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Mexican Police Search for Victims of Ritual Killings

July 27, 1990

TEPIC, Mexico (AP) _ Members of a drug-growing cult suspected of making human sacrifices testified Friday that police had beaten them and forced them to sign false admissions of murder.

Authorities have descended on a rural western town to search for up to 41 bodies of cult victims, but they were delayed by bad weather Friday.

Police have quoted cult members as saying they made sacrifices to the devil, whom they believed was embodied in a 16-inch earthenware statue of a monkey. They reportedly called the statue ″El Amigo,″ or ″The Friend.″

However, District Judge Cuevas Zavala played down the cult charge Friday. ″There is nothing to it,″ said the judge hearing the case in Tepic, the Nayarit state capital, about 450 miles northwest of Mexico City. He did not elaborate.

Some of the 14 suspects arrested in the case testified at their arraignment Friday that police had beaten them into signing accusations of murder against Olayo Soto Soto, the 65-year-old alleged leader of the cult.

Other suspects, handcuffed in pairs, made the same claims in interviews with reporters outside the courthouse.

The purported cult leader pointed to a dark spot under his eye and to other parts of his body and said he was beaten into confessing to killing three alleged victims.

Soto Soto, who was wearing traditional white garb of an Indian medicine man, said he was a ″good Catholic.″

Another suspect, Epifanio Soto, said he grew only apples, peaches and prickly pears. ″We are peaceful peasant workers,″ he said.

He said the group had a temple in a cave. ″There we had saints - the Saint Jesus Christ and the Virgin of Guadelupe,″ Mexico’s patron saint, he said.

Of the monkey idol, he said, ″the authorities must have mistaken the Virgin of Guadelupe for it.″

The accused appeared Friday on the drug charges, which District Judge Jose Cuevas Zavala said could take 10 months to prosecute.

Confessions made without an attorney present are admissible in Mexico, although the accused are permitted to recant them in court later. They almost invariably do so.

Because there is no bail under Mexican law for people accused of crimes that carry a sentence of five years or more, the suspects likely will remain in jail the whole time their case is prosecuted.

Authorities say the victims were killed and buried by the marijuana-growers in a remote area along the line separating Nayarit and Durango states over a seven-year period.

The human sacrifices were made in the belief they would protect the drug crop from police, authorities said.

Nine men and five youths have been held by police in Tepic since Tuesday. They are charged with homicide, arms possession, criminal association and drug offenses.

Alejandro Maldonado Loyo, who represents the federal prosecutor in Tepic, said Friday all 14 had confessed to marijuana charges. He said the homicide charges would be handled by state officials in Durango because the bodies reportedly were buried on that side of the line.

He said the marijuana patches were small. ″Their sacrifices didn’t bring them many results, did they?″ he said.

The Nayarit district attorney’s investigator, Jose Fernand Armas Hernandez, said Thursday tht police found a leather quiver with 41 arrows, apparently dipped in blood.

One suspect claimed the arrows represented the spirits of each of the sacrificed humans, the investigator said.

Authorities said the occult rites were practiced in caves on remote hillsides where police discovered apparent cult material, including a statuette of the Virgin Mary with her face replaced by a skull.

Federal police said the group claimed to be practicing a version f Palo Mayombe, a religion that originated in the Congo and sometimes uses human skulls.

The group is reminiscent of another drug cult broken in April 1989, when police found 15 bodies buried on a ranch near the city of Matamoros across the U.S.-Mexico border from Brownsville, Texas.

Four members of that group are on trial in Mexico City and Matamoros. Alleged group leader Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo and his bodyguard died of gunshot wounds as police closed in on them in a Mexico City apartment in May 1989.

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