By Cassandra Garrison and Nelson Renteria
CHALCHUAPA, El Salvador, July 19 (Reuters) - Neighbors knew something was wrong in that squat green house when a young woman's screams pierced the quiet of their neighborhood in Chalchuapa, a small town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from San Salvador, this nation's capital.
Jacquelinne Palomo Lima, 26, and her mother had been lured to the windowless dwelling by the man who lived there – 51-year-old former policeman Hugo Osorio - who had promised them information about Palomo's missing brother, Alexis, a family member told Reuters.
Neighbors called police when they heard Palomo's screams on the night of May 7 as she fled the home only to be overtaken by Osorio, who allegedly hit her in 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 another 14 corpses initially discovered in a mass grave behind the home, Justice and Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro told journalists on May 20.
El Salvador has long had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. But even in this country inured to mayhem, the Osorio case has shocked the public. Local media have dubbed the dwelling the "House of Horrors."
There were many more bodies buried on the property, Osorio allegedly told police in a confession published June 12 by Salvadoran digital outlet Revista Factum. There could be up to 40 bodies total in several graves, according to investigators, Factum said. The publication took down that report two days later after El Salvador's Attorney General obtained a court order forcing 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, saying the case was confidential.
Osorio was charged on May 12 on two counts of femicide, a term used for killings 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 slayings.
In exchange for his testimony and collaboration in nine of the cases involving other alleged accomplices, prosecutors offered Osorio a deal they referred to as "opportunity of partiality," they said in a news conference on May 21. They provided no other information about that agreement.
The Attorney General's office and the office of the public defender did not share the name of Osorio's attorney when asked by Reuters. All court records have been sealed.
The macabre discovery has sent a chill through a nation that's no stranger to brutality. This country of 6.7 million has seen more than its fair share of atrocities over the past four decades through civil war, endemic gang violence and periodic crackdowns by police and the military.
Authorities have portrayed Osorio as an opportunist who preyed on the vulnerable. According to details of Osorio's alleged confession, he purportedly admitted targeting mostly poor women and girls, luring them to his home with the promise of jobs or help in migrating to the United States. Villatoro, the security minister, called him a "psychopath."
But Osorio's law enforcement background, the large number of potential accomplices, and the dearth of public information about the case have some Salvadorans unsure of what to believe.
Exhumation of the bodies in Chalchuapa concluded this month, Villatoro said in a news 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, was sanctioned by the government for suggesting to the media there could be at least 40 victims - information that Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado dismissed as unproven.
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 leading to Osorio's door is the only reason his slain family members were discovered.
"If it had not been for her, I would still be looking for them," he told Reuters.
More than 90% of 1,000 Salvadorans polled said they had little or no trust in government institutions, according to a 2020 survey by global corruption monitor Transparency International.
'I WANT TO FIND OUT'
El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele has said little about the killings since late May. He has instead touted his administration'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 administration's claims of dramatic declines 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 nonprofit Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace said, citing data from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, an arm of the Supreme 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 across El Salvador have traveled to Chalchuapa clutching photos of missing loved ones, hoping for clues – and closure - through the items found by investigators in the mass grave.
Many are seeking missing mothers, sisters and daughters. The country has long been a dangerous place for women. In 2017, El Salvador recorded 10.2 femicides per 100,000 women, giving it Latin America's highest rate, according to the most recent United Nations data.
Violence has become normalized in Salvadoran society, often replacing dialogue as a way to demonstrate power, said Celia Medrano, a San Salvador-based human-rights advocate. Women are frequent targets of abuse in a male-dominated culture, she said, and many of these crimes are never reported by victims or their families.
"It corresponds to a problem of accepting as a society that this can happen to women," Medrano said.
Osorio had a history of violence. He was fired from the National Police force 15 years ago after he was convicted of raping a woman and an underage girl, crimes for which he was sentenced to five years in jail, El Salvador's National Police Chief Mauricio Arriaza, said in a May 21 press conference.
Osorio's home in Chalchuapa continues to draw visitors, some merely curious, others hoping for answers that may not come.
Patricia Mancía traveled from Ciudad Delgado, part of metro San Salvador, clutching a photo of her 17-year-old granddaughter, Camilia Rivas, who has been missing since April 2020.
"My hope is that she is alive, but if she is not, what can I do?" said Mancía, 55. "Whatever it is, I want to find out."
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Nelson Renteria; Editing by Dan Flynn and Marla Dickerson)
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