Israel Ticas is El Salvador’s only criminologist. His job is to find and unearth the hundreds of missing people who have been murdered and dumped in the hills and countryside of one of the world’s most dangerous countries. His forensic skills and background in systems engineering have earned him the nickname, The Engineer.
Most of the bodies Ticas finds are under 18 – victims of the brutal gang war, which has engulfed the country. But the two biggest gangs (MS-13 and 18 Street) declared a controversial truce in 2012. The murder rate fell dramatically as a result, from 14 to 5 each day. The politicians have hailed this as a victory, yet as we discover from The Engineer, this is not the whole picture. More than a year on from the peace deal, the murder rate and number of people reported missing are on the rise once more.
The Engineer is devoted to his work, which he says, is more of a hobby. In an under-developed country with scarce resources, he is often the only source of help for the hundreds of mothers searching for their missing children. His colleagues say they want to clone him. The gangs want to kill him. Spain and Canada have offered him asylum. The threat to The Engineer’s life, and to his family, is real, yet he says he will never leave.
The majority of gang members in El Salvador are male and are aged between 12 and 25 years old. Gang leaders will recruit new members in school courtyards. They often intimidate children into joining up, threatening to kill them or their families if they refuse.
Once a member, children are then exploited as hit men by the gangs. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, it is simply easier for them to kill. They are more agile and victims are unsuspecting of children who might approach them. Secondly, children receive lenient sentences. They are often released after only several years, meaning they can still be of use to the gang when they are out.
Guerrilla Pictures was granted rare access to a juvenile detention centre holding MS-13 members. Their crimes involve extortion, kidnap and murder. Their identities are hidden to protect them from retaliation.
Juan is 14. He committed his first murder when he was just 9. He says he had no choice. He had to kill, or be killed. He murdered more than 20 people, though he has only been charged with 1. This is common practice in El Salvador. There are inadequate resources to carry out proper investigations. He faces 7 years in prison.
Jose is 16. He is serving time for rape and murder. He joined a gang when his parents left him and went to work illegally in the US. This is a common story among gang members. They are often abandoned by their families, whose only support becomes the regular money transfers from America.
The two main gangs in El Salvador are MS-13 and 18 Street. They are embroiled in a bitter and violent turf war, which is being fuelled by the country’s long-lasting legacy of violence and poverty.
El Salvador continues to recover from a brutal civil war, which tore the Central American nation apart between 1979 and 1992. The lack of security, the lack of education, few employment opportunities and unplanned urban growth—which have created an environment of marginalisation and exclusion—are often blamed for fuelling the country’s gang problem. A lack of investment and the absence of effective social cohesion policies have left generations of Salvadoran youths feeling disempowered and rejected.
But the socio-economic aspect of El Salvador’s gang conflict is only one aspect and can be no excuse for the increasingly violent nature of what is a bitter and heinous rivalry between MS-13 and 18 Street. The gangs, or the maras, as they are called in Spanish, are barbaric. They are often willing to kill for the most trivial of reasons.
Gang members call themselves soldiers. They say they’re engaged in a battle with “the system,” as well as their rivals. Their aim is to defend and provide for their barrio, or neighbourhood. One member of 18 Street told Guerrilla Pictures that he’s fighting for “the cause.”
These families resettled in the United States, in cities like Los Angeles, where youth gangs were already an established feature of urban life. As newcomers in ethnically divided urban areas, many displaced Salvadoran youths sought to integrate into existing gangs or form their own gangs for self-protection. These were 18 Street (Mara 18) which was composed mainly of Mexican-American youths and named after 18th Street in Los Angeles, and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a gang formed by Salvadoran youths.
The rapid growth in the power and prevalence of Salvadoran street gangs came in the 1990s and resulted in part from major shifts in American immigration laws. In the 1970s and 1980s many Salvadoran families fled the country’s
During the same period, gangs were also forming in El Salvador, but they were smaller and more fragmented. It was only after the deportation of gang members from the US back to El Salvador in the late 1990s that gangs became bigger, more organised and more active.
