In the 1980’s, Adolfo Constanzo, devotee of Santería and powerful cult leader opened shop in Mexico City as a fortune-teller. He soon realized that there were greater profits in drug money than the occult, and as his status grew in the drug trade, so too did his legendary brutality. Kidnappings, torture, and murder were three weapons in his arsenal that he used to keep a vice grip on the drug trade.
In Buried Secrets, Edward Humes explores the intersections of the drug trade and politics in a way that still resonates today, touching upon the religious elements that play into the iconic status of drug kingpins. This unflinching, unforgettable story is brought to vivid, terrifying life in “one of the best true-crime tales in recent time” (Publishers Weekly).
“Chilling . . . A masterful job.” —The Washington Post
“Terrific . . . A highly readable, authoritative account of a particularly gruesome chapter in border history.” —The Dallas Morning News
“A chilling story of murder and religious mania.” —Library Journal
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The road to Matamoros is a serpent writhing toward the Gulf of Mexico, its twists and bends mimicking the flow of the Rio Grande and the U.S. border just beyond. Ancient buses and diesel-spewing trucks rumble eastward through a succession of dusty villages, flashes of peeling stucco and neon beer signs quickly swallowed by the next curve.
Between these small towns, fields of sorghum, cotton, and corn quilt the flatlands abutting the road. Small brown women, stooped and clad in black despite the thick heat, walk the road's shoulders by day, carrying shopping bags or ragged bundles of sticks to kindle their cooking fires. Men work bent in the fields, the dust of the ranches cemented to their skin by sweat, enduring the same grueling labors Mexican peasants have weathered for generations.
At night, others travel the road, silently and invisibly, the headlights on their new pickup trucks doused when they reach a certain spot, a certain dirt turnoff to a moon-silvered ranch.
At these hours, the only sounds are the whispering of cornstalks in the evening breeze and the occasional insect crackle of CB radios buzzing in the darkness as the men at the ranch speak to their partners on the other side of the border. If the right words are spoken, there is the sound of gentle splashing, men driving and wading across the low, muddy waters, bearing bundles wrapped in plastic to eager hands on the U.S. side.
This scene is repeated dozens of times a night in dozens of places along the road from Reynosa to Matamoros, the two Mexican cities marking the center and the eastern boundaries of the lower Rio Grande Valley — the hottest drug-trafficking spot on the border. Here, the quickest route from the fields and the poverty is to take that road at night, to assume the time-honored role of contrabandista. Smuggler.
The grandfathers did it in the '30s, running good tequila and bad whiskey for the boys from Chicago. In the '60s, the next generation found the token patrol the gringos kept on their border easy to elude as they filled a new and insatiable demand for marijuana. Now the drug of choice is the polvo blanco, the white powder — cocaine — worth more than its weight in gold, the latest sure ticket to wealth and power.
In the process, the smugglers created something new on the border: a burgeoning Mexican middle class, hungry for washing machines and imported cars and good schools for their children. Their fine new mansions stand shoulder to shoulder with the crumbling adobe boxes most typical of border towns, poverty stacked next to incongruous wealth in a patchwork maze of potholed streets and piebald lawns. With that taste of prosperity, there was no going back. Whole families entered the drug business, blood ties spawning trust, generation following generation on that serpentine road of contraband and wealth.
In the Mexican town of Matamoros, separated from Brownsville, Texas, by a thin, muddy river and a few impotent strands of barbed wire, smuggling has become a way of life.
So it was with the Hernandez family of Matamoros, mid-level drug smugglers, neither big time nor small time — just one of hundreds of gangs with connections to the city's powerful crime and drug barons. The family was unique in one regard, however: It operated with a singular and savage ruthlessness borne of a past pocked by poverty and a desperate desire never to be poor again.
The four Hernandez brothers built their drug business gradually over a decade and they had prospered — until the cleverest brother, Saul, was shot in 1987. Suddenly everything turned sour. For more than a year afterward, the business went downhill.
Then, just when their prospects had hit bottom, El Padrino appeared. With him, their luck and their fortunes changed — like magic. By the spring of 1989, blood and money flowed freely for the Hernandez family and their secret, dark leader.
From their ranch on the highway to Matamoros, they were building an empire.
A long day slowly drew to a close at the thirteen-kilometer checkpoint on the road to Matamoros. Out in the broad, humid flatlands east of the city, out where the smugglers liked to pull off the road and hump drugs across the Rio Grande, Mexican federal drug agents had set up an impromptu roadstop to search passing cars and trucks for narcotics.
April Fool's Day of 1989 had been a wearying day of lifting grimy spare tires from wheel wells, of poking through truck beds piled high with manure, of questioning the touristas peering owlishly from behind their sunglasses. The late afternoon was stifling, the roadside grit rasped under the agents' eyelids and between their teeth. But at least there had been no major problems ... until the shiny red pickup truck blew by.
