El Salvador's "House of Horrors" murders shake a country accustomed to violence

El Salvador’s “House of Horrors” murders shake a country accustomed to violence

CHALCHUAPA, El Salvador – Neighbors knew something was wrong in this stocky greenhouse when the screams of a young woman pierced the calm of their neighborhood in Chalchuapa, a small town about 80 kilometers from San Salvador, the capital from this country.

Jacquelinne Palomo Lima, 26, and her mother were lured into the windowless house by the man who lived there – 51-year-old former police officer Hugo Osorio – who had promised them information about Palomo’s missing brother, Alexis a family member told Reuters. .

Neighbors called the police when they heard Palomo’s screams on the night of May 7 as she fled the house to be caught by Osorio, who allegedly hit her on the head with a metal pipe and the would have brought her inside. When authorities arrived, the bodies of Palomo, his brother and his mother were found, along with 14 other corpses initially found in a mass grave behind the house, Justice and Security Minister Gustavo said. Villatoro to reporters on May 20.

El Salvador has long had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. But even in this country seasoned with chaos, the Osorio affair shocked the public. Local media dubbed the accommodation the “House of Horrors”.

There were many more bodies buried on the property, Osorio reportedly told police in a June 12 admission by Salvadoran digital media Revista Factum. According to investigators, there could be as many as 40 bodies in total in several graves, Factum said. The publication withdrew the report two days later after El Salvador’s attorney general obtained a court order requiring him to do so.

Reuters could not reach Osorio or a lawyer for him, and could not independently verify the authenticity of the alleged confession. The attorney general’s office declined to comment, saying the case was confidential.

Osorio was charged on May 12 with two counts of femicide, a term used for murders that deliberately target women; prosecutors later added two counts of homicide. At least nine other people have also been charged with aggravated homicide and femicide in connection with the murders.

In return for his testimony and collaboration in nine of the cases involving other alleged accomplices, prosecutors offered Osorio a deal they called “an opportunity for bias,” they told a conference. release on May 21. They did not provide any further information on this agreement. .

The attorney general’s office and the public defender’s office did not share Osorio’s lawyer name at Reuters’ request. All court records have been sealed.

The macabre discovery sent shivers down a nation that is no stranger to brutality. The country of 6.7 million people has seen more than its fair share of atrocities over the past four decades through civil war, rampant gang violence, and periodic police and military repressions.

Authorities have portrayed Osorio as an opportunist preying on vulnerable people. According to details of Osorio’s alleged confession, he allegedly admitted to targeting mostly poor women and girls, luring them to his home with the promise of jobs or help migrating to the United States. Villatoro, the Minister of Security, called him a “psychopath”.

But Osorio’s track record in law enforcement, the large number of potential accomplices, and the lack of public information about the case mean some Salvadorans don’t know what to believe.

The exhumation of the bodies in Chalchuapa was completed this month, Villatoro said at a press conference on July 14. He did not disclose the total number of victims, and public officials have from the start provided conflicting accounts of the tally. Israel Ticas, a criminologist in charge of the investigation, has been sanctioned by the government for suggesting to the media that there may be at least 40 victims – information that Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado has dismissed as unproven.

Ticas did not respond to a request for comment.

Jose de la Cruz, Palomo’s grandfather, 79, said the trail of blood left by his granddaughter leading to Osorio’s gate was the only reason his slain family members were discovered .

“If it hadn’t been for her, I would always be looking for them,” he told Reuters.

More than 90% of 1,000 Salvadorans surveyed said they had little or no trust in government institutions, according to a 2020 survey by global corruption monitor Transparency International.

Mother of missing woman: “I want to know”

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has said little about the killings since the end of May. Rather, he touted his administration’s “territorial control plan” to dismantle gangs and organized crime through the military.

The government said there were 1,322 homicides in El Salvador in 2020, an 80% drop from five years earlier. Former Security Minister Rogelio Rivas cited a 61% drop in femicides in the first six months of 2020, compared to the first half of 2019.

Some human rights groups have questioned the veracity of the administration’s claims of a dramatic drop in crime. El Salvador saw 59 women murdered in the first four months of 2021, a 27% increase from the same period a year earlier, the Salvadoran Women for Peace nonprofit said, citing data from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, a branch of the Supreme Court. Search.

El Salvador’s National Police and the Ministry of Justice and Security did not respond to requests for comment.

What is not in dispute is that families from all over El Salvador have traveled to Chalchuapa with photos of missing loved ones, hoping for clues – and a closure – thanks to items found by investigators in the pit. common.

Many are looking for missing mothers, sisters and daughters. The country has long been a dangerous place for women. In 2017, El Salvador recorded 10.2 feminicides per 100,000 women, making it the highest rate in Latin America, according to the most recent United Nations data.

Violence has normalized in Salvadoran society, often replacing dialogue as a means of exercising power, said Celia Medrano, a human rights activist based in San Salvador. Women are frequently the targets of abuse in a male-dominated culture, she said, and many of these crimes go unreported by victims or their families.

“It fits with a problem of acceptance as a society that it can happen to women,” Medrano said.

Osorio had a history of violence. He was fired from the national police 15 years ago after being convicted of raping a woman and an underage girl, crimes for which he was sentenced to five years in prison, the national police chief said from El Salvador, Mauricio Arriaza, in a May 21 statement. conference.

Osorio’s home in Chalchuapa continues to attract visitors, some just curious, others hoping for answers that may not come.

Patricia Mancía traveled from Ciudad Delgado, in the San Salvador metro, taking a photo of her 17-year-old granddaughter, Camilia Rivas, who has been missing since April 2020.

“I hope she’s alive, but if she isn’t, what can I do?” said Mancía, 55. “Whatever it is, I want to know it.”

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