Another member of 18 Street, who had been detained during a police raid in San Salvador, explained to Guerrilla Pictures how he had been deported from the US. He also highlighted the more ruthless nature of gangs in El Salvador. “Over here, there’s no rules,” he said.
The Salvadoran government has always struggled to deal with the gang issue. It has been unable or unwilling to allocate enough resources to tackle the social roots of the conflict. So-called ‘firm hand’ policies, or mano duro policies, have, since 2003, backfired and resulted in more widespread violence. Security officials underestimated the strength, power and hierarchy of the gangs as they fought back and reorganised to avoid arrest.
Gangs finance themselves through huge extortion rackets. They blackmail local businesses, from delivery companies to bus companies, and will kill if money is refused. Often this money is used to buy food for those in need in their communities.
The gangs are well organised and have a clear leadership structure. The national leaders are in prison, but this does not mean they are out of action. Corruption is widespread in El Salvador, which enables those locked-up to continue to issue orders from inside their cells.
Locally, the gangs are divided into clikas. Each clika will have a lieutenant whose numerous responsibilities include recruiting new members. These are often found in schools. Children can find it difficult to refuse a gang, once they have been chosen to join up. Both boys and girls, sometimes as young as 9-years-old, are forced to kill a member of the rival gang as part of an initiation. If they refuse or fail, they will almost certainly be killed.
Each clika will have a ‘destroyer house’ (a casa destroyer) that they use as a base. This is usually an abandoned, secluded building somewhere in their neighbourhood. Here the clika will socialise and smoke marijuana (they can only drink at the explicit orders of their leader). But, it is in these places they also kill and rape, often torturing their victims for several hours.
There are many abandoned houses in the barrios of El Salvador. Families often decide to leave everything behind and seek new lives elsewhere because of the violence.
El Salvador is Central America’s smallest and most densely populated country. It is also no stranger to violence with its troubled history of conflict. The civil war between 1979 and 1992 tore the Central American nation apart. Left-wing guerrilla groups rose up against the US-backed military government and 75,000 people were killed in the bloodshed that ensued. Tens of thousands were displaced and thousands also disappeared, including many children. The military swept through rural guerrilla strongholds, torturing and executing whole communities.
The legacy of the scorched earth policy is still felt today. Society in El Salvador is fragmented and traumatised. Major differences between town and countryside reveal a country of two worlds – those who have, and those who do not. The gap between rich and poor – one of the main reasons behind the leftist uprising in 1979 – has barely shrunk. The economic marginalisation and social exclusion of rural areas is a lasting feature of years of violence and under-investment. 43% live below the poverty line in El Salvador.
Many Salvadorans fled to the United States during the civil war, and though some of them have since returned, there are an estimated 1.5 million in the USA, with 25,000 continuing to leave El Salvador for the dangerous trip north each year. Those who manage to cross the border without being killed or caught will work illegally and wire large amounts of their salaries to their relatives back home. For many Salvadoran families, these monthly deposits are the only way to survive.
But poverty is not the only legacy of years of brutal conflict. On-going violence continues to ravage both urban and rural communities. The civil war may have ended in the early 90s, but another battle is engulfing the streets of El Salvador. Now, the country is embroiled in a savage gang turf war. It is a conflict, which, between 2004 and 2011, made this the most violent country in the world. Up until 2012, El Salvador had the highest murder rate on the planet.
The main gangs are MS-13 and 18 Street. Together, they lie at the root of all violent crime in the country, including murder, kidnap, rape and extortion. But since March 2012, the gangs have agreed to a truce, and though murders continue, this peace deal has, on the surface, ended what was one of the most barbaric periods of this gang warfare.
As the government pursued a tougher crackdown on the gangs from 2003, the gangs fought back with increased violence as they sought to assert themselves and demonstrate their strength. The conflict spilled over out of the slums and an increased number of innocent people were caught up in it. Young girls were gang raped and mutilated. Entire families were massacred. The countryside became littered with corpses once more as gangs dug clandestine cemeteries and dumped their growing number of victims. These mass shallow graves have become the final resting place for hundreds who have been consigned to the long list of the disappeared, and many may never be found.