The truck didn't stop for the orange cones and warning signs. It didn't even slow down. The Mexican agents watched in disbelief, too surprised to raise their automatic weapons. The young, dark-haired man behind the wheel of the new Chevy pickup stared straight ahead — not oblivious, exactly, but simply ignoring the agents. As if they didn't matter.
Squinting into the hazy sunlight, one of the federales turned and said he thought he recognized the driver from the bars downtown. He was a loudmouthed punk from a rich contrabandista family — one the comandante had pursued in the past and said to watch out for. His name was Hernandez, the agent said: Little Serafin Hernandez.
"He did what?" Comandante Juan Benitez Ayala asked a few hours later, when the agent called long distance to report what happened. "He ignored you, Raul? Is that what you're calling to tell me?" he asked, almost chuckling.
"That's not all, Comandante," Agent Raul Morales said, uncertainty creeping into his normally resolute police monotone. "We followed him to a ranch. After he left, we looked around. And we found something strange: a statue made of cement. An evil-looking head, pointed at the top, shaped like a pear. Its eyes and mouth and nose were made of little sea shells."
Any sign of amusement left the comandante's voice. He had heard of such things, evil and dark. "It looks like it's frowning, Raul? Like it's angry?"
"Yes, Comandante. Exactly. What is it?"
The hiss of the long-distance phone wires filled the silence before Benitez finally spoke. "It means we've got brujos, my friend," he said slowly, reluctantly.
Later, after Comandante Benitez had hung up, he brooded over the situation in his motel room. The call had found him hundreds of miles from home, across the border in Arizona for FBI training, part of an exchange program for select Mexican officers. He had been flattered to be picked, but now he cursed the timing of the seminar. He should be back in Matamoros where, predictably, one more thing was going wrong.
The comandante had come to Matamoros only a month before, and he had been beset with problems from the outset. Smuggling was out of control. Corruption was rampant on the Matamoros city police force. Then there was the missing American college student — the Mark Kilroy mess, with all its attendant bad press and official pressure to find the missing student. And now, as if Benitez's plate were not full enough, the notorious Hernandez family was up to something. Something to do with witchcraft.
Just one month he had been commander of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police Antinarcoticos office, yet already it felt like ten years' hard labor. Benitez rubbed his eyes and stretched out on the motel bed, considering the past four busy weeks.
The young federale's first assignment had been to arrest his predecessor and all his agents, as well as the two federal prosecutors assigned to Matamoros, all for drug trafficking. The old comandante, Guillermo Perez, and his men had created a cottage industry out of seizing drugs on the highway, then reselling them to the powerful crime bosses who controlled Matamoros and its various police agencies.
Holed up in a seedy motel on the outskirts of town and maintaining strict secrecy, Benitez had assembled a cadre of handpicked agents from other cities, commandeered three squads of army troops, then stormed the Antinarcoticos headquarters early one morning to make the arrests. Only the old war horse Perez had been warned and managed to escape barely in time. He departed so hastily, though, that he left five million dollars in cash and two jewel-encrusted Rolex watches stuffed in a desk drawer. It represented but a fraction of his profits over the past year.
Comandante Benitez, though, was different. Unpredictable. His slim, youthful, deceptively innocent appearance was out of step for a veteran of the crusty, backstabbing ranks of the Mexican federales. His shaggy black hair was parted down the middle, and his smooth poker face was dominated by piercing black eyes, set amid perfect Indian features. He was a study in contradictions: profoundly superstitious yet well educated, savvy without being corrupt. At thirty-five, the boyish Benitez had a fearsome reputation, viewed by his enemies and his peers alike as uniquely dangerous — because he rarely could be bought.
"They all think they're protected, all those asshole smugglers who paid off the old comandante," Benitez had told his U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) counterparts in Brownsville. "Well, there are people I can't touch, people who are protected, who I'd need an army to take down. But the list is very short." Benitez had flashed an icy smile then. "The rest — they're mine," Benitez promised. "They'll see. And so will you. Soon."
And he had been true to his word. Within a month of his arrival, there had been more drug seizures by his agents, more arrests, and more cooperative ventures with the DEA than in the previous two years in Matamoros. Cooperation between the DEA and the Mex feds had never led far in the past; Benitez was a welcome aberration. U.S. authorities were so impressed they invited him to the special school in Arizona.
But despite Benitez's efforts, one cooperative investigation had led nowhere. Mark Kilroy's disappearance in Matamoros during a spring-break vacation remained a troubling mystery.
Kilroy had been but one of two hundred and fifty thousand college students who flood the impoverished border for a month each spring, drawn by the white sands and warm waters of South Padre Island, just north of Brownsville, and the wild, freewheeling cantinas of Matamoros, just south. At night, sunburnt and thirsty, the spring breakers drive down from South Padre Island to invade Matamoros, where the beers are cheap and the drinking age negotiable. Seething masses of youths fill the bars and restaurants, spilling out onto the border town's streets in impromptu sidewalk beer gardens. Public drinking is illegal, but no one does anything about it. Spring break is a huge boost to an otherwise stagnant economy, and if it means putting up with drunken, howling gringo teenagers vomiting and passing out on the streets, no one seems to care. The locals greet the students — and their swollen billfolds — with broad smiles and double Margaritas for two dollars. And, by the way, Comandante, if the kids want to buy a joint or a gram or something on the street, well, don't bust their chops, okay? It's bad for business.
