This week I am going to cover a case that shook the South American country of Chile in the late 90s and early 2000s. 14 young girls and women, all slim with long, dark hair and similar facial features, disappeared from the streets of Iquique within a short space of time.
The disappearances were publicized widely but ignored by the police and authorities, these girls were written off as run-aways and likely prostitutes, meaning almost no investigation took place. They were really taken and murdered by the Psychopath from Alto Hospcio, Julio Perez Silva.
Julio mPérez Silva was born July 15th 1963 in Puchuncaví a small Chilean town, with expansive coastlines, beautiful beaches and a mix of urban and rural living. It sounds idyllic, but many of these beaches are blighted by industrial factories, with smoke stacks and no swimming signs, the pollution from the factories making the sea unusable. A town so polluted, it has become a part of what is known as ‘the Chilean Chernobyl”
Silva’s early life is almost a cliché for someone that goes on to be a brutal serial killer, it was characterised by violence, abusive parents, fear and neglect.
The little we do know about Silva’s early life, does not seem to be a life that set him up for a successful future. He gained the nickname of Segua and spent most of his time playing and even sleeping in the streets of Puchuncavi.
He regularly ran away, to avoid the routine violence dished out at home, by his desperately alcoholic father. Silva’s father, also called Julio, was a large, imposing man, that instilled true fear into his family, he would get drunk and when the family heard him returning, they would flee their home, listening outside periodically, only daring to go back into the house when they heard Julio senior snoring.
When Silva was only seven years old, his father beat him unconscious, striking his head against a wall, for the crime of entering a room without gaining his father’s permission. He was left to lie in the room unconscious without any care or attention, his mother Elsa and his brothers were paralyzed by fear, that they would receive the same fate.
It is worth taking a brief aside here to point out the strong link that is becoming realised by reputable scientists between Serial Killers and head injuries, such as the one Silva experienced at the hands of his father. A study at the university of Glasgow has revealed that a complex interplay between neurodevelopmental problems and psychosocial factors are most likely to lead to incidences of this kind. To put this simply, the study would indicate that the combination of the psychological stressors around Silva and a head injury, would be a good indicator of someone that would go on to be violent, possibly a serial killer in the future. The study looked at notorious killers from Fred West to Richard Ramirez and concluded most experienced a traumatic head injury during childhood.
Silva and his 5 siblings tried to stop running away and defend their mother from their father’s drunken beatings, but being the fifth child and too small to protect himself, let alone his mother, he continued to receive regular beatings. Despite all this he is remembered in his home town by former teachers as calm, quiet, introverted and studious. Silva likely developed this persona as façade, one would carry throughout his life.
When Silva was 10, the fear would have intensified, not just fear caused by poverty, a violent home life, but now, Pinochet had led a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile. Things were not great in the country before, with rampant inflation, compounding the problem of poverty in small towns such as Puchuncavi, but now there was a Military Dictatorship, death squads throwing people from helicopters and thousands of executions. Pinochet and the Military Junta were supported by the United States, which enabled Pinochet to consolidate power, become supreme ruler and create conditions where in the first three years of rule, 130,000 people were arrested, many contained in the national football stadium and thousands were never released, having been disappeared by Pinochet.
Whilst his family background, poverty and the brutal regime in Chile did not cause Silva to become a killer, it would have undoubtedly shaped his view on humanity, his psyche and contributed to who he eventually became. However, by the time Silva was a man, this dictatorship had fallen and Chile was on its way to recovery.
Not much is known about Silva’s teenage years, except that he was known to be in a homosexual relationship with an older man. In Silva’s early adult life, he is remembered as being a man of few words, few interests and few conservation topics. He was married in 1995 to Monica Cistemas and they had 2 daughters, but this did not last very long at all, he soon moved out and returned to Puchuncavi with another woman, Marianela Vergara, a single mother of 2, during this time he was seen as a good husband and revelled in that reputation, he was not known to be violent to his wife or daughters, didn’t drink and didn’t smoke, he was the opposite of his own father.
He was working hard, carrying sacks of salt as a day-labourer. This normality and peaceful life did not last, in 1997 he met another woman at a party, Nancy Bero a single mother of 6, within two weeks they agreed to get married and moved to Alto Hospcio.
Looking back on what they now know, some residents of Puchuncavi speculate he used Nancy as a way to flee the town, in the previous year there had been a number of attempted rapes and a man flashing passers-by, this stopped after Silva left.
Alto Hospico is a town of around 100k people, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific ocean, the town is on the edge of the desert at the northern most point of Chile. Silva moving to the town would not have looked strange, it was attracting migrants from all over Chile in the mid-90s, the towns population grew by 900% in less than 10 years.