In fact, critics of the 2012 truce suggest that the killing has not stopped at all. They point to an apparent rise in missing people, and claim that gangs are simply ‘disappearing’ their victims in an attempt to keep the body count low. But there is no centralised system for collecting data on missing people in El Salvador, which makes these claims difficult to both prove and counter.
The conflict between MS-13 and 18 Street,and between both gangs and the police, is bitter. An increase in the murder rate in the first two months of 2013 illustrates the volatility of this truce, and whilst the whole nation longs for an end to gang violence, many question if this peace process is even real.
As part of the truce deal, gangs also pledged to halt recruitment in schools, and created so-called peace zones. But many have their doubts about the sincerity of the truce.
One police officer from the Anti-Gang Squad in Apopa, north of San Salvador, told Guerrilla Pictures that whilst initially the number of murders was reduced significantly in his jurisdiction, the number of people reported missing increased. This, in his opinion, proves that there has been no real change in what the gangs are up to. He describes the truce as a “smokescreen.”
In the first two months of 2013, 150 people disappeared. This is 99 more than during the same period for 2012. Furthermore, police statistics show there has been an 81% increase in the number of bodies found hidden in shallow graves.
19-year-old Mateo is a member of 18 Street. He is currently in the witness protection programme helping police with their investigations after being arrested. Gang members can often have charges against them dropped in return for information. Mateo has admitted to ignoring the truce. He says the murders continue and that the bodies are being dumped in secret mass graves.
Mateo says gang members on the streets are ignoring the orders from their leaders in prison. He told Guerrilla Pictures that the truce has only brought benefits for those at the top of the gang hierarchy.
“Gang leaders have been allowed new mobile ‘phones and conjugal visits, while their families have been given new cars,” he claims. “But on the streets, nothing has changed.”
Mateo also blames some of the recent murders on the gang leaders themselves. He says they’re ordering hits on their own foot soldiers to ensure orders are followed and the truce is obeyed.
The head of the country’s National Assembly Security Committee, Ernesto Angulo, agrees. He has accused the gangs of hiding bodies to artificially keep the murder rate down and lend credibility to the truce.
In the first two months of 2013, 150 people disappeared. This is 99 more than during the same period for 2012. Furthermore, police statistics show there has been an 81% increase in the number of bodies found hidden in shallow graves.
Clandestine cemeteries first came to light in 2004 when it emerged that gangs were burying their victims in secret locations. Usually these are secluded, disused wells, deep in the countryside, surrounded by trees and vegetation. The Engineer fears there could be thousands of these graves – some still active, others simply hidden. “There are secret mass graves that may never be discovered,” he explains.
The truce remains extremely unpopular with the Salvadoran people. According to consecutive opinion polls, up to 70% say they have no faith in the process. The two negotiators, who actually visited the gang leaderships in prison and facilitated the talks, were military chaplain, Bishop Fabio Colindres and former leftist-guerrilla and Deputy in the National Assembly, Raul Mijango. They have appealed to the public to be patient, but this is increasingly difficult to accept when the violence appears to be on the rise once more.
Ilopango is on the outskirts of San Salvador. It was the first of several so-called peace zones to be established as part of the truce because it has been one of the most violent areas of the country. Across El Salvador, local authorities are being offered $72 million to establish these zones. In Ilopango, officials have organised a weapons amnesty, gangs have halted their extortion rackets and gang members have been employed to carry out work in the community. But, with a spate of murders in recent months, this is a town on tenterhooks.
The truce was supposed to be a secret until it was leaked by the Salvadoran news organisation, El Faro, in March 2012. The government denied any part in it for six months, perhaps wanting to see how it turned out before taking any claim of responsibility. It is only recently that the Ministry of Security and Justice has admitted to being behind the strategy, saying it was acting under the explicit authorisation of President Mauricio Funes.
There has undoubtedly been a distinct lack of transparency surrounding the peace process. The exact terms remain unclear. As part of the deal, gang leaders from both sides were transferred from maximum security jails to more open prisons. It is also understood that gang leaders are demanding a repeal of the 2003 Anti-Gang law, which makes it illegal to belong to a gang and gives the police supplementary powers to deal with gang violence. On top of that, the gangs have demanded a withdrawal of the army from the streets, and the pull-out of police patrols from gang dominated communities. It is not known, however, how far the government has been willing to concede.
