Eight people have been arrested for allegedly killing two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman in ritual sacrifices by the cult of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, prosecutors in northern Mexico said Friday.
Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for Sonora state prosecutors, said the victims' blood was poured around an altar to the saint, which is depicted as a skeleton holding a scythe and clothed in flowing robes.
The grisly slayings recalled the notorious "narco-satanicos" killings of the 1980s, when 15 bodies, many of them with signs of ritual sacrifice, were unearthed at a ranch outside the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.
While Saint Death has become the focus of a cult among drug traffickers and criminals in Mexico in recent years, there have been no confirmed cases of human sacrifices in Mexico to the scary-looking saint, which is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Worshippers usually offer candy, cigarettes and incense to the skeleton-statue.
Larrinaga said the first of the three victims was apparently killed in 2009, the second in 2010 and the latest earlier this month. Investigations indicate their throats were slit, they had cuts on their wrists and their blood was poured around an altar to the saint, he said.
"The ritual was held at nighttime, they lit candles," Larrinaga said. "They sliced open the victims' veins and, while they were still alive, they waited for them to bleed to death and collected the blood in a container."
Authorities began investigating after the last victim, 10-year-old Jesus Octavio Martinez Yanez, was reported missing March 6 by his stepfather.
Investigations led authorities to the altar site in the Sonora city of Nacozari, about 70 miles (110 kms) south of Douglas, Arizona.
Larrinaga said the arrests were made after tests by forensic experts on Thursday found blood traces spread over 30 square meters (yards) around the altar.
Those arrested included Silvia Meraz, who Larrinaga said spread the blood around the altar, and her son Ramon Palacios, who allegedly killed the victims. The spokesman identified them as the leaders of the cult.
Larrinaga initially gave The Associated Press the wrong name for the suspected male leader, saying it was Martin Barron Lopez. The spokesman later corrected the suspect to Palacios and said the name he wrongly gave out was that of the last victim's stepfather.
Meraz answered questions to reporters when she was shown to news media Friday.
"We all agreed to do it. Supposedly she was a witch or something," she said, referring to the women victim. She did not respond to questions about the boys' killings.
The other suspects, many of them relatives, included people ranging from a 15-year-old girl to a 44-year-old woman.
The "narco-satanicos" killings of the 1980s were committed by a cult of drug traffickers who believed that ritual sacrifices would shield them from police. Victims of the cult, many of whose members are still in prison, included Mark Kilroy, a 21-year-old University of Texas pre-med student.
The narco-satanicos have no connection to the Saint Death cult, which gained widespread popularity around the 2000, although the two share some similarities. Followers of Saint Death believe they gain protection by worshipping "Death."
(This version reflects CORRECTION in name announced by prosecutors for male suspect.)