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Murder of ‘House of Horrors’ in El Salvador Shocks Nation Numb to Violence

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CHALHUAPA, El Salvador, July 19 (Reuters) – Neighbors knew something was wrong in that squat green house when a young woman’s screams broke the silence of their neighborhood in Chalchuapa, a small town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from San Salvador. capital of the country.

Jacquelinne Palomo Lima, 26, and her mother had been lured to the windowless residence by the man living there — 51-year-old former police officer Hugo Osorio — who had promised them information about Palomo’s missing brother, Alexis, a relative told Reuters.

Neighbors called police when they heard Palomo’s screams on the night of May 7 as she fled the house, but was caught up with Osorio, who reportedly hit her on the head with a metal pipe and dragged her back inside. By the time authorities arrived, the bodies of Palomo, her brother and her mother were found, along with a further 14 corpses initially discovered in a mass grave behind the house, Justice and Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said on Thursday. may to journalists.

El Salvador has long had one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. But even in this country accustomed to chaos, the Osorio case has shocked the public. Local media have dubbed the residence the “House of Horrors.”

Many more bodies were buried on the property, Osorio is said to have told police in a confession published on June 12 by Salvadoran digital outlet Revista Factum. According to researchers, there could be a total of up to 40 bodies in different graves, Factum said. The publication removed that report two days later after El Salvador’s attorney general received a court order to force it to do so.

Reuters was unable to 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 as the matter was confidential.

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

In exchange for his testimony and cooperation in nine of the cases involving other alleged accomplices, prosecutors offered Osorio a deal they called “chance of bias,” they said at a news conference on May 21. They gave no other information about that agreement. .

The attorney general’s office and the public defender’s office did not share the name of Osorio’s lawyer when Reuters asked. All court records are sealed.

The macabre discovery has chilled a nation no stranger to brutality. This country of 6.7 million has seen more than its fair share of atrocities in the past four decades through civil wars, endemic gang violence and periodic police and military action.

Authorities have portrayed Osorio as an opportunist who preyed on the vulnerable. 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 assistance with migration to the United States. Villatoro, the security minister, called him a “psychopath.”

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

Exhumation of the bodies in Chalchuapa ended this month, Villatoro said at a press conference on July 14. He has not disclosed the total number of victims and officials have made conflicting statements about the count from the start. Israel Ticas, a criminologist in charge of the investigation, was sanctioned by the government for suggesting to the media that there could be at least 40 victims — information that Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado dismissed as unsubstantiated.

Ticas did not respond to a request for comment.

Jose de la Cruz, Palomo’s 79-year-old grandfather, said the trail of blood his granddaughter left at Osorio’s door is the only reason his murdered relatives were discovered.

“Had she not been there, I would still be looking for them,” he told Reuters.

More than 90% of the 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.

‘I WANT TO KNOW’

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has said little about the killings since late May. Instead, he has touted his government’s “Territorial Control Plan” aimed at dismantling gangs and organized crime through the use of 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 government’s claims about the dramatic decline in crime. In El Salvador, 59 women were 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. Court.

El Salvador’s National Police and 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 in hopes of clues — and closure — through the items found in the mass grave by investigators.

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

Violence has become normalized in Salvadoran society and often replaces dialogue as a way of demonstrating power, said Celia Medrano, a human rights campaigner in San Salvador. Women are often targets of abuse in a male-dominated culture, she said, and many of these crimes are never reported by victims or their families.

“It equates to a problem as a society to accept that this 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, El Salvador’s national police chief Mauricio Arriaza said in a press release. 21st of May. conference.

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

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

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

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Nelson Renteria; Editing by Dan Flynn and Marla Dickerson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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