The fact that both MS-13 and 18 Street have stopped short of agreeing to disband is leading to a growing sense of distrust and unease with many Salvadoran people. Some politicians and analysts believe the gangs are using this opportunity simply to reorganise and expand their control and influence. The gangs, on the other hand, say they are committed to peace and are calling for more help to reintegrate them into society.
Thousands went missing during El Salvador’s bloody civil war, including hundreds of children. The government has done little to reunite families with their loved ones, despite an international ruling obliging them to do so.
Today, the country is also struggling to deal with hundreds of fresh disappearances – victims of the country’s gang conflict. Exact numbers are hard to come by in El Salvador. In fact, reliable information is virtually non-existent because there is no central database. The statistics that do exist reveal discrepancies, mismanagement, incompetence and cover-up among the two institutions charged with collating the data – the police and the Forensic Medicine Service (the Instituto de Medicina Legal).
Since the truce came into effect, the number of disappearances has been used as a way of measuring the peace process. In short, the fewer missing people, the more effective the truce. There has therefore been increased scrutiny of these figures. As a result, both the police and Forensic Medicine have been under increased political pressure to get the numbers right. But this scrutiny has revealed flaws.
The registration of disappearances has been patchy at best, incompetent and careless at worst. In 2011, the police had 1,267 missing people on file whilst Forensic Medicine listed 2,007 cases in the region of San Salvador alone. But in recent months, both institutions have been forced to admit mistakes in the way they collect and manage data.
Forensic Medicine has been forced to admit that its statistics do not paint an accurate picture. They have no central database and collect numbers from regional offices, which often include large numbers of duplications. If a family chooses to report their relative missing in more than one region, it has often been counted as multiple cases, for example.
The police, too, have admitted that when people are eventually found, either dead or alive, they are not always removed from the relevant lists.
But that is no longer the case. Since the beginning of 2012, both the police and Forensic Medicine say their statistics are reliable because the data is now properly managed. Yet the discrepancies continue, according to the reputable news site, El Faro. For 2012, the police say there were 612 cases; Forensic Medicine say 640. But how do they compare to 2011? If the truce is to be believed, the number of disappeared in 2012 would be significantly lower than in 2011. The police and the government say this is the case. However, they are comparing the corrected and ‘cleaned-up’ data of 2012, with the incorrect and erroneous numbers from 2011.
Officials are therefore falsely using these figures to indicate a reduction in the numbers of disappeared. This, in turn, lends more credibility to the truce. But they are not comparing like for like, and so far the police have refused to release ‘cleaned-up’ figures for 2011, which would obviously provide a more detailed picture. The suspicion arises that this is because the figures do not show the reduction that officials are so keen to promote.
There is also cause for concern when looking at the most recent data for 2013. Figures from January and February this year reveal that 99 more people have been reported missing than in the same period last year. One senior police officer says the figures will never tell the truth. Wanting to maintain anonymity for fear of his job, he told Guerrilla Pictures that the numbers are constantly massaged.
The police officer also claimed that sometimes when a body is found, it might be removed from the missing persons list, but it is not always added to the murder figures. This is another blatant attempt to hide the truth.
The Engineer, Israel Ticas, anecdotally reveals that he has recovered more than 655 bodies since 2005 from over a hundred locations. But even his numbers are not official. He relies on notes and dates scribbled in his diary and notebook. This is something he openly acknowledges and says they cannot be attributed to the Attorney General’s Office, for which he works.
The Engineer points to the human aspect of all of this. He is very open about his country’s failures when it comes to the disappeared and he is keen to stress that this is not just about the way data is collected, but also about the process of dealing with a body, once it has been found.
Due to the lack of a centralised and national database, Israel Ticas resorts to social media to communicate with families of the missing. When he finds a body, if there is no sign of a relative, he will publicise details of clothing or the type of jewellery worn. But success is limited. Internet access in El Salvador remains scarce.