After arriving in Alto Hospcio, Silva took up driving an illegal taxi to supplement his income from carrying salt in order to support Nancy and her 6 children. Colleagues and neighbours remember him as only ever discussing cars and his 3 dogs and that he was a good football player. he was a defender and defended well, being very aggressive on the pitch, he was good enough that he was chosen to represent the city in a championship in 1999.
His team mates remember a number if occasions when he turned up having dyed his hair, which made him an object of good natured ridicule amongst his team, but he took good care of his appearance, regularly shaving then regrowing his hair and beard. His team took it as vanity, but now they understand he was changing his appearance.
Silva was generally well liked, especially by women, but he did have some strange behaviours, he was known to be parked in different spots around the town for hours at a time, just sitting and watching and taking long drives into the desert.
These strange behaviours make more sense to people now, as between September 1998 and August 2001, he raped and killed 14 young girls and women, stalking them in his car, meticulously planning his attack, then dumping their bodies in abandoned mines. The changes in his appearance were to stop him being recognised by any witnesses. After each murder he would return home, bathe and comb his hair as part of his ritual. He would continue to pretend to be the perfect husband and father, but if he saw a news report about his missing victim, he would change his appearance as much as he could without raising suspicion.
The façade of normality and likability that Silva had built up, would crack on 17th September 1998. Whilst working his illegal taxi, Silva picked up 17-year-old Graciela Saravia, on the waterfront of Iquique, beat her to death and dumped her body on the beach. Silva claims r that she offered him money in exchange for sex, but during the act she begun to rob him, he flipped and beat her to death.
We only have Silva’s word for this, she may not have been engaged in sex work and was just looking for a taxi ride, only to be picked up by a monster. According to Silva, this murder flipped a switch in him, that led to him killing many more, it is simply speculation on my behalf here, but looking at his subsequent crimes, I think the more likely scenario is that Silva went looking for someone to kill, the meticulous nature if which he planned his crimes, do not lend credence to him ‘flipping’.
The way he describes the murder also doesn’t sound like he flipped, Silva recounts the murder very matter of factly he says:
“we were on the beach. I pulled her towards the shore. I told her to lie down, but she remained on her knees. I did not tie her hands, but I hit her several times with a stone. Then I went to wash my bloody hands and I went back to see she would move. “
After dumping Graciela’s body, Silva returned home early, combed his hair, bathed and continued with life as normal, pretending to be the devoted family man.
The body was found quickly, but the investigation into her murder was far from thorough, Silva even left a medallion he always wore next to her body, the chain had broken in the struggle. The police saw her death as a risk associated with sex work.
Silva remained this devoted family man for another year, whilst there are more possible victims the next victim we know of that was certainly killed by him, was a 13 year old girl on her way to school, Macarena Sanchez. He pulled over and offered her a ride, with this murder, Silva has no pretence about flipping, when she got into the car, he already knew what he was going to do, already knew her routine and already knew should be a victim. Silva pulled a knife and threatened to kill her, he drove her towards the desert, he raped her, beat her and threw her into a mine shaft, dropping her 220 metres to her death.
There was a clear escalation in Silva’s need to kill, he had a much-shortened cooling off period and struck two months later, twice in a week. In February 2000, Silva picked up 18-year-old Sara Gomez and she must have known something was wrong when he drove towards the desert, she attempted to escape and Silva chased her, when she stumbled, he picked up a stick and struck her twice in the head. He says he did not rape her, as she made him too angry by trying to get away, so, he killed her instead. Two days later, he killed and raped Angelica Lay in the middle if the desert.
On March 23 of the same year, exactly one month after the fourth murder, he assaulted and murdered 14-year-old Laura Zola, and like Sanchez, she was raped and murdered, thrown into the mine shaft.
Then, on April 5, he attacked Katherine Arce, whom he raped and murdered burying her body in an unofficial garbage dump.
He recounted this as:
I felt that she was very nervous and scared. I laid her face down. I picked up a large stone, like a concrete block with which I hit the girl’s head. Then I covered her with garbage and debris.
On May 22, 17-year-old Patricia Palma left school on her way home. Silva kidnapped, raped and killed her, throwing her into the mineshaft.
Eleven days later, on June 2, He raped and murdered Macarena Montecinos, and buried her body.
The same fate befell 15-year-old Viviana Garay, who was kidnapped, raped and killed with a blow to the head.
“I ordered her to undress. I got her out of the vehicle and tied her hands. I left her in a kind of hole placing her face down with her head directed towards the south-west, telling her that I was leaving her there without hurting her. I took a stone of regular size to throw it against the head of the minor. Then I covered it with earth and stones.
