SAN SALVADOR - Hugo Osorio never used a gun or a knife to kill his victims, preferring to knock them out with an iron pipe he kept handy by his front door. The former cop collected mementos – identity cards, earrings, lipstick – keeping them in a grey sock. Most of his victims were women, and he liked to have sex with their dead bodies.
The gruesome details have spilled forth in confessions that Osorio has made to police since he was arrested on May 7. Authorities in El Salvador have called him a “serial killer” and a “psychopath” and at least 18 bodies have been found in clandestine graves throughout his property. It’s believed there are many more.
The revelations come from a leaked criminal file reviewed by VICE World News containing Osorio’s descriptions of at least 13 murders that he either committed, or helped cover up, over the past two years. The details of the murders in the rural town of Chalchuapa were so horrific that when they were first published on Saturday by the Salvadoran digital outlet Revista Factum, the article embarrassed the police department and sent chills through a country battle-hardened by extreme violence.
The publication appeared to rile government officials so much that the attorney general’s office obtained a court order to force Factum to take down the article. In a thread on Twitter announcing the order, the attorney general’s office said that the article had not contributed to reparation for the victims or their families and only served to re-victimize the dead. The statement did not question the authenticity of the leaked file.
But multiple news outlets have published the text in solidarity, and critics denounced the move as an attempt to censor the press, suggesting that there are other motives behind the decision.
“The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights maintains that this kind of information should not be censored because it is of public interest, especially because these cases have a direct relation with the effectiveness of public security policies,” said Wilson Sandoval, director of the Salvadoran anti-corruption group ALAC.
“The case of Chalchuapa is also about the effectiveness of, for example, the police,” he added.
President Nayib Bukele has pointed to sharp drops in the murder rate as evidence that his administration’s security plan is succeeding. In 2015, El Salvador, with a population of roughly 6.5 million, suffered nearly 20 murders per day, making it one of the most violent countries on earth. Recently, there have been days with no murders at all and the official homicide rate is a fifth of what it was at its peak.
But disappearances have shown an alarming increase, with 415 cases in the first four months of this year compared with 196 in 2020, and have reduced only slightly since 2015.
When news spread of the arrest of a serial killer and the discovery of clandestine graves in his yard, family members of the disappeared flocked from across the country to the site of Osorio’s home in Chalchuapa near the Guatemalan border, hoping to find the remains of their loved ones – and closure.
Among those who arrived were parents looking for their lost daughters. El Salvador’s rate of femicide remains one of the highest in the Americas.
Osorio, 51, and his accomplices targeted women, luring them to his home under false pretenses, according to the leaked confessions. In March, he and a friend identified a 16-year-old girl who worked at a kiosk selling purses. They pretended to be businessmen and told her they could help her get a better job. Two weeks later, the girl told her mother she was leaving for her first day at a new job, but she never returned home.
In some cases, Osorio would lend his home to friends who wanted to sexually abuse women, then help them dispose of the bodies in his clandestine graves, often receiving a small tip for his services. In one example, a friend who “wanted to fulfill his fantasy” brought a 36-year-old woman and her nine-year-old daughter to the home, then sexually abused and killed them.
The killings that led to Osorio’s capture appear to have been motivated by money.
According to a family member of the victims who has spoken with the local press, on the morning of May 7, Alexis Palomo said goodbye to his family and left home, supposedly on his way to the United States. But in the afternoon, Palomo’s mother, Mirna Lima, received word from Osorio that her son had been kidnapped.
In the weeks before, Lima had confided in Osorio, a customer of a store where she worked, that her son could no longer afford to continue his studies at the university and was hoping to migrate north. The former cop told her that his brother was a coyote who could take Alexis with him for $7,000.
Late that evening, Lima, 57, and her daughter, Cristina Palomo, 26, went to Osorio’s home to find out what had happened to Alexis. At around 10 pm, Osorio killed Lima with a blow to the head. Cristina, who practiced judo, escaped to the street and screamed out for help. Neighbors reported hearing the shouts, then a thump and then silence.
They called the police, but it took an hour for officers to show up even though the police station is just a mile away from the house.
When the police forced their way into the home they found four bodies – Alexis, Mirna, Cristina and Carlos Osorio, the serial killer’s brother and supposed coyote.
To evade capture, Osorio attempted to play dead, cutting his veins and throwing himself on top of some of the bodies, but he was given away by his breathing, according to the leaked file.
Osorio is now cooperating with investigators, according to authorities and confirmed by the leaked file, providing information on at least nine accomplices with whom he conspired to kill at least 13 people over the last two years. He has not yet undergone a psychological examination. Investigators have said the killing spree spanned more than a decade and there could be as many as 40 victims.
The last victim, Cristina, whose screams led the police to his home, assured that the murders would finally stop.