Day after day, they flock to the emerald green house on rue Estévez, seeking news of loved ones who have passed away without leaving a trace.
“They say there’s a lot in there, maybe 40,” said Jessenia Elizabeth Francia, a 38-year-old housewife who had walked 20 miles to reach the heavily guarded building in a harsh midday sun. .
Francia had come to Chalchuapa, a small town in western El Salvador, in search of her son, Luis Fernando, who disappeared seven years ago at the age of 16. “I just want to at least find her bones so that I can bury them and find peace,” she said, holding a cell phone showing a picture of her missing child and the words, “I have faith.” “
Others were looking for daughters or wives, Central American women feared falling prey to the owner of the house, former policeman and suspected serial killer Hugo Ernesto Osorio Chávez, who fears he has buried his victims inside.
“She was 24,” said Candelaria Carranza Castro, a silver-haired mother whose daughter went missing in July 2015 and who was among those who visited the house on Monday. “Whatever happens, I want to find her.”
The mass grave in rue No 11 Estévez was discovered on the night of May 7 after neighbors called the police after hearing the screams of a young woman. By the time police arrived over an hour later, she and her mother were dead – reportedly clubbed to death with an iron tube by Osorio, who confessed to the crimes. When the 51-year-old was taken into custody, police found the half-buried bodies of two men on the patio of the house and, when they started digging, found more. corpses below in a series of pits.
Authorities have yet to announce the precise number of bodies buried inside, but excavators again probing its foundations estimate that there could be as many as 40 and as many as 15.
Officials say most of the victims are young women Osorio brought home with a promise to help them find work in Mexico. At least three were young children aged two, seven and nine. Nine other suspects were arrested, including human traffickers and other former members of the police and military, fueling suspicions that Osorio also used his clandestine cemetery to get rid of the victims of others. people.
“We never expected anything like this from him,” said Arnoldo González, a 40-year-old neighbor, as families in search continued to arrive outside Osorio’s one-story mansion, in a village on the rural outskirts of Chalchuapa.
“He was still on his bike and seemed really easy going, really normal. Sometimes he would tell us that he worked as a private detective or a bodyguard, but we didn’t suspect a thing because he had been a police officer before, ”said González, one of the only residents who dared to give his opinion.
The case sent shock waves through El Salvador and highlighted the femicide emergency that is rampant across Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, where 4,000 women were killed in 2019 alone.
El Salvador has long been considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for a woman, a reality that forces many people to flee north to seek refuge in the United States. Last year, 541 women went missing in the country with a population of 6.7 million, according to Ormusa (Salvadoran Women’s Organization for Peace).
“The serial killer of women in Chalchuapa is not an isolated incident,” said feminist and social activist Morena Herrera.
“It is an incident rooted in two factors: the permissiveness of society towards violence against women and institutional complicity. Salvadoran institutions care very little about women’s lives – and I’m not just talking about the police, ”Herrera added.
Since taking office two years ago, the populist President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has claimed a dramatic drop in the murder rate in the country, with the average number of daily murders falling from nine to three. But questions have been raised as to whether this reduction was the result of uncompromising security pressure from the government or indeed of a secret deal made with Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), El Salvador’s largest criminal gang. .
Salvadoran news group El Faro last year released a cache of leaked documents which it said showed government officials convinced jailed gang leaders to “pacify” the notoriously wicked streets of the country and offer political support in exchange for better treatment. Others point out that while the murder rate in El Salvador has fallen, the number of disappearances is on the rise in a country where thousands of people disappeared during the civil war of 1979-1992.
The mass grave has further undermined claims by 39-year-old Bukele – whose increasingly authoritarian behavior is causing international alarm – that El Salvador is becoming safer. Authorities – apparently disturbed by outcry over what local newspapers are calling “the massacre from Chalchuapa ”- sought to portray the killings as the bizarre actions of a deranged“ psychopath ”, although arrests of former security forces seemed to undermine this narrative.
“Thanks to the swift action of our officers and investigators, he will spend at least 100 years in prison,” the president of El Salvador tweeted last Friday, warned by social media, swearing Osorio. would never enjoy direct sunlight again.
Earlier today, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado attacked “morbid” media reports while Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro criticized “malicious” journalists using the case to draw broader conclusions about the security situation in the Central American country and the increase in disappearances.
For the families of El Salvador’s disappeared, the discovery provided a little glimmer of hope that at least there might be answers for those looking for missing relatives. A security guard guarding the crime scene said up to 15 people arrived each day looking for answers and remains. The Guardian met six families on Friday who had come to Chalchuapa, about 80 km northwest of the capital, San Salvador, in the hope that their loved ones could finally be found.
As she sat in the shade of a tree near the closed compound of Osorio, Francia remembered how, on August 30, 2014, she had sent her son to buy lunch in Ahuachapán, a town 30 minutes away. west of Chalchuapa. “He’s gone and I never saw him again,” she said, describing her tireless quest to find him.
“We looked for him in hospitals, we looked for him in morgues, we looked everywhere… but it was in vain,” Francia said, as white-clad excavators emerged from the property dragging wheelbarrows full of soil.
Carranza said she was shown a photo album of personal items found in the house in case they belonged to her daughter, Arely Aracely Antillón. “I saw clothes, shoes, jewelry,” says the woman, who remembered perfectly what her child was wearing when she disappeared. “But there’s nothing of hers in there, nothing at all.
“Maybe they will find something later, you never know,” said her sister, who had accompanied her home, comfortably.
Carranza, who was rocking a portrait of the child she hadn’t seen for six years, replied, “Maybe.