Relatives searching for their loved ones are forced to visit the various regional forensic medicine centres dotted around the country. At Forensic Medicine in Santa Tecla, Guerrilla Pictures saw how missing persons reports were kept on loose pieces of paper, placed in a folder and kept in a filing cabinet. The report does require details of distinguishing marks and the clothes the person was wearing at the time of disappearance, but the bodies that are discovered are often so dismembered that they become hard to identify. Even if the body does have identifiable characteristics, it is up to the doctor concerned to remember details from the hundreds of reports filed away in the cabinet.
For many families of the missing, it becomes too difficult to constantly travel around the country in the hope their loved one may have been found. Teresa Carballo lost her grandson in 2010. She made several visits to the mortuary in her search for him.
The Forensic Medicine Service only keeps bodies for a week, before they are offered a rather undignified burial in a public cemetery. Unidentified bodies are given a simple number. There is no effort to find their families. Indeed many relatives go on searching for their loved ones, not realising they have been found and have been buried.
Number 11 was found in a shallow grave in Santa Cruz Porrillio in San Vicente. The Engineer says that Number 11’s relatives may never know what actually happened to him.
Catalina’s 15 year old son went out to sell bread. He wanted to earn money so he could buy his mum a new bed. He never made it home. He was killed by MS-13 for working in their patch
Manuel sells fruit in the streets of San Salvador. He has lost two brothers to the country’s gang conflict. One has been missing for 2 years, the other was stabbed and shot by 18 Street.
Manuel Hernandez is from Aguilares, a few miles north of the capital. He works as a fruit-seller on the streets of San Salvador, where he earns around $5 a day. His older brother has been missing for 2 years, presumably another victim of the gang war. His younger brother worked with him until he was brutally murdered. 16-year-old Jose Manuel Danilo was shot and stabbed for refusing to join a gang. He had been beaten up the first time he refused, when he was just 15. As a result, he moved away to try and make a life for himself and escape the clutches of 18 Street. But they eventually caught up with him.
For many families like Manuel’s, every day is about survival. The biggest concern is having enough money to put food on the table. Funerals are therefore a huge expense. Manuel relied on contributions from his friends and neighbours to pay the $350 for his brother’s service.
It is in these poor communities that gangs exert their biggest influence. With no help on offer from the state, the gangs can provide a structure, a sense of belonging. For many youths, gangs are the only alternative to a lifetime of unemployment and abject poverty.
Manuel’s mother is in prison for being involved in an illegal immigration racket. Jose Manuel Danilo is her second son to fall victim to El Salvador’s gang conflict. She was given special permission to attend his funeral.
A few weeks after the funeral of his brother, life returns to some form of normality for Manuel. He is back at work selling fruit on the streets of San Salvador. But his brother is never far from his thoughts and Manuel is nervous. He fears his brother’s killers could come after him too.
Teresa spent two years looking for her grandson. He went to a party one day and never came back. His body was eventually found in a septic tank. He had been murdered by MS-13. Now, she worries for her other grandchildren.
Teresa Carballo’s grandson, Eddy Antony, went missing in Santa Ana in August 2010. He had been invited to a party. He left one Saturday morning and never came back. Teresa spent almost 2 years searching for him. She would visit the mortuaries and hassle the authorities. She would follow the Engineer, hoping that Eddy Antony’s body might be found at one of the excavation sites. Eventually, he was found in a septic tank. He had been mutilated with a machete.
Teresa takes care of her grandchildren. Their mother works illegally in the US. She could not even return for Eddy Antony’s funeral. Teresa worries for the other children. She fears they will be recruited into the gangs at school. Most of the money sent by her daughter is spent on paying for the school bus that takes her grandchildren from door-to-door. Teresa dare not let them walk alone.
This website accompanies a feature-length documentary, The Engineer.
The directors are Mathew Charles and Juan Passarelli
The digital producer is Ann Luce | The web designer is Rob Munday
Additional composition by Simon Loveridge
Additional design support by Liangying Wang, Ana Alania and Ani Passarelli