• In El Salvador, home of the bloodiest gang violence in the world, we follow one man’s gruesome struggle to bring closure to the families of the victims. (SBS Dateline)
In El Salvador, home of the bloodiest gang violence in the world, we follow one man’s gruesome struggle to bring dignity and closure to the families of the victims.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

Israel Ticas digs up dead bodies for a living.

His approach is rigorous. At one murder scene that Dateline followed him to, he sniffs the dirt, feels around the suspected grave site, notices the concrete layer below the dirt, which he believes is an attempt to cover a murdered body, and begins to carefully dig around the site.

“The smell can guide us,” says Ticas. “We have to go slowly – first we’ll sweep and clean this area and then we’ll start digging up this section.”

“These are non-invasive techniques. I won’t go in there because I’ll alter the scene, but I can work from the side without invading the scene.”

Ticas was called to this abandoned property after receiving a tip-off that there may be a clandestine grave inside the house.

This is a standard morning in his life – in El Salvador, where gangs exert as much control over the country as law enforcement, the body count rises each day.

Ticas, who is based in the capital San Salvador, is one of the few forensic criminologists in the country. It’s estimated that one person is killed in El Salvador every hour, one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. In many instances, Ticas’ expertise is essential for lawyers trying to prosecute the perpetrators of gang violence. Among the families and friends of victims, he’s become known as ‘the lawyer for the dead’.

“Everyone here lives in fear,” he says. “It’s gang territory.”

Ticas’ office is cluttered with ornaments of the deceased and souvenirs related to his work; skulls, plastic skeletons, printed photographs of brutal crime scenes.

In his car, which he drives in from murder scene to murder scene, he bops along to music and plays with an animal bone sitting on the dashboard – the brutality of his work has not worn him down, at least ostensibly.

For Ticas, a prime motivator is not just putting criminals behind bars, but bringing closure to the families of victims.

“They’re not just relatives of the disappeared, they are truly secondary victims,” he says. “They are like the walking dead.”

“When their child disappears, their lives and happiness disappear with them.”

The people that pass through Ticas’ office have similar stories of mystery and disappearance.

Belma, a woman who now works with Ticas, has a personal story which shows how twisted the gang war in El Salvador can be. She turned to Ticas after her nephew disappeared, but before he was able to investigate the case, her nephew’s body was found.

“They later told us that another young man who wanted to join the gang offered him as a sacrifice,” she says.

When her nephew’s body was found, his school clothes were missing and he was wearing a t-shirt and shorts that didn’t belong to him – according to Ticas, this is a ploy by the gangs to prevent people in the community from knowing that they’re killing school children.

Another woman, Rosa, has been waiting for answers on her missing niece and sister for three years, but there are still no leads. They never arrived home after a day out shopping, and due to his volume of work Ticas has not been able to investigate their disappearance.

This lack of closure is common for many in El Salvador – investigators are dealing with an oversupply of homicide cases, more than they could ever hope to solve.

In San Salvador, there are two main gangs locked in a street war; Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street.

In one neighbourhood Dateline visited, the 18th Street gang has written a terse directive in spray paint on a building; “see, hear, shut up”. Locals in the area are unwilling to speak on camera and police officers refuse to show their face.

Among El Salvadorians, these gangs are not only known for killing, but for the methods they use to kill. Ticas’ office is littered with gruesome and grizzly examples of the country’s gang violence victims – he believes the murders are becoming more obscene each year.

“It’s a competition between the gangs,” he says. “They’re competing to see who is the craziest. It’s a psychopath competition to terrorise, the objective is to cause fear.”

One former gang member, who is now a police informant, spoke to Dateline on the condition of anonymity, describing the pressure put on young gang members to carry out brutal crimes, if they want to be accepted.

He says young gang members are told to kill, to “prove to people – to the police and to fellow gang members – that you’re the best, the craziest. You think, if you don’t kill, they will kill you.”

For Ticas, running out of work has never been an issue – new homicide cases come to his desk every day. He’s not overwhelmed by them, he only wishes he could do more.

“I feel powerless, I feel miserable,” he says. “I feel like a bad civil servant, because I can’t give people the answers they want from me.”

“I feel the pain of these people. I hold them and tell them that I’m going to find their son, and I cry with them.”

As to his own fate – he’s aware of the risks he brings upon himself.

“I don’t think I will die from natural causes,” he says.

“I will be murdered. Because I tell the truth.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.

