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The Cult of Yerba Buena

This is the unlikely but entirely true story of how a 16-year-old Saint Joseph Academy boy met a 16-year-old prostitute-sex-slave from the village of Yerba Buena in southern Tamaulipas, Mexico.  They met in the infamous Matamoros Boy’s town in 1963 just weeks before the downfall of the bloodthirsty cult operating in her village.  This is the story of how they became friends and how she entrusted him with information about Magdalena Solís known as the “High Priestess of Blood,” and the cult of Yerba Buena before the cult’s demise in a shootout with police and before the story of human sacrifice ever appeared in the newspapers.

St. Joe 

The 1962-1963 school year began like any other.  My pals and I were sophomores at Saint Joseph Academy, an all-boys Catholic high school in Brownsville, Texas.  The all-girls Catholic school was Villa Maria, located about five blocks away.

There were only 50 boys in our sophomore class, divided into two groups.  Most of us had begun school together as kindergarteners in 1952.  About half of the boys were from well to do Mexican families living just across the border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.  The other half were from Mexican American families in Brownsville.  All were upper middle class, and a few of the boys were from Anglo families in Brownsville.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded Saint Joseph Academy in 1865.  The school was renowned for preparing boys for life and citizenship through rigorous scholarship, Catholic doctrine, and athleticism. Four generations of Zavaletas have attended St. Joe, I was the third.  Although the public-school boys resented us, many were our friends.  We often had to fight to gain their respect, so fighting was familiar to me, it made me tough.  Other than being distinguished as Brownsville or Matamoros boys, the real distinguishing factor was whether or not you were an athlete.  St. Joe, as we called it, had a long tradition as a gutsy school producing outstanding athletes and sports teams competing Valley-wide with many area public high schools.

I was an athlete, and my uncle was the coach at St. Joe, which made things doubly hard for me, he pushed me to excel both on and off the field.  All of the Zavaleta boys were notable athletes, and St. Joe boys, in general, were smart and adventuresome.  Those of us who were more gregarious dated the VM girls while for the rest of us the thought of girls was a foreign concept until a couple of years later.

Boy’s Town

We were able to satiate our emerging libidos with occasional jaunts across the border to Boy’s Town.  Every Mexican border town has a mythical red light district called Boy’s Town.  The Matamoros Boy’s Town was located on the outskirts of Matamoros.  We had all heard stories about Boy’s Town and were curious about the cabaret girls, the “French” movies, and especially the infamous banana and donkey dances.  We wondered if any of what we had heard was true, and had to see for ourselves.

I suppose this rite of passage was thrust upon every generation of Catholic boys growing up on the border because I have met many and all have similar recollections of Boy’s Town in Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Villa Acuna, and Ciudad Juarez.  What I did not know was that an organized crime syndicate supplied girls to all of the red light districts.  I learned many years later that all of the Boy’s Towns were connected via a network transferring strings of girls from place to place, up and down the river.  The girls were never allowed to stay in any one-border town for more than a couple of months.  That way they could never fall in love with any of the local boys or try to leave their indentured servitude.  Then there were the local area prostitutes who were not owned by the syndicate and had to pay for space in a club and for a room.

As a tenth-grader, I was one of a few boys who owned a car.  One day my father brought home a 1954 Mercury, which he won, in a poker game.  It was for me to play around with and to drive my elderly grandfather Pedro to his ranch near Río Bravo. I loved driving up and down the river road known as the Military Highway in the 1960s and still do.

On Friday nights, and especially after home football games, my friends would all pile into my Mercury, and off we would go to the clubs right across the bridge like Jessie’s, Tio Nacho’s and the Mustang club in Matamoros and eventually on to Boy’s Town, oblivious of any danger.

Boy’s Town was on the road to the beach heading east out of Matamoros.  As I recall it seemed that it was five or so miles outside of town, but it could have been more.  As the lights of Boy’s Town came into view, a right turn off the highway led us onto a dirt road that ran through a cotton field pocked with enormous ruts and potholes.  That road, like a minefield, could quickly destroy a car’s suspension if one were not cautious.  Convoys of large farm trucks carrying braceros to and from the cotton fields to Boy’s Town traversed it seven days a week.

