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Mexican family probed as members of death cult

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 Saint 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 they may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Known as "flaquita," or "the skinny one," the figure known as Saint Death is portrayed as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and holding a scythe, much like the Grim Reaper.

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.

Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for the Sonora Attorney General's Office, said 44-year-old Silvia Meraz was the cult leader, and seven people related to her were detained: her boyfriend, Eduardo Sanchez; father; son; three daughters; and a daughter-in-law. No formal charges have been filed pending further investigation.

"They thought that by offering the blood, they would be protected for some time," Larrinaga said. "According to them, Santa Muerte was going to tell them where the money was. They all identify themselves as fanatic followers of Santa Muerte."

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, said Jose Miguel Espinoza, police chief.

"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, the police chief said. That boy's mother and her boyfriend reported it to state authorities, who discovered weeks later that the two boys knew people in common.

Martin Rios, one of the missing boys, was the son of the ex-girlfriend of suspect Eduardo Sanchez. The second boy, Jesus Martinez, was the step-grandson of alleged cult leader Meraz.

The police chief said both boys often visited Meraz's home, which was in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the town of 11,500.

Agents on Wednesday unearthed the body of Jesus Martinez from the dirt floor in the bedroom of one of the Meraz daughters.

They then began arresting the family members, who led them to what agents believe to be the remains of the other boy, as well as the grave of 55-year-old Cleotilde Romero, a close friend of Meraz who disappeared in 2009.