Trapped between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean at the northernmost tip of Chile, Alto Hospicio might as well be at the end of the world. Most of the people there live in a small town on the edge of a desert that’s the driest place on Earth, but it wasn’t isolation alone that enabled a serial killer to ply his evil trade there.
The disappearance of twelve young women has the community in an uproar, the citizens shocked and devastated. But the local officials aren’t all that interested in taking action, claiming there are other explanations for the disappearances that don’t require them to do anything – until police captain César Rojas (Francisco Melo) arrives.
Working with local cop Carrasco (Gastón Salgado), he tackles what everyone else wants to think is nothing but a series of missing persons cases. Maybe the girls are fleeing broken homes and bad families. With a local brothel doing good business out on a nearby ranch, maybe sex traffickers are involved. But the deeper they dig, the dirtier this case looks, until the truth everyone wanted to deny is obvious; there’s a killer on the loose.
Travelling north from Santiago to investigate, Rojas is also fleeing his own dark past. A childhood spent in foster homes and adoption agencies left him without roots. Joining the police force seemed the only way to give himself the stability his life lacked, and a way to impose an order on the world that he never knew as a child.
But there’s only so long a man like Rojas can keep his inner demons locked away, and by the time he heads north, the walls inside him are crumbling. Will he be able to contain his dark side long enough to get the job done, or will the desert claim yet another victim?
The series is based on the true story of Julio Perez Silva (AKA “The Psychopath from Alto Hospicio”), a taxi driver who killed 14 women between 1998 and 2001. At the time the authorities largely dismissed the disappearances, suggesting the women had simply left town for better opportunities elsewhere. When that didn’t stick, they suggested some of the women may have been working as prostitutes, which further diverted attention from their disappearance.
Like all the best mysteries, the setting plays a huge part here. The Atacama desert isn’t the hottest place on Earth but it is the driest, and the exteriors here look like nowhere else on the planet. There’s a real sense of scale here, of the desert being a place that can simply swallow people up under an endless clear sky. No rain means no clouds; everywhere you look beyond the tiny ramshackle buildings there’s a nothingness that stretches on forever.
It’s not just the isolated desert setting that gives Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood a spaghetti western-like feel. With the authorities unwilling or unable to tackle the crimes themselves, the area has a frontier feel to it – it’s a place where the law doesn’t apply, where the strong can prey on the weak with no fear. So when Rojas comes to town, in a very real way he’s a lone wolf out to tame a lawless town – or at the very least, bring a killer to justice.
And that killer preys on poor and working-class women, which gives this timeless story a very topical edge. It’s clear right from the outset that the only reason the killer could get away with it for so long was because he was attacking and murdering women that society saw as disposable. He’s just taking advantage of the classist and sexist prejudices in his society, where working-class women simply matter less than other people and maintaining the status quo is more important than stopping a killer.
Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood is a compelling thriller, packed with twists and mystery and a slowly building sense of dread as the reality of what’s been taking place is uncovered. But it’s the social angle that really makes it memorable; this is a crime that touched on issues that run throughout Chilean society, and Western society in general.
For Rojas, time is running out. In the desert a killer is waiting to strike again, and he has plenty of places to hide.
Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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