The lights of Boy’s Town produced an ethereal sight and a glowing dome over the red light district.  From a distance, it resembled a surreal carnival with lights of every color, flashing signs and music blaring from the numerous dance halls.  If any of us believed in the devil, we imagined this would undoubtedly be where he lived.  Years later, the movie, “Dusk to Dawn,” with its cabaret on the outskirts of town and hordes of devils brought back memories of the Matamoros Boy’s Town from the 1960s.  It all made sense to me after seeing that movie many years later.

In the 1980s, a crusading mayor finally closed down the old Matamoros Boy’s Town.  It lay vacant for many years and fell into decay.  With the mass immigration of Mexicans to Matamoros to work in the maquiladoras, many families took up residence in the empty structures.  However, the myth of the Matamoros Boy’s Town lived on and numerous times, I was asked to guide journalists and curiosity seekers over to see it.  Prostitution in Matamoros certainly did not end, it moved into downtown and is alive and well there today.  Maybe it was the surreal atmosphere that attracted us to the place, served as a laboratory of living folklore, which accompanied our Catholic school religious teaching.   

Boy’s Town’s main street stretched for about six blocks and then there was nothing just the darkness of cotton fields.  On either side of the main street, which was not paved, there was a secondary street and cross streets where tiny rooms were rented to the women and girls by the quarter-hour for their use in the sex trade.  The prostitutes ranged from women in their fifties and maybe older to very young under-aged girls.   

I remember when I was very young I did not understand how they could reconcile the numerous religious icons adorning the walls of their rooms with the sex trade.  Were they not afraid of going to hell like we were taught at St. Joe?  The whole Boy’s Town scenario was incongruous to me at 16.  However, as I matured and especially after completing my college education and returning to Brownsville, I developed a great compassion and understanding for these sex workers and Boy’s Town as a servile border micro-industry.  Many of the women, had children in tow who waited outside for their mothers to conduct business.  They would be asked to step out of the room and into the street and be called back after their mother conducted business.       

In those days, there were three very identifiable groups of male clients in Boy’s Town.  There were the Airmen from the Air Force base in Harlingen, and there were the braceros from the surrounding farms and fields.  Then there were the local-boys like us, just out for thrills seeking to discover our manhood by establishing haunting memories stirred by classic Catholic schoolboy guilt.  There was no honor to be gained in a border Boy’s Town sexual experience and we knew that.     

In the 1950s, cotton was king, and in the summertime, hundreds of farmworkers traveled to the north to pick cotton rotating from farm to farm.  They would work long and hard hours, be paid in coin by the weight of the cotton picked and were then picked up in trucks for a ride to Boy’s Town, they called it el Zumbido.  The braceros kept to themselves, mostly frequenting the dance halls, like the famous “Donkey” dance hall, and the “Aqui Me Quedo” bar.  The braceros bought tokens for dances with the girls they preferred and with whom they wanted to have sex.  It was very easy for their meager pay to go up in smoke in Boy’s Town.  I admired the bracero’s dance acumen as they whirled the girls around to the tune of a shotze, redova, mazurka or waltz,

The more fortunate braceros were those who worked the cotton fields with their families, the women knew to keep them on a short leash and take the day or week’s wages away from their husbands before allowing then to venture off to Boy’s Town.

The dance halls were located in the first two or three blocks as you entered Boy’s Town from the highway.  The airmen and others like us would stay in the cabaret areas in the middle of Boy’s Town.    

There were four or five elite bars, clubs, and cabarets such as the Golden Palace, and Charlie’s bar, which were situated on a single block on either side of the street right in the middle of Boy’s Town.  We rarely entered the upscale Golden Palace because we were to easily identifiable and for fear, one of our father’s compadres would recognize us.  When that inevitably happened to me, my father just said, “Be careful and don’t tell your mother where you have been.”  The folklore circulating on the schoolyard was that some fathers took their sons to Boy’s Town to be initiated into manhood.  We all believed it, although there was never a name mentioned and I never met any boy who had that experience.  A significant number of my friends had their first sexual experience with their mother’s housekeepers.