More

The dangerous and profitable life of an undertaker in the world’s most homicidal country
El Salvador's sky-high murder rate has caused a boom in the country's funeral business.
How El Salvador became the murder capital of the world
El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. How did it happen?
What’s really behind Central America’s sky-high murder rates?
Gang violence is continuing to get worse in Central America, as the drug trade shifts from country to country.
Central American countries are losing a generation because of gangs
There is a surge of young immigrants crossing into the US from Central America, fleeing gang violence and a drug trade that targets them.
El Salvador’s guardian of the dead
An all-out gang war has made El Salvador one of the most violent countries on earth. As the body count rises, one forensic criminologist has devoted his life to exhuming the bodies of the disappeared. He may be digging his own grave.

Credits

Reporter: Jason Motlagh

Producer: Meggie Palmer, Ronan Sharkey

Camera: Ben Emery

Editor: David Potts

Transcript

This is Israel Ticas, also known as the "Lawyer for the Dead". He represents murder victims, and works hard to bring them to justice. Ticas digs up dead bodies for a living, in case you didn't guess from his office. He is digging for more bodies today, not that you would know it. I can't help but notice a piece of bone on his dashboard.

ISREAL TICAS, LAWYER: It’s a bone of the animal. It is from a dog, not human.

Ticas is a rarity in El Salvador and not just for his eccentricities. He is one of the very few forensic criminologists in the country. His approach is unconventional and he has his critics but he is too busy to pay them any attention.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Everyone here lives in fear, it’s gang territory.

Almost every hour, someone is killed here mostly due to gang violence. Many murder victims are buried in hidden graves, leaving relatives with the agony of not knowing where they are, or if they're really dead. Ticas is one of the few giving them answers. In the system that can't keep up. Ticas's team have been called to this abandoned house because of a tip-off. Inside is a suspected clandestine grave. Relatives believe a gang murder victim is buried under the house.

REPORTER (Translation): Are there any bodies here?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  Possibly. If there is one, there could be two or three. We have to go slowly.  First we’ll sweep and clean this area and then we’ll start digging up this section.

The foul stench suggests there is something down there. Ticas sizes up the scene in his own straightforward way.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): The smell can guide us, it can help us determine if there was a decomposing body in that pit.

REPORTER (Translation):  Ticas, why bury the body here?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  Because without a body, there is no murder. Over there, the body can be found, that is why they covered it in cement, as an extra layer and it looks like there may be another one over there. We have to look for it.

It's estimated there is several thousand bodies buried in secret graves across El Salvador. Ticas is focused on justice. By finding evidence for prosecutions and returning the disappeared to their families.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): We are about to dig. These are non-invasive techniques. I won’t go in there because I’ll alter the scene, but I can work from the side without invading the scene.

REPORTER (Translation):  Are you tired?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  Yes, but I will continue, we are lucky to have help, sometimes it’s only two of us or just one.

Then, after a couple of hours of digging, confirmation, the next stage of the dig will be the most gruesome, so Ticas calls it day, to prepare for the body recovery tomorrow. Finding the body means another family will soon receive the terrible news they have been dreading. But Ticas says, being able to give those families closure is a huge motivator for him.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  They’re not just relatives of the disappeared they are truly secondary victims. They are like the walking dead. When their child disappears their lives and happiness disappear with them. The soil of my country… much of the agriculture, many crops, are being fertilized by the bodies of young people and nourishing the vegetation here, and we may never find them.

He seems to really feel the pain of grieving families and mothers and so takes it on as his personal mission to provide some semblance of justice or closure where institutions have failed for whatever reason.

Street gangs have a strangle hold on this city, in some areas, on every corner. There are two main gangs, MS13 and 18th Street and they are locked in a vicious war, making El Salvador murder rate twenty times higher than the United States. Gangs killed more people now than during El Salvador's bloody civil war in the 1980s. The killing is mostly over petty gangs feuds or small time extortions, a staggering level of violence in a deeply religious country.

We're not far from the house where Ticas is digging. It's not a safe area, especially if you're digging up murder victims. This graffiti over here says 18th street, which is the gang that holds this territory, and it reads out ‘see, hear & shut up’, a warning to anyone in the area.’ There are people around but no-one will talk to us. Even some of these officers don't want their faces on camera.

