Between 2012 and 2018, a number of women and girls were going missing in the town of Ecatepec, Mexico, a poor suburb of Mexico City with a particularly high crime rate. It’s an especially dangerous place for women; in fact, it has the most femicides in the entire country — a country which itself is recognized as one of the most dangerous for women.
But it’s easy to forget that behind the statistics are real women, with families who were worried about them. Several mothers of these missing women came together to try and find them.
As they worked together, the mothers noticed that three of the missing women — Arlet Samanta Olguin, Evelyn Rojas Matus, and Nancy Noemí Huitrón (who had gone missing along with her 2-month-old daughter) — had the number of Patricia Martínez Bernal on their phone records.
Martínez* lived with her boyfriend, Juan Carlos Hernández, and their three children in the missing women’s neighborhood, where they sold clothes, perfumes, cell phones, and other items out of their home.
As the desperate mothers began to compare notes, they realized that many of their daughters had some connection to the couple. Some were actually close family friends; the parents of one 13-year-old missing girl had even let the couple and their children live with them for a time. When their daughter went missing, the couple (who had moved out by that time) immediately tried to blame another neighbor.
The mothers took their suspicions to the police.
So police began to surveille the couple. On Oct. 4, 2018, the two were spotted leaving their home. Martínez was pushing a baby stroller, which made the officers think that Noemí’s missing daughter might be inside. They rushed in and arrested the couple.
But when they pulled aside the blanket covering the stroller, they did not find a baby. Instead they found something wrapped in black plastic. Inside was a human torso.
Police immediately searched their home as well as a nearby vacant lot the couple owned. In the lot, they found eight large plastic buckets filled with concrete. Once the concrete was broken apart, they found human organs encased inside.
In the couple’s home, inside their refrigerator, were more human remains wrapped in plastic. Later it would be determined that the remains belonged to eight different women, though DNA tests would identify only four of them.
The news of the couple’s arrest, and the fact that the remains of so many murdered women were found on their properties, sparked mass outrage. At least 1,000 people marched in the streets, demanding justice for the victims and more protection from crime.
Meanwhile, while in custody, Hernández and Martínez confessed to killing not just those eight victims, but almost 20 women and girls, starting in 2012.
The couple told the police and psychologists how they did it. Usually, Martínez would lure their victims into their home by trying to sell them clothes or other items; sometimes they would place ads looking for housekeepers.
Once the women were inside, Hernández would rape and then kill them, either by slitting their throats or by stabbing them to death. Martínez also confessed to stabbing at least two of the victims to death.
Some of their victims, they would dump in vacant lots, rivers, or, as in the case of their 13-year-old victim, in a sewage canal.
But for some, Hernández would perform a ritual of dismembering the victims in the bathtub. He would split them in half, then cut the meat from their bones — Martínez said they got a “kilo of steaks” from one victim.
They would then cook their victims’ remains in steaks, carne asada, tamales, and chili before eating them.
Their organs, they would chop up and feed to their dogs or encase in buckets of concrete.
They also sold at least one of their victims’ bones to santeros, or practitioners of Santería. Apparently they dabbled in these practices as well, because they said that they had promised their last four victims’ hearts as offerings to Santa Muerte — but one of their dogs ate the last one before they could offer it. That was why, they believe, they were caught.
Their youngest victim was only 7 years old — the daughter of Guadalupe Castillo, whom they also confessed to murdering. Hernández said he had not planned on killing the girl, only her mother, so he kept her hidden for a week before suffocating her to death. He says he did not sexually abuse either of them.
Noemí was their final victim; she and her daughter had gone missing in September of 2017. After her murder, the couple sold her infant daughter to another couple for about $15,000 pesos.
As the details of their crimes came out, the press dubbed the couple the “Monsters of Ecatepec.”
When examined by a court psychologist, Hernández was shown to have some type of schizoid disorder. He claimed that his mother was abusive, both physically and emotionally, to him, and that one female caregiver had sexually molested him when he was a child. He also said that his mother worked as a prostitute and would force him to watch her have sex with her clients. This is why, he explained, he hated women so much. He said he’d rather his little dogs eat the women’s organs than for them to keep breathing oxygen.
Besides his toxic misogyny, Hernández claimed that he is a demon and that he needs to drink human blood at least every three months.
Martínez, similarly, claimed to have been physically and sexually abused since the age of 6. She ended up on the streets and turned to prostitution to support herself. It was while she was working as a prostitute out of a bar that she met Hernández. She fell in love with him, she said, because he was the first man she had ever known who didn’t hit her. And, she said, he was very affectionate with children.
Martínez claimed that at first, the killings had been his idea, and when she discovered the body of the first victim, she threatened to call the police on him. She said that he convinced her that the police would lock her away as well, so she kept the secret. However, she said that as time went on, she began to feel “the pleasure of killing.”
The court psychologist said that Martínez had a personality disorder that made her extremely submissive and willing to do anything to keep Hernández from rejecting her. This dynamic of dominant and submissive is actually quite common in folie a deux killers (I profiled several of these here, here, here, here, here, and here).
But despite their mental disorders, it was ruled that they still knew right from wrong and were therefore fit to stand trial. In the Mexican justice system, they had to stand trial separately for each of the victims the state could definitively charge them with — eight in all.
At their first trial, the couple whispered and giggled, stared off into the distance, and generally seemed not to take the whole thing seriously. That is, until the judge declared them guilty and sentenced them to life in prison.
Between April and October of 2019, the couple stood trial several more times for femicide (which is treated similarly to a hate crime in the US), hiding human remains for the purpose of concealing a crime, and human trafficking (for selling Castillo’s infant daughter illegally). Altogether, the couple was sentenced to 327 years each.
As for Noemí’s daughter, she was found safe and returned to her maternal grandmother. The couple who purchased her was arrested on human trafficking charges.
The trial of the Monsters of Ecatepec has served to shine a light on the problems in Ecatepec’s criminal justice system, mainly that so many women are killed and very few of their killers ever face justice. Various feminist and human rights organizations have organized vigils, marches, and other actions to keep this issue in the public eye and pressure police and courts to enforce the law. Though there have been official promises to work harder to bring women’s killers to justice, it remains to be seen if their words translate into action.
*Note: it is the Hispanic convention to use the first surname as the official one, so Patricia Martínez Bernal would be written as “Martínez” on second reference.