    The early sixties were extraordinary years for me.  My father was a politician in Brownsville, his business partner was the mayor of Matamoros, and my best friend’s father was the chief of police in Matamoros, so we were the lords of Matamoros.  We did not find out until years later that there was always armed protection watching over us.  In spite of the bizarre nature of the environment around us, I do not remember ever feeling frightened or in danger, although I witnessed many fistfights and gun battles, which left bodies littered in the street and at least one assassination.

Little did I know that one of my classmates from Texas Southmost College was the daughter of the owner of a Boy’s Town cabaret.  He liked to sit in a chair at the front door of his club, and one night he was cut down in a hail of machine gun bullets.  I just happen to be walking along toward his cabaret when his life was ended.  His daughter did not return to class at the college and was never seen in Brownsville again.

Once I was coldcocked by a drunken Airman, but he was immediately pulled off me by his mates, and I was not hurt.  It happened so fast that I did not have time to throw a punch.  The Boy’s Town police wanted to take him to jail, but I would not hear of it, he was very drunk.

  In those years, I was a tall, lanky kid with black-rimmed Buddy Holly-style glasses and always dressed in loafers and buttoned-down oxford style shirts and trousers.  That is how the cool St. Joe boys dressed, the cabaret girls just loved us, knowing that we usually had some money in our pockets; we stood out and were always preferred customers, and we were clean.    

  When we would enter a cabaret as a group of four of more, we learned not to sit too near to the dance floors in the cabarets and would grab a table at least two rows back or as far away from the floorshow as we could get.  Boys sitting too near the dance floor would invariably be pulled into the act and have to eat the banana or worse.  The girls would come by our table, and they called me “Cutie Glasses.”  They wanted us to buy them drinks or to rent a room.  We were much too young for that sort of mischief and just drank beer while waiting for the floor show to begin.  We usually had to buy the girls a drink so they would be allowed to sit at our table.

We thought we were pretty savvy and knew all the danger signs like not to drink from a glass that could be spiked; we all looked out for each other.  Each of the four or five major cabarets had several bouncers as well as a man out in front hawking the floorshow start times.  They all knew us and were friends, we tipped them well.  The best floorshows came in from the big cities and always began after midnight.

Down the street, there were several small places where worn-out “French” movie strips were shown; they were comparable to today’s porno short filmstrips.  The films were exciting but were ancient, and very crude and fragile.  Frequently the film would break, and we would have to wait for it to be spliced.  I remember those rooms as hot and smelly and we wanted out of there but none of us had ever seen anything like that before so we waited.  We all wanted to see the donkey have sex with a woman, and when we finally did, we were disappointed, it was obviously faked.  However, once when the donkey performance was a part of the floorshow it was real!      

One movie was enough for me.  We made our way toward the live floorshows which went on until four or five o’clock in the morning.  That was much too late for us.  We would safely head back across the border before 1 a.m.

Yerba Buena

There was an isolated bar down at the end of the street which attracted me, and on one occasion, I walked the two or three blocks beyond our safe zone to check it out.  It was too early for much to be happening there but we took a table and ordered a beer.  The girls began to circle by to see what we wanted.  An innocent looking young girl came over who seemed out of place, I caught her eye and she gave me a coy smile.  We became friends.  She did not have that haggard look, it was evident that she had not been a Boy’s Town whore for long.

Over the next couple of months in the spring of 1963, I would go to Boy’s Town just to see her.  If I did not see her on the floor, I would ask for her and be told that she had a customer upstairs and would be down shortly.  I would buy her drinks, even though she was not a drinker it was necessary for her to sit at my table.  In order to sit with me for any length of time she would gain a token for every drink she sold for the club.  Eventually, I just paid for the room so we could talk.  The time was very tightly controlled and there were several times when there was a knock on the door exactly at fifteen minutes.  If I wanted more time, I had to pay again.  I never asked her for sex and she never offered it.

I learned that she was an indentured sex slave from the village of Yerba Buena in southern Tamaulipas.  She was too young to be a professional prostitute.  It was apparent that she was forced into this life of prostitution to protect her family.

This is the story of the cult of Yerba Buena, and of the young prostitute from Yerba Buena who worked in the Matamoros Boy’s Town.  We would talk very cordially, with my broken Spanish and her about where she lived and her family.  I was full of curiosity, the budding anthropologist in me asked why she was working as a prostitute in Boy’s Town, and she explained that she was forced into that life of prostitution and that her family was being held captive, she had no choice but to comply in order to protect them.

