Into The Black Pot
Review of Buried Secrets by Edward Humes
As many religions attest, there are two paths of life to take in the world: the narrow, straight path of good, or the wide, twisting path of evil. The evil path can be the most seductive, as Edward Humes’ Buried Secrets reminds us. While occult practices are not inherently evil, they often tempt and seduce the weak and powerless into believing that they can acquire more power and prestige than they may currently have. Adolfo Constanzo, who is the focus of the book Buried Secrets, saw the occult traditions he grew up in as way for himself to gain the power, prestige and money he desired.
Adolfo Constanzo was born to 15-year-old Delia Aurora González, a Cuban immigrant in Miami. He never knew his father who died when he was young. His mother practiced the occult as a way to gain some power over her destitute circumstances and bothersome neighbors. As a teenager, she apprenticed Adolfo to a palero or priest of the Palo Mayombe sect. Palo Mayombe is a religion of the African Diaspora that combines traditional practices from the Congo and Christianity. Although found throughout the Caribbean, the practice was originally concentrated in Cuba.
Palo Mayombe harnesses the forces of death and decay as directed by various Afro-Cuban gods to achieve certain goals. These goals may be personal, such as power, prestige, or invincibility. Or they can be more usual, such as love, money, or employment. The practice is centered around a cauldron or naganga. The naganga is the spiritual home of the bones and soul of a deceased person with whom the practitioner has made a pact. The bones of the deceased (preferably the skull) are placed within the naganga with other appropriate objects, symbols, and materials, each chosen to clarify and define the personality of the naganga and to place the spirit under the control of the palero. The palo of the name Palo Mayombe, are sticks which are inserted upright around the inside edge of the cauldron, surrounding the bones which occupy the center. These are the most noticeable of the objects in the naganga, as the sticks often crowd and camouflage the bones and the other objects. These palo (usually 21, but there can be more) are each a different wood. Each wood has a different magical ability and perceived natural energy. These form the basis of the Palo Mayombe system, since the main focus of the practice is for the practitioner to harness nature energy which provides the instructions for the residing soul to carry out. The residing soul must be communicated with, so forming a bond with it is essential to the success of the practitioner.
Communication with the soul of the deceased housed in the naganga is key to the success of a spell. This is usually done through divination with cowrie shells or discs fashioned of coconut shell. Both of these options are of natural materials which continues the concept of harnessing the natural energy in the world. Cowrie shells contain the fluidity and memory of water, combined with a feminine intuitive energy due to their openings resembling female genitalia. The coconut symbolizes growth, resilience, and good fortune (since it is a food source). It also has connotations with the skull and bones due to its shape and hardness. The questions asked are usually of a “yes” or “no” type, but after a time, familiarity with the personality of the spirit and depending on the abilities of the priest, the answers can become more conversational. It is with the divination procedure, and through the choosing of the proper palo that the priest makes their request. The spirit may not be willing or able to fulfill the request, or it may need special materials or procedures to be done beforehand. When the spirit agrees to a perform the action that has been requested and any requirements have been fulfilled, the magic is put into motion.
In March of 1989, Adolfo Constanzo had sacrificed another victim hoping to continue his invincibility with the police from his drug trafficking and ritual killing. Unfortunately, after consulting with his naganga, his latest sacrifice did not die screaming in fear and pain and so was rejected by his spirit. The spirit wanted the energy of fear to create an envelope of protection, rather than the stoicism of acceptance. What was needed Constanzo determined, was a different kind of sacrifice, an American, someone who would have no knowledge of the magic or be hardened against the fear of death by crime as this last victim was. With his followers, Adolfo Constanzo planned an abduction of an American college student. There would be plenty to choose from in the nearby Mexican border town of Matamouros because it was spring break. The town swelled with tourists then. On March 14, one of his followers lured college student Mark Kilroy into his truck and took him to Adolfo Constanzo’s remote ranch outside of Matamouros on the Mexican side of the border. There Kilroy was tortured for several hours overnight. The next morning, he was killed with a blow to his head from a machete. His brain was set in the naganga, while his body was buried on the ranch property with wires marking where it was placed. The wires were fed through the backbone and stuck out of the ground to mark the location of the buried body and to make the bones easer to pull out of the soil when they were needed for further spells.
The Mexican police initially treated the crime as a routine missing person’s case. This meant that they were not that interested in following up on a single American among the hundreds who disappeared during spring break. However, special to this case was Kilroy’s uncle. He was a U.S. Customs agent and would not allow the matter to be swept aside. He threatened to make his nephew’s disappearance an international incident between Mexico and the United States unless a serious investigation was conducted. His involvement in the proceedings and threats to the Mexican authorities were effective.
An international task force was created. Kilroy’s parents participated in the search and created a lot of publicity, including an appearance on a segment of America’s Most Wanted television program. On April 1, 1989, after a truck sped through a checkpoint, the authorities stumbled on their first real lead. The truck had been driven by a follower of Adolfo Constanzo, who believed that the magic that Constanzo was creating, made him invincible from police interference. The truck driver still believing that he was immune from prosecution, confessed to the murder and showed the police where the body was buried on the ranch and the sacred shack that contained the naganga. The authorities found a total of 15 bodies buried on the ranch property, 3 of whom remain unidentified.
