Israel Ticas is El Salvador's only forensic archeologist. In one of the world's most dangerous countries, his job is to unearth the hundreds of missing people murdered and buried by the rival gangs MS-13 and 18 Street, as their street war rages. Without him the murdered would go uncounted. The gangs may have declared a truce in 2012, but as we discover on the job with Israel, the murder rate has increased and El Salvador's missing remain without justice.
"I've found cases that are worse than horror films"
, says Ticas reflectively. He is sitting in his office, surrounded by wall-mounted photographs of mutilated corpses at different stages of putrefaction. "Freddy Kruger or Jason are nothing compared to the reality of what we're living through in this country."
As a forensic criminologist, there is no shortage of work for Ticas. Every day brings with it the promise of new bodies: victims of a remorseless Salvadoran gang culture, dumped in disused wells or buried in the thicket of inaccessible woodland.
"In other countries, they get in there and start digging until they reach the body. That can be done in 25 minutes or half-an-hour, but the perimortem is lost"
, he explains. "You lose the... body language."
Having trained as a civil engineer, Ticas' methods are a little different. Employing the latest geotechnical practices, and a bit of improvisation, he brings his expertise to bear on the search for El Salvador's disappeared. "I have never seen this type of excavation anywhere in the world to recover bodies."
But while his reputation for innovation makes him the go-to man for the families of those missing, it also makes him a target for the pandilleros whose ugly deeds he unearths. "He's sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong"
, comments one member of 18 Street. "If they had the opportunity, they'd put you underground and wait to see if your colleagues dig you out."
In spite of the risks, however, and not for want of a way out, Israel Tocas carries on. "When you think of the 20 mothers waiting for the bodies down there, that's when you get motivated."
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