Salvadoran forensic criminologist Israel Ticas identifies victims buried in clandestine graves
By Dialogo January 18, 2014
Since 2000, forensic criminologist Israel Ticas has brought a measure of relief to the families of 725 victims of homicide in his native El Salvador.
Ticas works for the Attorney’ General’s office. Working closely with security forces, Ticas finds clandestine graves, exhumes bodies, and identifies the remains, which are often a collection of bones. He often uses DNA to identify the remains of bodies which have been buried for years. About 80 percent of the victims were women; many of them were victims of domestic violence.
Overall, about half of all the victims he has identified were killed by gang members, Ticas said. Many were killed by members of the two major gangs in the country, Mara Salvatrucha, which is also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.
The bodies of the 725 victims Ticas has identified were returned to their families. Many relatives of victims spent years wondering what happened to their loved ones. Ticas’ work allowed them to grieve their deaths, and to arrange for proper burials. Ticas is the only forensic criminologist working for the Attorney General’s office.
Many of the women victims were tortured before they were killed, indicating their attacker was fueled by rage, Ticas said
. Many of the female victims had been raped and had knives, bottles, poles, sticks and other objects forced into their bodies. One female victim had suffered 200 stab wounds Ticas said.
Many victims, both men and women, had been beheaded.
Wide recognition Ticas, who is known as “The Engineer” because he has a university degree in systems engineering, received international recognition in recent months thanks to a documentary film about his work.
The documentary, “The Engineer,” directed by Mathew Charles, was released throughout the world in 2013 by Guerrilla Films. The movie shows Ticas at work, going to dangerous regions, exhuming bodies, and carefully examining the remains.
Charles was not prepared for the gang culture of violence he saw in El Salvador.
“I was truly shocked by what we saw in El Salvador,” Charles said. “I was most struck by the apparent lack of respect for human life, even one's own life. So many children were simply prepared to die for their gang, for what they call 'the cause'. This was so upsetting - that they felt they had no other purpose other than to fight and ultimately to die.”
As upset as he was by gang violence, Charles was equally impressed by Ticas.
“Israel Ticas is an amazing person. He is a true hero for the hundreds of mothers and other relatives searching for their loved ones,” Charles said. “It was an honor and a privilege to meet someone like him and to be able to document his good work.”
A mission to help the families of homicide victims
For Ticas, finding and identifying the remains of homicide victims is not just a job – it’s a mission.
“It is an honor to serve my community through the Attorney General’s office,” he tweeted in October 2013. “I will always risk all, even my life, to complete my mission.”
For each body he examines, Ticas said, he hopes to find each of the 206 bones in the human body. He wears a Tyvek suit and rubber gloves as he examines remains at clandestine graves, often in remote areas. Sometimes, the light from his cellphone provides the only illumination. He found some bodies buried nearly 200 feet below ground level. He found other bodies dumped inside water wells.
An ‘outstanding’ criminologist
Ticas began his law enforcement career in 1989, when he began working for the National Police as a sketch artist. Ticas does exceptional work under difficult circumstances, said Chilean criminalist Rodolfo Sáez, founder of the Criminalistics Institute of Chile.
“Mr. Ticas’ work as forensic criminologist is outstanding, he uses the working system of archeology, in which all evidence which might be developed into evidence is carefully preserved and in turn reduces the chances of contamination at a crime scene,” Sáez said. “In this work he adds his professional engineering knowledge, obtaining incredible results in his works that allow us to speak of a unique art.”
Working to protect women
Security forces and groups which advocate for the rights of women are working cooperatively to protect women.
In 2011, 647 women were killed and 412 were reported missing, according to the National Police. Most of the female victims he has found were young, age 15 or even younger, Ticas said. “The degree of violence inflicted upon them is way higher than men,” Ticas said.
A public education campaign against violence against women has helped reduce the violence dramatically. The National Police and two women’s groups, Salvadoran Women Organization (ORMUSA) and the Institute of Women Studies (CEMUJER), are collaborating on the initiative.
In 2012, there were 320 killings of women in the country, authorities said. That number dropped to 210 killings in 2013
Ima Guirola, a founder of CEMUJER, holds Ticas in high regard.
“We have a great admiration for The Engineer,” Guirola said.
Treating the dead with dignity
Ticas takes great care with the remains he exhumes and examines. He even talks to the remains, providing words of comfort. Ticas believes the remains of the victims deserve dignity.
He has placed photos of hundreds of homicide victims on the walls of his office. Some of the photos depict people who were tortured and mutilated beyond recognition.
“Dead people do not scare me, they are my friends, they are part of my daily life,” Ticas said.
Though he is always professional, Ticas at times is overcome by emotion as he confronts the remains of victims of violence.
“On one occasion I broke down for several weeks when I found several young children decapitated.,” Ticas said.
In recent weeks, Ticas walked through a forest on a mountain for more than an hour, carrying the body of a young man who had been cut into seven pieces. Ticas placed the remains in a labeled plastic bag and carried the remains on his shoulders for six miles. He eventually identified the remains and provided them to the family of the victim.
“For me it was not sacrifice to bear the remains of this young man, I helped both to retrieve him and to bring him closer to his mother who will be able to give him a holy burial,” Ticas said.
Progress in fighting violence
El Salvador has a population of about 6.3 million people. The country recorded 69 killings per 100,000 residents in 2012, the second-highest per capita rate of killing in the world, according to published reports.
