08 June, 2015
Nowhere in the world as many people are murdered as in the diminutive republic of El Salvador. The nation of six million has the highest rate of murder in the globe. To find the often buried bodies is the task of only one man, Israel Ticas. He is the only forensic detective in a country where countless bodies are hidden deep beneath earth, waiting to be discovered.
A usual day for Ticas starts with a phone call from the families of victims, who claim to have found the bodies of their lost relatives. Then he travels kilometers to clear up the bodies and gather evidence. Lately he inspected three bodies found in a forest sixty-five kilometers away from his office. He believed that, at the last few meters of their life, three young men had walked on a dirt road that separates from the steep way of the nearby village, passing through thick, knee-high undergrowth. As he stood near the narrow hole, where the bodies of the three young men were found, he sighed and tried to collect every possible evidence to track down the murderers. It is a herculean task for one man to fulfill, as the murder rate of the country makes it impossible for him to pay due attention to the each case he is assigned.
In El Salvador missing and death means usually the same. When somebody is reported missing, both families and police officers know that what follows is a murder investigation. The desperately poor county in Central America has a long history of violence. Since the Civil War, which lasted between 1979 and 1992, the country has been ravaged with massacres and torture, perpetrated by ruthless death squads, leaving more than seventy thousand dead. The Civil War was particularly between the military-led government and some leftist organizations. During the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the United States provided great amounts of military aid to the government of El Salvador to suppress the leftist groups. At the end of the Civil War, the conflict turned into an unstoppable fight of violent gangs. Principally two gangs, MS 13 and Barrio 18, became mortal enemies, recruiting more than sixty thousand keen gangsters who fight in extreme ends. The drug related violence in El Salvador is reported as graver than in Mexico where one hundred thousand people have been killed since the beginning of 2006.
Although Israel Ticas has excavated about 750 corpses, he does not refer to it as a success. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime declared El Salvador as the most dangerous country in the world, apart from the war zones such as Syria and Libya. Everyday sixteen homicides take place. What Ticas has discovered is only a small portion of the total number. Ticas argues that it became more difficult for the police force of the country to discover the murdered bodies, as corpses, unlike early times when the bodies were discovered on the streets or alleys, just disappear in forests, buried meters beneath earth.
Ticas also concedes that the latest euphoria in the country about the falling death rates does not reflect the truth as it just became much more difficult for the police force to locate bodies, resulting in a decline in the death rates. “Corpses just disappear,” he states.
It is the Israel Ticas’ duty to immerse in sewers, study soil, travel kilometers to the countryside to find the dead husbands, daughters, and babies. It is not exactly known how many are missing in the country; there are advertisements about missing persons everywhere, and petitions Ticas receives daily on his desk and through social media are countless.
He has mastered the language of death. He is under great threat as the only person to find evidence to track down the violent gangs. When he discovers bodies, often mummified and in an unrecognizable state, some members from different families are invited to identify the corpses. One father recognized his son from his trousers. The body was discovered with arms crossed over the head and legs bent, an indication that he was buried alive. In El Salvador, parents dig out their children. The reason for death could be as simple as a joke. For nine years, except pursuing and placing the corpses, Ticas has also been consoling the crying sisters, collapsing mothers, and fainting wives. His consolation often is that the family will have what many other families lack, a proper burial ceremony.
Ticas has lived through plenty of painful stories. What shocks him the most is a particular case involving children. A gang planned to kill a five-year-old boy who saw something he should not see. The gang sent fifteen men to murder the child. The boy was with his eight-year-old sister who was terrified on the prospect of the death of her beloved brother. She wanted to save her brother by saying, “If I allow all fifteen of you to rape me, would you let my brother live?” The answer was yes, and she was raped brutally as a result. After raping, the gang members killed the boy in front of his sister who believed that she could save him somehow. Ticas’ life is full of stories like this. When asked how he copes with what he faces and hears everyday, he sighs.
Patrick Witte from the German newspaper Die Welt has written an extensive article on the Israel Ticas’ daily routine. Ticas told Die Welt that he tries not to think of death at nights, as he has more than sixty thousand enemies from gangs. Nevertheless, he does not demand a bodyguard, since he believes that bodyguards would not suffice to protect him in a country like El Salvador; it would only increase the risk. Where he lives is controlled by the gang MS 13, and going home with a group of bodyguards would attract too much attention. He has succeeded so far to keep his vocation as a secret and initiated good relations with the gangsters. When he feels abnormality around his house, he calls police right away.
Because leniency is the best chance for getting a lesser penalty, sometimes gangsters cooperate with Ticas to find the corpses they buried. A twenty-year-old gangster, Henry, has killed and disposed of at least eighty people. As he wants to unearth the bodies to mitigate his sentence, he guides Ticas and narrates how he killed. Henry recalled that one night, for clearing their district from rival gang members, he himself committed twenty-five murders; he concluded that the total death toll of the night might be above hundreds. Ticas, hearing the incident first time, gets frustrated as it becomes impossible to assess how many lives are being claimed each day in his country.
Now a traitor to his gang for mitigation, Henry has once had a key role within the gang, controlling some territories. Although in average gang members survive less than five years before getting killed or jailed, Henry has been in the gang for nine years. He justifies the murders he committed by the fact that if he had not carried out the tasks and questioned the orders, he would have been killed. While Ticas excavates the bodies, Henry stands idly by and smokes. He only regrets three murders; once, with other gangsters, he just killed a man for mockery after sticking an empty bottle of vodka into the victim’s chest.
The way of life a gangster adopts is very stressful, he remarks. Conducting transactions, purchasing weapons, taking revenge, and constantly preparing for conflict deteriorate both the physical and mental health of gang members. Growing up in El Salvador, mostly children are not presented with joyous options to choose from. Because the police force of the nation is lacking the capacity to ensure peace on the streets, some young people subscribe to gangs to protect themselves and their families.
El Salvador struggles to improve its security forces to protect the Salvadorian citizens from the abyss of gangs. Far from enhancing security and deterring the gangsters from perpetrating crimes, the police force seems to be incapable of finding the corpses of those who have brutally been killed and hidden. Israel Ticas, in the country of violence and death, strives for making a difference. Little as it may seem, he puts his life in peril to change his country. Finding corpses is crucial in a country like El Salvador, but preventing people from getting murdered should be the principal task of the failed government. Ticas’ courage, many hope, will serve as an example to those in power.