Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Police Negligence in Serial Killings of Poor Teens

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Oct 13 2001 (IPS) - The Chilean government apologised Friday to the parents of seven teenage girls who were raped and killed by a serial killer, a tragic case in which the investigations tripped up over police prejudice towards the victims, all of whom came from poor families.

The case of the man dubbed “the psychopath” of Alto Hospicio, a mining town located 1,800 kms north of Santiago, triggered a loud wave of criticism of the police, who failed to diligently investigate the cases after the victims, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, began to go missing in November 1999.

Julio Pérez Silva, 38, abducted, raped and killed the seven teens, and remained clear of suspicion until he was captured last week, thanks to the description given by a 13-year-old girl who escaped after he kidnapped and assaulted her.

The seven victims were high school students in Alto Hospicio. They were all from families of modest means, which according to their parents was the reason the police failed to carry out thorough investigations after they began to go missing two years ago.

The case that came to light this week is the biggest serial murder case involving minors in Chilean history.

The victims’ parents announced that they would file a lawsuit against the state and the police for social discrimination.

The Investigative Police assumed that the girls had run away from home to escape difficult family situations or child abuse. In the nearly two years that have passed since the first victim went missing, a variety of hypotheses were mentioned, all of which turned out to be false.

At one point it was reported unofficially that some of the girls had been recruited by pimps, and that there was evidence they were working as prostitutes in cities in central or southern Chile.

Pérez Silva, who used a car to abduct his victims, buried the seven bodies at an abandoned mine site, where they were found this week and identified by their parents.

A report sent to the Family Commission of the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, in which the Investigative Police insisted that the girls had left their homes of their own accord, was made public Friday.

Pérez Silva himself led the police to the bodies after confessing to the murders, when he was taken into custody last weekend.

As time dragged on, the parents of the missing girls had repeatedly asked the courts to designate a special prosecuting judge to investigate the cases. But their requests were turned down on the basis of the police reports.

Early this month, President Ricardo Lagos visited the city of Iquique, near Alto Hospicio, where he received a tongue-lashing from the victims’ families.

A week later, the case of “the psychopath of Alto Hospicio” exposed police negligence that was allegedly the result of social discrimination based on the victims’ low socioeconomic standing.

“If the girls had been the daughters of a politician like some parliamentary deputy or someone in uniform, things would have been different. [The police and judicial system] would have gone to greater lengths” to investigate the cases, said an indignant Gladys Castro, the grandmother of one of the victims.

The minister of the General Secretariat of the Government, Claudio Huepe, offered an apology Friday for the police attempts to discredit the victims and their families.

Castro, meanwhile, recalled that Senator Sergio Bitar of the centre-left governing coalition had suggested that one of the girls had run away from home after she became pregnant and lost her baby.

“I remember that the Carabineros police treated us very badly,” said the grandmother. “They said we were loose-living, promiscuous families. They went to the extreme of searching our homes, and actually measured the distance between the beds of the father and the daughter.”

Local residents of Alto Hospicio held daily street demonstrations this week demanding the death sentence for Pérez Silva.

Capital punishment was abolished in Chile this year and replaced by “effective life imprisonment,” which ensures that prisoners who have received the maximum sentence will not become eligible for parole on good behaviour after serving 20 years in prison.

Although President Lagos said the case of the seven murdered teenage girls was “very sad” for the country as a whole, he defended the abolition of the death sentence.

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