But thanks to the efforts of security forces, and a reported truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, the rate of violence decreased dramatically in recent years. Security officials estimate that as many as 20,000 gang members operate in El Salvador.
The number of killings in the country decreased by 41 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, according to the National Police.
THE SAME THING HAPPENED IN MY COUNTRY, PERU, MANY YEARS AGO. BUT THESE CRIMES WERE COMMITTED BY TERRORISM, PEOPLE WOULDN'T LEAVE THEIR HOUSES AFTER 18:00 HOURS, FEARING AN ATTACK IF THEY TOOK THE BUS. THERE WERE SO MANY DAILY CASUALTIES THAT IT WAS ON THE NEWS EVERY DAY, TO THE POINT WHERE IT BECAME NORMAL TO ALWAYS SEE DEAD PEOPLE, AND WHEN THERE WEREN'T ANY, THEY WEREN'T NEWS. BUT THANK GOD THIS IS ALMOST OVER. In terms of politicians and violence, El Salvador is getting worse everyday.
After the doubtful results of the recent elections, Salvador Sanchez Ceren came out as winner and he's a former guerrilla member, self-proclaimed assassin even of his own fellow fighters.
His predecessor and current president, due to his incapacity to contain crime, made a pact with the Gangs, granting privileges to each one of their incarcerated leaders, to the point of occasionally allowing them to get out.
Current president Funes forced his government to make a pact with the gangs, by allowing them to have municipalities or cities as sanctuaries, where they would not be persecuted in exchange for not committing crimes.
In view of the truce which is a political farce even to the public officials of Funes, the public crimes turned into disappearances. The gangs didn't stop killing. They changed their modus operandi to kidnapping, dismemberment and death, for which they also had to find rural areas where to bury their victims. Often, they are found in clandestine cemeteries in communal graves, where "The Engineer" has a lot of work, since ironically he is the "only one" that can do that job. What an ugly picture This gentleman is a hero, may God protect him forever. Violence has certainly reached alarming numbers in El Salvador. During the political campaign, the opposition accused the government of lack of transparency while handling the agreed truce between the largest gangs in the country. They are possibly right about that, but they cannot deny that the results were positive since death rates decreased from 14 to 8 daily victims during 2012 and part of 2013, which is something that the opposition never managed to achieve in their 20 years of ruling.
The work of Eng. Ticas as well as the guy in legal medicine is astonishing and, as the writer said, comforting for the families of the deceased victims. I HAVE GREAT ADMIRATION FOR ENGINEER TICAS. WE HAVE WORKED TOGETHER IN SOME CRIME SCENES AND THEIR KNOWLEDGE IS EXTENSIVE, I ESPECIALLY ADMIRE THEIR HUMILITY. Looking towards the future, two is more than one. A modernized team without sexual segregation paradigms would be honoring martyrs like my grandmother, my mother, my wife, my granddaughter and other anonymous ladies who will continue contributing.
A strategic, unconditional leadership means getting ahead of the future. There should have never been a hunger for bread, inequality among the residents of the Andes and the forest, and also welfare (as a way of life) that only reaches to the capital and its miserable surroundings, and in that terror watch civilians and soldiers coming from the deep Peru. All the governor's friends are full of with poorly distributed money (loot). Indeed it is happening as the commentator that preceded me said, but you need to notice that the moral and monetary exploitation has been legalized. One has to look at the protectionism of those who save, of those who contribute for retirement, and God save the poor guy with loans (banks with white money), the SBS insults the poor and even believes that everything is fine, but they market it wrongfully. Don't you think that this is related to the new and ferocious form of terror, extortion, hired assassinations, drug trafficking, government embezzlement, and the execution of projects at their minimum expression? It's better if people even don't think, just applaud. Let's see what happens within five years. Mr. Ticas is doing an excellent job. I like this report. I am yet another Salvadorian who left trying to escape the war in the 80's. I have a missing sister in my dear country. I live in Guatemala. Ricas is doing an excellent job. I had the opportunity to meet him and he's a kind and quiet person. I'm glad things are working out for him. Many blessings for my friend Ricas, may he keep going forward. Excellent work and very accurate for these times. May God continue providing them wisdom. This man is someone who deserves a lot of respect, because he looks out for the dignity of the human being even while dead, and kills the anguish of all those families that thought they'd never see their loved ones again. Even in heaven, he will be remembered by those souls that were one day forgotten. Excellent work, keep it up... Excellent His efforts are amazing. I give my respects to this Salvadorian brother who gives his all; providing comfort to the families of victims shows that fiscal medicine is still reliable, since some authorities do not comply with it, being human beings. This Mr. Tica is a Godsend. May he continue this way for the sake of many families who need his gift. Extraordinary, out of this world!!!! Excellent work of my Salvadorian countryman. He has done plenty in this area. Blessings to my Guatemalan brothers. I admire the work that Ticas has been doing. People like him are hard to find. Keep it up. It's very important to rely on this person, Mr. Iran, not only as a professional criminalist but as a human being. For the many times he had to identify a body and gave some peace to the families! This man is so admirable and he's so handsome I ask you, how many academic degrees do you have? It's clear you know a lot.
Congratulations A model of a man, that's all I have to say. I would like you to give me the name of the documentary that was made about his work.