Relatives of missing women gathered at the home of a former police officer after a mass grave authorities believe may contain at least 40 people, most of them women, was found in the backyard.
“There’s the hope of recognising a family member, even among the corpses,” 50-year-old Marleny Barrientos said, according to Reuters. She carried a photograph of her son, who disappeared in 2015. “That is why I’m here.”
Dozens of people, believing their missing relatives could possibly be among the dead, stood outside the cordoned-off area as forensic workers in white protective gear removed remains from the pits. Several of the graves are thought to be at least two years old.
Prosecutor Graciela Sagastume told reporters: “The central axis of the investigation is sexual violence."
Justice and Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said DNA samples are being collected from residents in the area with missing relatives to see if there’s a match with any of the exhumed bodies.
Mr Villatoro added that the depth of the eight pits so far discovered in the backyard suggests that more than one person could have been digging. The pits could contain as many as a dozen people each.
Police in El Salvador were investigating a double homicide when they found the mass grave.
As of Friday, 24 bodies had been found. It could take a month to dig up all the bodies, authorities say.
Former officer Hugo Ernesto Osorio Chavez, 51, has reportedly admitted to killing a 57-year-old woman and her 26-year-old daughter. Sex crime allegations have also been made against the former officer.
His home in Chalchuapa, in western El Salvador close to the border with Guatemala, was being investigated after his arrest on 8 May when police found what they said was soft and uneven ground on Mr Chavez’s property.
The prosecutor’s office said the victims may include girls aged nine, seven and two.
Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, El Salvador’s director of police, said Mr Chavez was fired from his job as a police officer in 2005, the Associated Press reported.
He added: “He told us that he found victims on social media and sought them out, luring them with the American dream.
“This psychopath has been detained and I believe that 99 per cent of the people who assisted him have been detained.”
A judge ordered the arrests of 10 people with links to Mr Chavez on Wednesday, accused of aggravated femicide and aggravated homicide. The arrested individuals are thought to possibly have been part of violent sex and murder ring, taking the lives of women and possibly some young men over the span of a decade.
Among the suspects are former police officers, former soldiers and people smugglers, according to Mr Chicas.
Authorities have so far prosecuted 14 cases in connection with the case, nine of them being cases of aggravated femicide, and five being cases of aggravated homicides.
El Salvador, a country of 6.7 million people, recorded 70 killings of women last year. According to police data, 111 killings took place in 2019.
Aid groups say that violence against women in the country got worse during the pandemic.