Benitez, accustomed to his previous federale duty amid the desolate jungles and Pacific Coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, had been more than happy to steer clear of the spring-break morass — until the Kilroy disappearance sucked him in.
A handsome, blonde college junior from the University of Texas at Austin, Kilroy had been out with three friends, partying until the bars closed. At two in the morning on March 14, the four young men were walking, drunk and exhausted, back to the international bridge to Brownsville. Somehow they became separated. Three of them got across. Kilroy did not.
That in itself would have been bad enough, Benitez knew. But it got worse. Mark's Uncle Ken Kilroy was a U.S. Customs supervisor in Los Angeles. That relationship meant this would not be treated as a run-of-the-mill missing-persons case. The unwritten policeman's code had been activated: One of our own has been touched.
Immediately, a police task force was formed in Brownsville to search for Mark, even though U.S. lawmen had no jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed in Mexico. Television crews sprang into action. Newspaper articles on the disappearance started frightening away tourists. The mayor of Matamoros, the governor of the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, and Benitez's commanders in Mexico City, alarmed at the negative publicity and its potential impact on tourism, began to pressure Benitez and other police commanders in the area. The Matamoros economy depended on spring break, and all of Mexico depended on tourism. Mark had to be found.
Typically, the Matamoros city cops tried to claim that Kilroy must have vanished in Brownsville, not Mexico, hoping to shift blame, to preserve the tourist trade. But the boy's friends said otherwise. Only Benitez, the new cop in town, promised to do whatever he could to help — then carried through on his promises. He supplied agents to accompany U.S. investigators anywhere they needed to go in Matamoros, showing a photograph of Kilroy's smiling, blonde face to potential witnesses, questioning informants, running down tips. None of it led anywhere, though. The boy had vanished without a trace — kidnapped, it seemed, for unknown reasons.
The sad fact is, people vanish all the time in Matamoros. The plaza near the bridge and the accompanying strip of souvenir shops and tourist bars are nice enough, but the rest of the city of two hundred thousand is poor and crime-ridden. Gunfire echoes nightly in some of the barrios as rival gangs battle for supremacy. There were sixty open cases of desaparecedos — the disappeared — on the books of the Matamoros city police from the first three months of 1989 alone. All but Kilroy were Mexican citizens, though, and therefore none of the others had generated news coverage or investigative task forces. They were just gone.
Life is cheap on the border, even the mariachis sing of it. You can hear them on the weekend in the town square, belting out the traditional Mexican ballad, in which the chorus concludes, over and over: "Life is worth nothing." The special treatment for Kilroy was a political reality, a given because the boy was a gringo, because he had connections, because economics and politics dictated that his life was worth more than the other desaparecedos. It left a bad taste in Benitez's mouth.
So in a way, his agents' encounter with the Hernandez family was almost a relief, a welcome departure from the Kilroy case. As he sat in his motel room and pondered what his men had told him, he had no way of knowing that Mark Kilroy's disappearance and Little Serafin Hernandez's flagrant running of a drug checkpoint were intimately related. He only knew he had to learn what the Hernandez family was up to.
Raul Morales, the agent he'd put in charge of the checkpoint, was a good man. He had done just what Benitez would have suggested had he been there: Instead of cranking up the siren, pursuing and arresting the youth, Morales and another agent had climbed into an unmarked Bronco and discreetly followed.
"Let's see where he leads us," Morales had said. Then he laughed. "Look at that guy. What does he think, he's invisible?"
The two agents quickly caught up with Little Serafin's red pickup, then dropped back about a quarter-mile. They probably could have tailgated if they had wanted to — the driver seemed that uncaring.
The sun was low in the sky, glaring into the agents' eyes as they drove westward, squinting with concentration at the pickup ahead. They were quiet, expectant. The only sound was the singing of rubber on asphalt and the occasional wet thump of bugs striking the windshield.
After a few miles the truck reached the curva de Texas, a point where the road veers sharply toward the border. Just beyond the curve, the pickup turned right onto a rutted dirt ranch road, then bounced out of sight, trailing clouds of acrid dust. Agent Morales and his assistant drove on a short distance down the highway, made a U-turn, then pulled off to the side of the road to watch.
A half-hour later, they saw the pickup pull back onto the road and drive off, back toward Matamoros. When Serafin was out of sight, they crossed the highway, turned onto the ranch road, and slowly drove into the property, following the path Little Serafin had taken before.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Buried Secrets"
Copyright © 1991 Edward Humes.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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