‘Lawyer for the dead’ unearths El Salvador’s sadistic violence in a quest for justice

Israel Ticas calls himself the “lawyer for the dead,” the man who can bring justice to the buried victims of El Salvador’s brutal violence.

The self-taught forensic scientist says he has opened about 90 common graves with more than 700 bodies over the past 12 years — and that is just a fraction of what is out there in a country in the clutch of street gangs, and haunted by the memories of a brutal civil war.

Today his team is looking for members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang who were snatched from a bus station days before.

Ghostly figures in white protective suits dig up a clandestine grave next to a fetid river. In an unusual break, police captured three of the rival 18th Street gangsters and chased others into this arroyo with the fresh graves to help them locate the bodies.

But Ticas is working against the clock. By law, the government has 72 hours to produce evidence of murder or the suspects will be released. It is slow going, as the bodies have been beheaded and dismembered, and though they are not long dead, worms have begun to feed on them.

Ticas is up to his armpits in dirt. Hour after hour, he moves bits of earth with an archeologist’s precision, his face streaked with sweat and soil. He urges his team not to make errors.

“This is not just an exhumation. It is a crime scene,” he reminds them.

Some would argue digging up graves is a fool’s errand in El Salvador, which has the world’s second highest per capita homicide rate, and from which thousands of men, women and children flee each year. But this is a vocation for Ticas, a stocky systems engineer turned police detective who looks younger than his 51 years.

He was a young police intelligence agent during the US-backed government’s war against Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas in the 1980s. Today, those former guerrillas hold the presidency, and Ticas works for an independently named attorney general as the department’s only criminologist.

He says he is not political and considers all killers to be devils, no matter their affiliation. But Ticas knows the risks of his work better than anyone. He sees the evidence of gang rape and sadistic methods of murder such as “the pinata,” where a victim is hung upside down from a tree and hacked to death with machetes, like children batting a candy-filled pinata.

His work sometimes serves as political ammunition. In 2012 and 2013, El Salvador’s previous leftist government helped negotiate a truce between the gangs, during which it claimed that homicides fell by 60 percent. Detractors, including Ticas’s boss, Attorney General Luis Martinez, saw the truce as government collusion with criminals. They argue that the killings continued and the dead simply were dumped in clandestine graves by the country’s tens of thousands of gang members.

Ticas insists he does not want to play this political tug of war. Rather, he is a technician serving the rule of law from a small office that looks like a museum of horrors, with models of skulls and limbs, and walls papered in photographs of severed heads and salvaged bodies.

In many cases he interviews protected witnesses, who provide details of murder: “She was killed because she knew too much about gang movements and security houses,” according to one account. “A 14-year-old girl was impregnated by a gang member. … They did the ‘pinata’ to her,” says another.

While the disappearance of many Salvadorans goes unreported out of fear of the gangs, that doesn’t mean families aren’t looking. Ticas pulls a metal box out of his desk stuffed with photographs, identity documents and letters from desperate mothers who come knocking on his door.

“‘Is this where Israel Ticas lives, the one who looks for the dead?’ they ask. ‘Look, they disappeared my daughter and I need to find her even if she’s dead,'” Ticas recounts.

Ticas got his start making drawings of the dead and models of crime scenes. He studied forensic science on his own and in 2002, convinced the attorney general to give him an office and authority for excavating clandestine cemeteries.

In reality, he is still a detective trying to extract information from the dead in a place where the living are too afraid to talk. “We have to learn to observe what the silence of the dead is telling us,” he says.

Early on this Friday, they unearth one body, its head, legs and arms separated from the torso. They can see it is a male adolescent and Ticas notes that “those who knew him in life still will be able to identify him.”

Ticas finishes this job in the afternoon and rushes to his office to file a report to the attorney general. His work is done. He is not there when three 18th Street gang members are released from jail, then rearrested just outside the station and charged with murder based on the evidence he unearthed.

He does not know how the Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street gangs will react or whether anyone is planning revenge.

Ticas does, however, believe that the gangs want him to keep digging. That’s what they tell him, anyway.

“Sometimes the gangsters come up to me and congratulate me and say, ‘Engineer, when they kill me, you find all of my body and deliver it to my mother.”

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