Her story, which I recount to you here, was beyond my comprehension.  We became friends.  She told me that she was 16, my age, and that she was forced into prostitution by a strange religious cult that had taken over her village.  At that time, it was difficult for me to understand what a cult was.

Yerba Buena was located at the southwestern tip of Tamaulipas in the Municipio of Villa Minero very near the Tamaulipas border with Nuevo León.  (https://google.com/maps/place/Yerbabuena,+Tamaulipas,+Mexico/@24.505277,-99.6256991.15z).  It was hard for me to believe her stories but I wanted to hear them anyway.  So many years have passed that I do not remember her name so I will call her Lupita.

I do remember going to her room on the second floor of the cabaret so we could have more time together.  I would rent a room for fifteen minutes for ten dollars.  Her room, which she shared with other women, displayed religious pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe along with little statues of Catholic saints.  It was incongruous, bizarre, and did not make any sense to me.  I asked her how she could be a prostitute and believe in the Virgin.  It was an ignorant and insensitive question to ask but I did not know that then, she began to weep uncontrollably.  She explained that she believed in and prayed to the Virgin to protect her family not to be killed.  They certainly would have been if she did not work as a prostitute for the Hernández brothers’ cult.  She described that she and the other girls from Yerba Buena were regularly moved to other border Boy’s Towns like Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa.   

Lupita described Yerba Buena as an ejido or communal farm of no more than 20 families with a total of approximately 75 people who had been imported from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato to develop farms in Tamaulipas.  The ejido system in Tamaulipas was barely 20 years old in the 1960s, and there was plenty of fertile land and water in the low-lying areas alongside the river, which flowed down from the mountains.  Yerba Buena was nestled right up against the skirt of the Sierra Madre Oriental, it had no formal government, no law enforcement, no church, and no school in 1962.  The ejidatarios chose their governing council, made their own rules, and lived a tranquil communal life selling their corn and beans back to the government agents who would come by to purchase their produce at harvest time.  That is how the ejido system functioned; it was a very fragile subsistence system that barely sustained life most of the inhabitants had an obvious indigenous background.

Everything was okay she said, until Santos and Cayetano Hernández arrived in Yerba Buena.  It is not clear why they selected Yerba Buena for their operation, but the two brothers who were petty criminals, claimed to be prophets of a powerful Inca god.  The villagers were uneducated and illiterate, so their minds were easily manipulated into believing the farfetched fable of Inca gold.

In my forty years of traveling in the Mexican outback, I have encountered numerous tales of buried treasure and especially in caves.  It is a major Mexican folk motif and Yerba Buena was no different.     

Lupita was fourteen when the Hernández brothers arrived in Yerba Buena, and she was immediately singled out as an attractive young girl that would fit well into their stable of prostitutes.  They convinced her parents that she should be introduced to sex with them because it was the will of the gods.

The Hernández Brothers assured the people living in Yerba Buena that they were sent by an ancient Incan god to recover gold that had been hidden in the mountain caves centuries earlier and that they would soon be rich.  They did not realize their first mistake that the Incas were from South America and not Mexico.

The people of Yerba Buena were told that if they cooperated, they would all become wealthy.  Therefore, Lupita and several other young village girls were entrusted to the Hernández brothers who took up residence in one of the unoccupied jacales in the village at the base of the mountain below the caves.

They fabricated strange rituals, which included billowing incense and animal sacrifice that were performed in one of the many caves on the mountain so as to further convince the locals of their supernatural power.  Lupita tearfully described how she had been an innocent virgin when given over to the brothers for sex at the age of 14.  She looked to her mother for protection but her mother was powerless and her father had become a drug-crazed cult member.

  As months passed and then a year, no gold was recovered, and the villagers grew restless.  Feeling betrayed they began questioning the Hernández brothers who responded that they would leave and return with an Inca princess as proof.  The princess would become the cult’s spiritual leader.

