SAN SALVADOR –
Every day, Israel Ticas thinks about murder victims, and how he can find their remains.
“I feel a big satisfaction when I can hand 206 bones of a body to a mother who's been looking for her kid for four years,” he says.
“It’s more than ten salaries, it's more than a big prize – you feel it in your heart.”
Ticas, 53, a self-taught forensic criminologist from El Salvador, has nearly two decades of experience investigating homicides and digging up bodies. Small, restless and fast-talking, he calls himself the ‘Lawyer for the Dead’ – a last hope for families seeking answers about the fate of missing loved ones in one of the world’s most violent countries.
Spending his days switching between a leather jacket and sunglasses or biohazard gear, Ticas has devised his own unusual methodologies to help investigators glean evidence for convictions, in a land where less than five per cent of murders are solved. He does so while guarded by police gunmen, deployed to ward off gang members who would prefer to keep their sins underground.
Last year there were 5,278 recorded murders in El Salvador, making it one of the deadliest peacetime countries in the world. Even this figure was a more than 20 per cent reduction in homicides from the previous year.
As the gang war grinds on, rivals are resorting to increasingly extreme brutality. Bodies are cut into pieces and scattered around, faces smashed beyond recognition, skin flayed from muscle and bone – all of which makes Ticas’ job even harder.
Anti-gang police units in the capital, San Salvador, patrol the streets as they would a war zone: clad in black balaclavas and body armour, weapons bristling out the back of battle wagons.
This is largely to protect themselves, since they are essentially powerless to protect citizens from Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, rival gangs that command tens of thousands of members and have a stranglehold on the city. In their war for supremacy children as young as seven are conscripted and it’s estimated that one person is killed every two hours.
“You want to prove to people, policemen and the members of your gang, that you are the best and you are the craziest,” a former 18th Street enforcer explained to Dateline.
He joined the gang at 13 years of age and says killing was “part of the routine” on the streets. “You think if you don't kill, they're going to kill you.”
Now a police informant who claims to have helped authorities convict dozens of his old comrades, he admits to killing 26 people, ten of whom he chopped up himself.
Too often the victims are women, the girlfriends of gang members and relatives targeted in retaliation.
Ticas says they endure the most severe torture and account for more than half of the victims he digs up. Some turn up with bottles stuffed into their genitals; others become piñatas, hung upside down by their feet and hacked with machetes.
To date, Ticas has excavated dozens of grave sites, containing more than 700 bodies, but he can scarcely keep up with the carnage. The collapse of a 2012 truce saw the murder rate more than double and, by some estimates, up to 2,000 people go missing each year.
Under his desk is a metal box containing some of the photographs of the missing.
Among them are the niece and sister of “Rosa”, an elderly woman living outside the capital. The pair were abducted from a street near her home three years ago and have not been seen since. She believes gang members are responsible but there are still no leads in the case.
“Half of my heart knows they are dead, but while I don't have any evidence or a body that tells me they are (gone),” she says, choking up on tears.
“Inside me I’m going to have faith that they may be elsewhere, but I think that would be a miracle.”
Asked if he feels overwhelmed by the caseload that keeps piling up, Ticas demurs.
“Not overwhelmed – I feel powerless, miserable, a bad public servant because I can't give people the answers they expect,” he says.
“Every time I watch the news about missing people I feel badly because I won't be able to help.”
All the gloom has taken a heavy mental toll on Ticas. He is known to talk to his victims while digging and once ate his birthday cake next to a skeleton. When he finds time to relax, he creates still life paintings inspired by the images of human body parts that plaster the walls of his office, a house of horrors full of murder weapons and skulls.
Such eccentricities are fuel to critics who question Ticas’ unusual techniques and willingness to court the media. But in a land virtually without law and strapped for resources, his boss remains a staunch supporter.
“He does what those who criticise him don’t want to do,” says Allen Portillo of the Attorney General’s office. “That’s the truth.”
On several occasions, even gang members have told Ticas that when they are killed he must find their bodies and deliver them to their mothers. Yet he knows he is a marked man. Twice he has escaped ambush, and he always carries a firearm when he steps out.
“I think I’m not going to die from natural circumstances,” he says.
“I’m going to be killed because of my job, because I tell the truth. That’s why (mothers) write to me saying ‘you’re an angel sent by God to help us'.”
Jason Motlagh is an International Reporting Fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.