Aware of the tightening police investigation, Constanzo fled the ranch and went to Mexico City where he had an apartment. On May 6, 1989, the police tracked Constanzo and his followers to the Mexico City apartment. While they were waiting for street traffic to subside before they raided the apartment, Constanzo opened fire on the police from his window. Running out of ammunition and feeling desperate, he ordered one of his men to shoot him and his close partner. He was killed before the police had a chance to break into the apartment and effect an arrest.
Buried Secrets examines Adolfo Constanzo’s early life, his homosexuality, and describes many of the killings. The abduction and death of Mark Kilroy is particularly graphic and detailed. The author, Edward Humes is a trained reporter. He presents the facts with the brevity of a news story. There is faint literary adornment and no analysis of the crime or the criminal. The abundance of graphic detail sensationalizes the narrative. The supernatural aspects of the Palo Mayombe as Adolfo Constanzo practiced it is communicated in a tone that cants the tradition in a way that is meant to focus the reader on how misguided and foolish the practitioners were. There is a point in Costanzo’s career, when he had been reading cards for tourists and superstitious drug dealers. Through his fortune telling interactions with the drug dealers he realizes that he could make more money in the drug trade than he can at just reading cards by using his training as a palero. Humes trivializes this awareness and Constanzo’s long study in the tradition of Palo Mayombe as Constanzo discovering “the joys and profits of human sacrifice.”
What is casually mentioned is that Adolfo Constanzo murdered approximately 26 people over the span of his three-year career. None of these murders attracted the attention of the Mexican law enforcement until the abduction and killing of Mark Kilroy. It was only Mark Kilroy’s white privilege, U.S government connections, and the relentless public relations efforts of Kilroy’s parents, that got the Mexican authorities to investigate. This book and the research it spawned only exists because of Mark Kilroy’s death. The rest of the victims (at least three were children), even those who had been mentioned in the book have been ignored. Several victims have still never been identified.
Constanzo’s homosexuality was only superficially discussed in the book. When it is mentioned, it is often a detail meant to reinforce Constanzo’s deviant personality. Humes manages to point out that Constanzo’s victims were always male and most were sodomized by him before being killed. He wasn’t just an outsider because of his interest in the occult and his criminal behavior, he was also debauched because his sexuality was twisted with violence. The suggestion that being homosexual in a machoistic society like Mexico caused him to become a murderer. Being Mexican and gay dooes not equal a tendency for violence and murder as Humes’ equation would suggest. During the torture that Mark Kilroy endured before he was killed, Humes made the point clear that Constanzo sodomized Kilroy as part of the victim’s ordeal. This detail was included to emphasize the horror of Kilroy’s last hours and used as the most egregious of Kilroy’s torments. There continues a strong homophobic slant in these particulars and pairing them as inevitable with violence furthers the unnecessary shock value and false conclusions. There is a strong suggestion that sodomy is more heinous than having your brain cut out of your head.
Throughout the book, Humes generally depreciates the occult aspect of the killings. Our American skepticism for all things spiritual and supernatural is thickly prevalent in Buried Secrets. Whether a person is a devout saint who has visions of the divine, or a cult leader who controls his followers with spiritual manipulation, each is looked upon as mentally disturbed. Hume sees the Palo Mayombe practice as a superficial rationalization for the murders, not as a cultural belief system or a religion. The author wants us to believe that only an amoral psychopath would do the horrible things that Adolfo Constanzo did to his victims. Yet, Adolfo Constanzo believed in what he was doing with his occult practice. He believed that it was indeed providing him the power to become successful in his criminal activities and was essential to give him protection from the law.
There is an understanding among occult practitioners, that often the result you hope for may not be the result you get. The request must always be as clear as possible, with little room for alternative interpretation. Even with all precautions covered and the language of the request perfectly worded, the results may still not be as expected. What is being tapped into always has it own way of responding and it own way of interpreting what is being asked.
Constanzo did avoid capture, arrest, and punishment for all of his heinous and illegal activities. As he requested from his naganga spirit, he was given immunity and protection. His petition to his naganga spirit was granted. In the end, he was killed in an assisted suicide, which resulted in him escaping arrest and provided harsh immunity for his crimes. Perhaps this was the only ending that made sense given the circumstances. There is a macabre justice to this ending.
Buried Secrets is a sensationalistic book. It feeds into the general belief that all occult practices are inherently evil and delusional. The more “exotic” they are the more diabolical. Buried Secrets revels in the aura of the exotic and the strange as savage and animalistic. It reenforces the demonization of the “other,” be they foreign, poor, or homosexual. It idolizes the idea of the white savior, who needs to go to the foreign country and show the residents how things need to be done. It is the most common of narratives to emphasize the superiority of the United States of America in world politics and a moral warning to stay with your own kind. Mark Kilroy’s death was a tragedy by any standard, but so were the 22 other deaths committed by Adolfo Constanzo. That Kilroy’s becomes the only murder that will be remembered from this case is also a tragedy.
Arthur Bruso © 2023
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