Digging up the dead in El Salvador to find the truth
As a forensic archaeologist, Israel Ticas has solved more than 500 homicide and missing persons cases.
Editor’s note: This article contains graphic images.
San Salvador, Salvador – When Israel Ticas isn’t in the field, he is doing most of his work in a cold, dimly-lit office with images of often disfigured homicide victims plastered on the wall.
In one image, the skeleton of a woman’s body that has been unearthed lies on her grave. Another shows the body of a man who had his mouth sewed shut before being suffocated.
It is here, where Ticas conducts most of his research.
Ticas says that as the country’s forensic archaeologist, he has solved more than 500 homicide and missing persons cases.
In his office, he works with his assistant, trying to piece together the cases he has worked on, and keeps in touch with the families of victims that have been either assassinated or have disappeared.
“I have all I need,” he says.
Masks, caps, metric tapes, machetes, big and small brushes, cleaning instruments and lamps line the walls.
Ticas’s second office is wherever a crime took place or a body has been found. There, he wears a special blue and white suit that protects him from polluting the bodies and is suitable for digging up decomposing corpses.
“My work is not to only take the victims out, I process the scene, I find more information, I understand how was the victim buried, what took place, I’m also a criminologist,” he says.
It’s a dangerous and daunting task in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. An estimated 10,800 people have disappeared in El Salvador since 2010, according to police reports. Homicide rates peaked in 2016, with nearly 5,300 killed.
“Many of the cases in my country go unpunished, and the families of those victims are secondary victims,” Ticas says.
“They are unable to close the cycle of suffering and they will stay in that cycle forever.”
Unusual route to forensics
The 55-year-old got his start in forensic archaeology in 1989 after entering the police force during the Salvadoran war.
After the signing of the peace accord in 1992, Ticas became part of the Division of Scientific Technical Police and the National Civil Police. He also acquired some of his skills in the United States and South Africa.
“I might not have a certification or a degree, specialising in criminology, but I have 20 years of experience,” Ticas says.
In 2006, Ticas returned to El Salvador from South Africa with victim identification techniques that were unknown in the country.
Ticas dug his first grave the same year.
The difference between his method, and others, is that he makes an effort to rebuild the scene.
“The other experts, just dedicate their time to find the bodies, and when they find the corpse, they grab it, and pull it out so that Forensic Medicine can identify it,” he explains.
“This can be done in 25 minutes, but you lose the body language, you don’t understand what happened to it.”
Everything Ticas does is captured in photographs, diaries and agendas.
“If you open one of those books you will find the photograph of corpses, describing the methods I used,” he says, pointing to a table of stacked books, all of them tell the stories of hundreds of victims.
In recent years, he has developed a technique to preserve both the crime scene and the corpses.
He digs in parallel so that its structure remains untouched.
“When I started working on this, I observed how the cases were processed. They stepped on the corpses, and there wasn’t scientific proof of anything,” Ticas says.
“So, I started to develop an alternative. I have fused criminology, archaeology and anthropology,” he adds.
“As an anthropologist I knew I couldn’t step on the corpses, as an archaeologist, I developed a technique to be able to work on the site without touching the crime scene, and as a criminologist I knew, I needed to preserve and recover evidence and micro-evidence to identify the victims as well as the perpetrators.”
Some experts in the forensic anthropology field in El Salvador say that Ticas damages the crime scenes because he carries out “aggressive” excavations in which he prioritises the way things look in the tombs and not the conservation of the remains.
According to Legal Medicine, a medical institution supported by the government, the techniques used by Ticas prolong the excavations for too long, and are not practical.
They calculate that it would take a day to recover the remains that the criminologist extracts in three, according to local reports.
But in 2017, Jose Luis Perez Castro, the director of the Latin American Forensic Research Institute, praised Ticas and his work calling him “the maximum exponent in El Salvador and in Latin America when it comes to corpse exhumation”.
The Institute of Legal Medicine in El Salvador did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“For many, I am a farce. I am a madman, a person who alters and ruins everything. But, in other countries, I am Professor Ticas, the scientist, the engineer who has managed to merge techniques,” Ticas says.
Having done the job for more than a decade, Ticas has seen how murder has transformed in the country.
He says in 2006 bodies weren’t mutilated and dismembered as they are now.
“One of the new methods is removing the skin from the victim. I think that comes from the movie Hannibal. It’s the way the gangs try to show their power by cutting all the pieces and the parts of the bodies,” he says.
The bodies he finds are victims of gang violence, robberies and other crimes. Often they are women who were subjected to the most severe forms of torture.
Ticas tries to separate the science of what he does from the emotional toll it can take.
“I do not get into feelings, this is science, this is matter, and this is the shield I use not to break down emotionally,” he says.
“I see a body of a child, and while cleaning it, start thinking about how much he probably suffered, my heart begins to feel, and my human side comes in. That’s why I’m forced to use my shield,” he explains.
But when he does find a body that he wasn’t necessarily looking for, he publishes his findings, including a description of the person and a photo, on his three Facebook pages, hoping that a relative will see it.
“This is my human side, my other self, the person looking for missing people,” he says.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.