CHALCHUAPA, El Salvador - David Represa holds a weathered photograph of his sister Cristina while he waits in the scorching midday sun behind yellow police tape. He has traveled from his home about twenty miles away to the rural Chalchuapa area of El Salvador, driven by a rather macabre hope—to find Cristina’s corpse at the bottom of a well full of dead bodies at the home of a former police officer.
“Four armed men dressed as police officers arrived and took her out of the house. They said they needed to question her,” Represa said, recalling the December 2014 night that Cristina disappeared. “And since then we have never seen her again.”
But the Salvadoran Police very recently made a terrifying discovery.
Inside the house of Hugo Osorio, a former police officer, authorities found an inactive water well full of corpses. A couple of weeks after the well’s discovery, it’s still not clear exactly how many bodies are in there. Investigators estimate that there may be as many as 40, although so far they have only removed 15. If the higher number is the real figure, this would be the largest clandestine grave found in El Salvador in the last two decades, even larger than those left by the deadly MS-13 gang.
The sheer number of corpses has prompted dozens of people to descend on Chalchuapa to ask if the bodies of their missing relatives have turned up. Mothers, sisters, daughters, fathers and husbands have approached the yellow tape that protects the excavation in recent days, clutching photographs of their missing loved ones.
Represa hopes that the grisly discovery could bring some sort of closure to his family.
“(Cristina) left three children behind. One was three months old, another nine years old and another twelve [when she disappeared],” said Represa. “Although, to say that she left them may not be fair.”
The horrifying discovery in Chalchuapa happened after residents of the Las Flores community heard a woman screaming and calling for help from inside the house of the former police officer. Upon arrival, authorities found the ex-agent's sister and another woman dead. Osorio confessed that he had just killed them and turned himself in. But when they searched the house, the police found freshly turned earth in the house’s interior patio, and two other half-buried corpses. And under those corpses was the entrance to the well.
The news has caused a stir in El Salvador, despite this tiny Central American nation’s violent past and present. The authorities, have called Osorio a "psychopath", and serial killer whose victims were mainly women whom he sexually assaulted before killing. Along with Osorio, nine more people who are under investigation have been captured in connection to the bodies found in Osorio’s house.
The authorities have yet to give additional information about the other nine people, who are believed to be neighbors of the former police officer and accused of "activities related to the homicides." The authorities are understood to have turned Osorio into a witness, meaning that they will give him criminal benefits in exchange for confessing against the other nine implicated. It is still unknown what benefits they have offered him, but they could include a lenient prison sentence or prison conditions.
In addition to the main well, criminal forensic investigator Israel Ticas, who is directing the excavation, has said that there are as many as six more graves in the house grounds, including one located just under Osorio's bed.
“We’ve no doubt that he is a serial killer, but the investigations will tell us if he was a hit man. What we are clear about is that we are dealing with a psychopath,” said the Minister of Justice and Security, Gustavo Villatoro, a day after the arrest.
The Las Flores community is usually quiet, its main dirt street surrounded by mountains, hills and a huge flat field that the locals use to grow subsistence crops. Since the day the authorities discovered the well, that peace has been replaced by chaos and tension.
“No one knows anymore, you don’t know if some neighbor can kill you,” said one local woman. Most residents of Chalchuapa who spoke to VICE World News asked not to be identified.
“[Osorio] looked very humble and calm. He even seemed like a hard worker. Of course, he never said what he worked on, he only sometimes said that he was an investigator," said another neighbor as she watched dozens of policemen, soldiers and journalists pass by near the crime scene.
El Salvador is no stranger to clandestine graves. Between 2014 and 2018, the Attorney General’s Office located some 150 clandestine cemeteries throughout the country, containing around 220 victims. Most of the bodies pulled out of those graves remain officially missing until they’re located and identified by families that haven’t stopped searching for their disappeared loved ones.
“Every day between ten and fifteen people come to ask [about the identity of the dead bodies], mostly mothers,” said a policeman who guarded the entrance to street where Osorio’s house sat. “Between Monday and Friday alone about 75 people have come.”
The case of the Chalchuapa house comes during a relatively peaceful period in El Salvador, where homicides have dropped dramatically. Since President Nayib Bukele took office, homicides caused mainly by the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs have dropped from nine to three a day. Although the government assures that the drop is the result of its security plan, journalistic investigations point to a new negotiation between the Bukele government and the MS-13.
But disappearances have increased. Official figures from the National Civil Police reveal that between January and April of this year, 577 complaints were received, 17 percent more compared to the same period last year.
Claudia López Morales arrived at the scene after hearing about the discovery of the house on television and told her daughter, “Oscar may be there.”
Her brother Oscar disappeared in March 2018 and “since then I have looked for him in morgues, in hospitals, in funeral homes, everywhere. I keep looking for him.”
She and her daughter are also hopeful that the discovery in Chalchuapa may finally end their search.
“We come from far away, but with the hope that finally here we can find him.”