- Associated Press - Sunday, April 1, 2012

NACOZARI, Mexico (AP) — 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 St. 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 cornfield next to the house of the woman believed to lead the group. “This has been a tragic thing 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, Ariz., and that they would go find him, Chief Espinoza said.

“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.

One of the missing boys, Martin Rios, was the son of the ex-girlfriend of a man named Eduardo Sanchez. The second boy, Jesus Martinez, was the stepgrandson of Mr. Sanchez’s new girlfriend, Silvia Meraz.

The police chief said both boys would often visit Ms. Meraz’s home in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the town of 11,500.

Chief Espinoza said his officers suspected the house was being used for prostitution after seeing different men from out of town visiting, but the authorities never gathered enough evidence to arrest anyone.

Agents on Wednesday unearthed the body of Jesus Martinez, which was 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 Ms. Meraz’s who disappeared in 2009.

Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for the Sonora attorney general’s office, said the 44-year-old Ms.  Meraz, who police suspect was the cult leader, and seven people related to her were detained pending further investigation: her boyfriend, Mr. Sanchez; her father; her son; three daughters; and a daughter-in-law. No formal charges have been filed pending further investigation.

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