El Salvador's gangs have a fearsome reputation, not just for killing, but it's all about how they kill. Ticas sees it all. In his office, he store is gruesome mementos of his work. It's a really house of horrors, but to Ticas, it's science, and he says it reminds him of the importance of what he does.

REPORTER:  These are all murder weapons you collected at the crime scene?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  Yes. This… is DNA. Blood

REPORTER (Translation):   Blood?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Blood, this was a four year old boy, three actually. They stoned him to death just because his father was in another gang. Look, mother and son, both decapitated. She was the wife of a rival, and he was their son. First they cut off their heads, then they started to amputate some body parts.

REPORTER:  Why do you think the methods are getting more extreme as time goes on?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Because it's competition between the gangs, they are competing to see who is the craziest.  It’s a psychopath competition to terrorise. The objective is to cause fear.

The brutality is shocking. I can't imagine anyone wanting to do this job except for Ticas. He has been doing it for more than 2 decades and he is self-taught.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Here, there were ten bodies. I extracted the earth by hand, and put it in sacks. That’s my son. He was 12 there.

REPORTER:  This is when he was 12?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): I’ve taken him to all the excavations, since he was little. He knows all my techniques.

Despite the daunting nature of job, Ticas's son is following in his dad's footsteps and is training to be a criminologist, a job so dangerous in El Salvador that Ticas won't less you see a photo of his son, for fear he'll be targeted by gangs.

REPORTER:  Ticas, the cases just keep coming in. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Not overwhelmed, no. I feel powerless, I feel miserable, I feel like a bad civil servant because I can’t give people the answers they want from me. So, that’s how I feel.

REPORTER:  What is it that keeps you going?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): There is science but besides that there is a human element, I am human. I feel the pain that these people feel, the families of the missing. These are mothers looking for their children, because I’m not a psychologist I just hold them. I hold them and tell them that I am going to find their son and I cry with them. That is what I do, as a human.

Ticas's convictions earn him the devotion of the relatives of the missing, like Belma.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Come in!  Hello! How are you? Take a seat.

When her 12-year-old nephew disappeared, she turned to Ticas for help.

BELMA (Translation): He was callously murdered, it’s not fair.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  No.

BELMA (Translation):  He was autistic, he wasn’t mixed up in anything

Tragically, her nephew was found dead before Ticas took the case.

BELMA (Translation): They later told us that another young man who wanted to join the gang offered him as a sacrifice, as they say. “I’ll kill this guy and then I’m in.”

Belma's nephew as abducted from his school. When his body was found, his uniform had been removed.

BELMA (Translation):  He was wearing clothes that did not belong to him, shorts and a T-shirt that weren’t his. Engineer Ticas was telling us that it could have been a tactic of the gangs so that people don’t think that they are killing school boys.

No-one is safe in this war. Belma now works with Ticas to help other families find their missing relatives.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): They’re saying that, if she gives them money they’ll tell her where her sister and niece are buried. I told her not to. That it’s all lies.

Ticas has around 5,000 missing person cases in his database, people like Rosa's sister and niece, who disappeared 3 years ago. There are no leads.

ROSA (Translation):  They were shopping in Aguilares, what we heard from third parties is that when they made a stop at a turning on their way home, their car was hit and they veered off from the way home, but no one knows where they went.  We never found out what happened.

Rosa believes that gang members are behind their disappearance, but given the volume of work, Ticas hasn't been yet been able to take on the case.

REPORTER:  Have you given up hope of finding them alive?

ROSA (Translation):  Half of my heart knows that they are dead, but so long as I have no proof or any bodies identified as those of my family… I will continue to have faith that somewhere…they might still be alive. But I know that won’t happen. I sometimes give up, it would be a miracle.

It's estimated that less than 5% of homicides in El Salvador are a solved. The person in charge of overseeing investigations is Allan Portillo, from the Attorney-General's office. He is also Ticas's boss.

REPORTER:  Just to be clear, if I came from the outside and I saw that less than 5%, or less than 10 or 20% of murders are solved, that would speak to a crisis of law and order, no? Is the state failing?

ALLAN PORTILLO, DIRECTOR SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS (Translation): If you are asking whether we have a homicide problem, the answer is “Yes”. We have a very high murder rate.  If you are asking whether we have a murder investigation issue, I would say that we have efficient investigations but we need more resources to make them faster. 

Professionally, Ticas has his critics, people who question his unusual techniques but his boss remains a staunch supporter.

