The Missing and the Dead in El Salvador
Por Carmen Rodríguez
June 22, 2021
In El Salvador, reports of dead bodies abandoned on side of the road or in poorly traveled areas are commonplace. The country remains on the list of violent countries in Central America. In May alone, the number of homicides reached 484 deaths.
Meanwhile, the government refuses to treat the issue of disappearances as a problem and its officials prefer to say that the country is a “cool” place to visit. “At last people no longer see El Salvador as the kingdom of war or gangs. Today they see us as the coolest country in Latin America,” said the head of the ruling party’s deputies Cristian Guevara in one of the sessions of the Legislative Assembly.
“Given these delusions of progress and success by the government, it is likely that there will be no thorough or technical investigations to find missing persons in the country and new guidelines will be set up soon, in light of the actions by this ex-cop, to set up a criteria for witnesses and legal benefits. That’s why they have their own prosecutor, to hide the truth and support a permanent propaganda campaign”, said human rights expert Celia Medrano to the Americas Program.
After responding to an emergency call in mid-May, police searched a house and uncovered dozens of bodies, most of them girls and women. The scene was like something out of a horror movie. Detectives who continue to exhume human remains from the back yard believe there are at least 40 bodies at the site. Located in a rural area of Santa Ana in Chalchuapa to the west of the capital, the house is owned by retired former policeman Hugo Ernesto Osorio Chávez. Salvadoran police officers arrived to investigate allegations that the murder of a woman and her daughter had taken place on the property. While detained, Osorio Chávez confessed to murdering the two people.
The Union of Judicial Employees of El Salvador, which includes workers and forensic experts of Legal Medicine (SEJES) denounced that the director of the agency, Pedro Martinez, ordered the forensic experts not to carry out the tests to determine the causes of death of all the remains found in the graves in Chalchuapa.
“There are protocols to follow, standardized guidelines of how the autopsy procedure is done, it is our main function. And when they tell us to do other types of incomplete examinations, they are biasing the information, they are distorting reality. These are arbitrary and dangerous measures, and we owe it to society to demand robust expert investigations. But information is being centralized”, said María de los Ángeles Álvarez, forensic expert of Medicina Legal, to journalists.
The house contained at least seven graves with human remains. Prior to his May arrest, Osorio Chavez had been investigated for sex crimes and rape. According to police, he was part of a criminal gang operating in the western part of the country in recent years. When there was talk of the involvement of ten other people in the case, the Attorney General’s Office announced that in exchange for their collaboration they had extended the ex-cop the benefit of participating in the case as a protected witness.
Since the news broke, many Salvadorans havetraveled to the area where the excavations continue in the hope of getting news, looking for their children, siblings or missing relatives. According to data collected by human rights organizations, so far 5,381 Salvadorans are reported missing.
But the press quickly diverted the public’s attention from the macabre event after President Bukele announced the use of bitcoin as the country’s currency.
Bukele’s government has also been known for hiding and blocking access to information, especially when it comes to corruption, murders, violence and missing Salvadorans. In April, the security minister, Gustavo Villatoro, said in an interview on a Salvadoran television channel that the figure of disappearances in the country is “a feeling” sparked by the reduction in homicides.
“It is not strange that a government that has achieved a high concentration of power, based on a complex and effective apparatus of lies has as its priority to hide the truth to the detriment of the rights and suffering of victims of such horrendous crimes as the disappearance and forced disappearance of persons,” said Celia Medrano.
Israel Ticas, an experienced forensic expert from the Attorney General’s Office, was punished for confirming to journalists that there were at least 40 bodies and human remains in the ground. Several journalists who covered the discovery told Americas Program that employees of the Presidential House arrived at the site and prevented all non-official journalists from having access to the information.
“At the beginning, the forensic experts on the scene told us that it is very likely that there are more than 40 bodies in the house. But shortly after the media began to arrive, people from the Presidential House arrived and told us that all information would be handled by them and from then on everything has been very hermetic,” said a Salvadoran journalist who was at the house, where excavations are still being carried out to recover more bodies and human remains.
Two weeks later, the Security Minister publicly asked people who have missing relatives not to publish photos and messages denouncing disappearances. He also criticized the use of social media to make these denunciations. Furthermore, a month before the bodies were found in the property of the former policeman, the director of the Salvadoran Police Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, downplayed the importance of the reports of missing persons and denied the data.
It is worth noting that the police chief confirmed that since March there has been an increase in reports or complaints of missing persons, but he said that this is due to missing persons changing addresses or leaving the country without informing their relatives about it. “We have had a slight increase, but in reality these cases have multi-causes, factors cause a person to move from one place to another or leave the country,” assured the police chief.
Neither the president, nor the first lady of El Salvador, nor any other high-ranking government official have spoken or sent any message about the bodies that continue to be found at Osorio Chavez’s house. Moreover, pro-government deputies refused to observe a minute of silence at last week’s Assembly session.
Meanwhile, members of the National Police informed reporters that Osorio Chavez owns another house in Zacatecoluca, north of the Salvadoran capital. They do not rule out the possibility that he was also hiding bodies on this property.
Carmen Rodríguez is a journalist in San Salvador, El Salvador and has five years of experience in digital journalism. She specializes in security and judicial matters, and has collaborated with the Americas Program since 2014.