Throughout all of these killings, despite having found the first victim’s body, the police, politicians and authorities continued their failure to take the victim’s families seriously, they held firm on the line that these girls had ran away to Peru or Bolivia to seek a better future or were engaged in sex work.
Another theory was, the possibility of a prostitution ring that abducted underage girls and forced them into sex work. This led the girl’s families to investigate many brothels in the area but of course no trace was found
It is quite clear that the social and economic status, of the victim and their families led to the authorities completely disregarding the investigation.
One of the victim’s grandmothers was open about how she felt about this, she said:
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
The police insinuated that the girls left due to abuse at home. The grandmother described mistreatment at the hands of the police:
I remember that the police treated us very badly,”. “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.”
The authorities were forced to take the victims families more seriously and begin conduct a proper investigation after viviana, the latest victim’s father, Orlando Garay, begun his fight for the truth. He sold his fishing boat to bring the missing girl’s families together and search for the girls.
On July 18th 2000, This led to the discovery of a bag and clothes belonging to Vivian being found at the unofficial rubbish dump where she was buried, a place that she had never previously visited. The same day at another landfill, neighbours assisting in the search found the backpack of Katherine Acre, Silva’s third victim, at another dump. Two days later, Inés Valdivia, mother of Patricia Palma, spotted her daughter’s underwear in a ravine.
With these discoveries it was clear that there was a serial killer involved in these disappearances, and the authorities begun to take them more seriously.
With the increased police presence and authorities finally looking for the killer, Perez did not attack for nine months, however, on April 17, 2001, he struck again where he kidnapped a child under 16 years, identified as Maritza for anonymity, threatening her with a knife and raping her, but did not kill her. She managed to escape and returned home, where her family took her to the hospital and samples of the aggressor’s semen were gathered. Although Maritza wasn’t able to see her attacker due to the darkness, months later, when Silva was finally caught, she recognized his voice and the DNA samples, and they were identical.
On October 4, 2001, he attacked again, a 13-year-old girl Bárbara Nuñez. He kidnapped and attacked her in the same way he did with other victims. He picked her up in his car and drove her to the outskirts of town, raped her and beat her until she thought she was dead, but she managed to survive. As he beat her, he spoke to her, saying: I am the Psychopath from Alto Hospico.
She lay unconscious for around 5 hours until came to and managed to make her way into the town.
Barbara, despite the traumatic events and injuries managed to provide a full description of her attacker, she described the car, a white Toyota with figures hanging from the windshield. She also described how he has a strong smell of hair dye.
With this description, the local police were able to identify the killer as Julio Perez Silva.
Over the next couple of days, Silva described the murders in detail to the police and confessed to the 14 murders.
The police describe his confession as matter of fact, that he “explained the murders as one would describe the process of making a sandwich”
He also admitted to the murders of:
Sara Gómez Cuevas, Ornella Linares Cepeda, Angélica Palape Castro, Daysi Castro Mamani, Gisella Melgarejo Navarro, and Ivon Carillo Lefno.
However, details on these murders and the victims are not readily available.
So far, the names of five other missing women and girls emerged in Alto Hospicio area between April 1999 and August 2001. However, Silva claims to know nothing about them.
When asked does he regret his actions, he simple responded: “sometimes I regret it and sometimes I don’t, but that doesn’t matter now because they were already dead”
Silva was sentenced to life in Prison without parole. On January 19th 2004 he attempted suicide, wrapping shoelaces around his own neck in order to end his life.
Since his suicide attempt the prison has made his regime less harsh, he now enjoys playing soccer, taking care of cats, jogging and crafts whilst behind bars, to try and prevent him committing suicide.
There is speculation and rumours that Silva had an accomplice, maybe more than one, but there is no evidence for this currently and the investigation is considered closed.
Silva will likely die in prison, but justice still hasn’t been achieved in this case, the families are still fighting for systematic change, so, young women, like their daughters will not be ignored and seen as disposable any more.
To close out, I want to highlight that despite there now being stability and strong economic development in Chile, 20 percent of children still live below the poverty line. Young women and girls are still especially at risk in Chile, with 12 percent of 15-19-year-old girls being married, divorced or widowed, many of which are mistreated, mainly through domestic violence and sexual exploitation.
240,000 children in Chile are still working to provide money for their families, including commercial sexual exploitation. Many children are taken into care in Chile each year and are supported by SOS Children’s Villages.
SOS Children’s Villages aims to support young people until they can live independently but also works to advocate for societal and legal changes to prevent future need for care. Please visit www.sos-childrensvillages.org/where-we-help/americas/chile, for more info.