This story was told to me by Lupita and I am retelling it to you.  From this point, the story becomes even more bizarre and unbelievable, but newspaper articles eventually confirmed it.  The brothers went to Monterrey, which was not far from Yerba Buena.  They began searching for a prostitute who could pose as a female deity.  At first, it was difficult, but then they happened on to Magdalena Solís, a young Monterrey prostitute, with a reputation for being crazy, she was a renowned spirit channeler.  She claimed to be a clairvoyant and a trance medium and to channel spirits and deceased curanderas, including the spirit of a famous Mexican curandera dead for fifty years.  It was a flimsy plan but Magdalena and her brother embraced the idea of a cult that she would lead and agreed to accompany the brothers back to Yerba Buena.

Magdalena Solís

               It is not clear what her incentive could have been, but she embraced the story and arrived in Yerba Buena disguised as an Inca princess.  Her appearance excited the humble peasants and she identified their leaders and drew them in to have sex with her.

Magdalena Solis was introduced to the village through a ritual in the cave in which she suddenly appeared through a copious smoke screen of incense dressed as an Inca princess in a fake costume and selected cult members to have sex with her on the spot.  It was both shocking and exciting.    

For a while, it worked to pacify the peasant farmers who once again placed their faith in the brothers.  It is curious and challenging to understand what the brothers expected to gain from a handful of peasant farmers in southern Tamaulipas.  There was no wealth or potential for wealth in Yerba Buena.

The End

With the arrival of Magdalena and her brother who served as her pimp in Monterrey, the situation was not supportable in the long term.  Magdalena was a heavy marijuana and peyote user and would go into flights of fantasy and hallucination.  Her mental state was fragile and she began to fictionalize the situation coming to believe that she was in fact an Inca princess.  Her mental condition quickly deteriorated, and before long, she was demanding sex and blood rituals and eventually human sacrifice, confusing Inca ritual with Aztec.  They created a primitive altar in one of the caves on the mountain and performed blood rituals, first with animals and then with the villagers.

Two villagers who voiced opposition were coaxed into the cave and hacked to death, their hearts extracted.  By this time, the Inca princess, Magdalena was completely delusional, claiming that their sacrifice was necessary for the cult to grow and for the treasure to be located.  Magdalena quickly perfected her role, and for a while, the sect appeared to be stable.  She appeared to believe the myths that had been concocted.

Drug-crazed sexual orgies fueled by marijuana and peyote were organized which appealed to the men of Yerba Buena.  One reporter analyzed Magdalena as, “Developing a severe theological psychosis.  She was a religious fanatic, was suffering from religious delusions of grandeur, and a marked sexual perversion that was expressed in the consumption of the blood of her victims and terrible sadism with which she committed her crimes, and also the practice of incest, fetishism, and pedophilia.”

Fully accepted Magdalena was now called “The High Priestess of Blood,” she drank blood from a chalice, allegedly incorporating elements of Aztec ritual practice and the channeling of spirits.  She claimed to be the Aztec goddess, Coatlicue and when in a trance state she spoke in what seemed to be a native tongue.  It is unlikely that any of the cult members knew anything about ancient traditions.  Once the human sacrifice began, it continued unabated for two months in the spring of 1963.     

  A curious 14-year-old peasant boy, Sabastian Guerrero, wandered near the ritual cave and seeing what was happening reported a group of “vampiros” to the police in Villagrán, Tamaulipas, about 10 miles away.  A police officer named Luis Martínez accompanied the boy back to the cave the following day, and they were never seen alive again, both were ritually murdered by the cult.

  When Luis Martínez was reported missing a more significant group of police, and a small military detachment descended on Yerba Buena, searching the area and precipitating a shootout in which a number of cult members were killed.  Magdalena Solís and her brother Eleazar were apprehended and eventually stood trial in Ciudad Victoria.  They were convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  It is not clear if they were released in 2013 after completing their 50 year prison term.

The two Hernández brothers were killed in the shootout with police and the army.  Santos was shot while Cayetano was murdered by the angry cult members in the cave who were also killed.  In total, between 1962-1963, as many as 16 villagers were killed by the cult, the remainder by the police.

I remember sitting in my home in Brownsville in May of 1963 reading a story in the Brownsville Herald about the cult just as Lupita had described it to me.  I could not believe it but there it was, she had told me the truth.  I went out to get the El Bravo of Matamoros and there was a similar story.  I struggled to understand Lupita’s Boy’s Town story of the cult of Yerba Buena but now it was in print.