ALLAN PORTILLO (Translation):  He does what those who criticise him don’t want to do. That’s the truth, his work has great merit for me as his boss.
 
One of the ways that authorities are trying to break the cycle of gang violence is from within, with informants. I was able to meet one. Former gang member turned police informant. This man said he was 13 years old when he joined the 18th Street.

REPORTER:  Why did you decide to join?

INFORMANT (Translation): I wanted to have power. In the end, I didn’t.

REPORTER:  How old were you when you killed your first person?

INFORMANT (Translation): I was fourteen. A rival gang member.

REPORTER:  Seems like a lot of the violence here has become more and more extreme. Is this the case for you?

INFORMANT (Translation): It’s to prove to people , to the police and to fellow gang members that you are the best, the craziest.

REPORTER:   So killing became easy.

INFORMANT (Translation): Yes, it becomes easy because you think, if you don’t kill, they will kill you.

This informant has helped Ticas locate the graves of several murder victims. In exchange, he gets immunity from prosecution.

REPORTER:  Do you have any idea how many people you have killed?

INFORMANT (Translation):  26.

REPORTER:  26? How many bodies did you chop up to dispose of?

INFORMANT (Translation): About ten people, it was part of the routine at the time.

Immunity deals with gangsters have been taken off the table, owning to their unpopularity with the public.

REPORTER:  Did you feel like you could get away with murder?

INFORMANT (Translation): Yes.  You think you will always be okay, that you will never get arrested. When you are in the gang you don’t think about the consequences.

Of course, gang informants never truly get away with it. Many are eventually murdered themselves, the rest live in constant fear that their turn will come. Ticas estimates that he has worked a couple of thousand crime scenes and recovered over 700 bodies, the majority about 60%, are women.

REPORTER:  Why do you think that women are targeted this way?

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Perhaps because, in the country, women have no value, only sexual value, for some not for everybody. They have sexual value. That's why they use them. Most of the female bodies that we find have suffered a greater degree of torture.

Brutal crimes that mostly go unpunished, Ticas can only dig up one body at a time and it's slow going. Today Ticas is back at the grave dig. The stench of rotting flesh is fierce now. He doesn't know yet if the body under the house is a man or a woman. Now he is in the final stages.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): This is a foot. And one shoes. Maybe, hand.

The entire body is soon revealed, a lonely murder victim. Ticas identifies it as a middle aged man, bound by his hands and ankles. Just as the tension of the moment sets in, out comes the gallows humour.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): Let’s get your hair nicely combed for the photo, get him looking good.

I guess this is how Ticas copes. For all his energy and commitment to his work, it must take a toll, the never-ending exposure in the worst things that people do to one another, the pressure from relatives who see him as their last hope for answers. Ingloriously, the body is removed.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): When I can… return the 206 bones belonging to the body of a mother’s son, after looking for him for four or five years…it is beautiful when I can hug a mother and tell her “Here is your son, as I promised.”

In El Salvador, law exists only in name. It feels like a country at war with itself, and Ticas is in the middle. On our last night, I joined police officers who have to patrol around the clock, just to maintain a semblance of authority, making them a constant target.

Last night, one of the areas we're going to go to, there was a fire fight between the police and local gang members and one officer was injured so, we're going to get our flaks on, just in case.

In the gang-controlled areas of San Salvador, the police casualty list is also growing.

REPORTER (Translation): have you lost any partners?

POLICE OFFICER (Translation): This year we lost three… four, I think. Two years ago on the 17th of July, my father was killed by the 18. They shot him in the heart.

The next day, I’m at the funeral of a police officer, killed in a gang ambush.

PRIEST (Translation):  Blessings to the police who fight day and night to protect us.

And I'm left wondering - how can a poor country mired in blood and revenge, turn around such a destructive culture of murder? Ticas's fatalistic about his own chances of survival in this war.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation): I am afraid and I don’t think I will die from natural causes. I will be murdered, that’s what I think because I tell the truth.

But he goes on, because so many others rely on him to keep their hopes alive.

ISREAL TICAS (Translation):  That is why they write to me saying “You are an angel sent by God to help us, from the mothers who are looking for their sons.” That hurts me because I am not an angel. I am a powerless human being with the desire to help but without the power.

reporter
jason motlagh

story producer
meggie palmer and ronan sharkey

camera
ben emery

fixer
juan carlos

story editor
david potts

translations
jimena escobar

original music
vicki Hansen

 

21st February 2017