides of the border had begun to suspect black magic a couple of weeks before the bodies of Kilroy and fourteen others were discovered. A psychic had reported a vision in which Kilroy’s body appeared alongside what looked like a witch’s caldron. A satanist in Brownsville had confessed to murdering Kilroy and burying his body on the beach — though under questioning, he recanted. When lawmen finally began to sort things out, the ritual killings seemed almost predestined. A map drawn two years ago by confessed mass-killer Henry Lee Lucas had predicted with inexplicable accuracy that the bodies of victims of satanic rituals would be found about where Kilroy and others were found.
The beginning of the end of the search for Kilroy was suitably bizarre. Serafin Hernandez Garcia, a nephew of the cruel and clever gangster boss Elio Hernandez Rivera, ran a routine roadblock on Sunday afternoon, April 9, and stupidly led federales to the ranch that his family used for its smuggling operations. Serafin was no towering intellect — he displayed none of the savvy that had made his uncle the leader of a gang of smugglers and pistoleros who had terrorized Matamoros and the state of Tamaulipas for years — but he was no dummy either. Yet he went through that roadblock as if he believed himself to be invisible and bulletproof.
Later that same day federales started searching the Hernandez ranch, Rancho Santa Elena. They had turned up thirty kilos of marijuana when one of them made a discovery that chilled his blood. To the unpracticed eye of a norteamericano, it appeared to be an ordinary storage shed with some melted candles, cigar butts, and empty bottles on the floor and some greasy caldrons in the yard. But the Mexican cops saw something else. They saw a devil’s temple, a place where black magic had been practiced. When they reported this astonishing news to their comandante, Juan Benitez Ayala, the investigation came to a screeching halt — much to the distress of American lawmen who believed that the smugglers knew something about the disappearance of Mark Kilroy. But Benitez was adamant: The search could not resume until the black magic had been neutralized.
Mexico has always been a country with a rich legacy of magic, born of the dynamic fusion between Christianity and ancient Indian religions. A visit to any marketplace reveals a tradition tracing back to the Aztecs — an enormous variety of strange and powerful herbs, potions, and amulets. Brujos, or shamans, work the villages, casting spells or relieving them for small fees. Even in cities as large as Matamoros ancient superstitions are a way of life; a maquiladora recently was spared being shut down only because a curandero was able to dehex a piece of expensive machinery with which a worker had been seriously injured. Magic is omnipresent; the plot of a popular mid-eighties prime-time soap opera in Mexico, El Maleficio (“The Evil One”), revolved around the premise that a wealthy businessman in Oaxaca was able to sustain power by praying nightly to Satan. Magic is also double-edged; for every evil there is a counterbalancing good. American lawmen who had visited the office of the comandante in Matamoros had noticed strings of garlic, strings of peppers, and white candles, articles commonly used in Mexico to ward off evil. It was no surprise then that Benitez called off the search until a curandero could be summoned to the ranch to cast out the demons.
After the curandero did his magic, things happened fast. On Monday afternoon a caretaker at the ranch identified a photograph of Mark Kilroy and remembered seeing him handcuffed in the back of a Suburban in the equipment yard. In an interrogation room of the Matamoros jail, Elio Hernandez Rivera, Serafin Hernandez Garcia, and two other suspects who had been arrested at the ranch confessed to kidnapping Kilroy and witnessing his ritual sacrifice. Serafin told investigators that he had buried Kilroy, and he led the way to Kilroy’s grave, which was marked by a piece of wire sticking out of the ground. The other end of the wire had been attached to Kilroy’s spinal column so that when his body decomposed members of the cult could pull out the vertebrae to make into a necklace. When Kilroy’s body was uncovered the comandante noticed that his legs had been cut off above the knees and asked Serafin is that was part of the ritual. “No,” Serafin said. “It just made him easier to bury.” Serafin had a baby face, a weak chin, and a Zapata-like mustache that