The part of the story that was not ever covered by the papers was the connection to sexual servitude that the young women of Yerba Buena were forced to endure in border Boy’s Towns.  The Hernández brothers developed a string of young girls who were forced to serve as prostitutes in the Boy’s Towns along the border of Tamaulipas and Texas, most notably, Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo.  The girls were “sold” to organized crime and frequently moved from place to place to avoid detection.

  After reading the newspaper articles, I ventured over to Boy’s Town to talk to Lupita as soon as I read about the big shoot-out in Yerba Buena, only to be told that she was no longer there that her handlers had moved her in the middle of the night to an unknown location to avoid detection.  I was very concerned about her sudden departure, but there was nothing a 16-year-old kid could do about it.

I never saw her again and have often wondered how her life turned out more than fifty years ago.  I doubt that she returned to her family in Yerba Buena, but she may have.

Life in Yerba Buena was so disrupted that when I was finally able to travel there in the early 80s I could find no one who was willing to talk about the cult or guide me to the cave.  Most likely, new families were brought into the village from central Mexico.  I was ignored by the locals who did not want to dredge up horrible memories.  They claimed not to know anything about the case and I was advised by the police that I should leave, and I did and never returned.

The strange story of the cult of Yerba Buena has haunted me all these years, first because of my unlikely knowledge of the cult when it was functioning in the 1960s and of Lupita, and secondly because of my 40 plus years of anthropological investigation of religious phenomena on the border.

Post-Script

The Cult of Yerba was so long ago that few if any people remember it or ever knew about it.  I have questioned Mexican journalists and researchers; however, the advent of the internet has brought even the most obscure into focus.  This is the case of the Cult of Yerba Buena.  In the early 1990s, I published a short story in the El Bravo newspaper in Matamoros, which I am told drew very little reaction.  However, after the year 2000, several authors including Monterrey author Felipe Montez have written about Yerba Buena.  To date I am the only author that has firsthand information about the connection to Boy’s Town.   

However, in 1989 it happened again.  Another cult demanding human sacrifice surfaced in Matamoros referred to as the Narco Satanicos and that short-lived cult also had a head “madrina” or high princess demanding a blood offering through human sacrifice.

    

Reference Material

Cool Interesting Stuff, The Strange story of Magdalena Solis, the High Priestess of Blood

Cristóbal López, Creer, beber, curar.  Historia y cultura en Iturbide, N.L.

El Bravo newspaper, 1963

El Bravo newspaper, Tony Zavaleta, La Baranca, (sometime in the 90s).

Hendricks, George 1964, Western Folklore, Vol. 23, No.2, p.124, The Western States Folklore Society

Homero Adame: Mitos, cuentos y leyendas de Nuevo León.

https://ranker.com/list/magdalena-solis-facts/jessika-gilbert.

Lane, Brian, and Gregg Wilfred, 1992, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

Leyendas de Tamaulipas: Canibalismo y brujeria en la Hierbabuena, 2015

Magdalena Solís, Wikipedia

Miller, Jessika, Lady Killers and Criminals, The Chilling Story of Magdalena Solis, The Mexican Prostitute-Goddess Who Took Over a Murder Cult.

Montes, Felipe, Rituales Satanicos el la Yerbabuena,

Murderpedia, http://murderpedia.org/female.S/a/solis-magdalena.htm

Recóndito, The Yerba Buena Sect, https://reconditosite-wordpress.com/2017/04/23/la-yerba-buena-cult/

Templeilluminatus, http://templeillumanatus.com/m/group/discussion?id=6363372%3ATopic%3A3145878.

The Brownsville Herald, 1963

The Richest.com, 15 Creepy Details about “The High Priestess of Blood,” Magdalena Solís.  https://therichest.com/shocking/15-creepy-details-about-the-high-priestess-of-blood-magdalena-solis/

The Unknown History of Misandry, Magdalena Solis, “The High Priestess of Blood,” Mexican Serial Killer, 1963

TheParanormalGuide, Magdalena Solis (http://theparanormalguide.com/blog/magdalena-solis.

Wicked We, Magdalena Solis High Priestess of Blood or Serial Killer out for Sex.

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