IntroductionIsrael Ticas races down the highway, drumming his hands onthe wheel of“The Beast,”a tall, boxy police service truck thathe aims at the small, bustling town of San Luis Talpa, abouttwenty-five miles south of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. Adecades-long veteran of the security forces, Ticas’s first job wasas an artist in the counter-terrorism unit, sketching suspectedguerillas during the country’s 1979–1992 civil war.“I was thelast person these guys would see before the person who killedthem,”he tells me, flatly. The experience left him equally as distrustfulof the right-wing generals he had served as of the guerillacommanders who would join them among the political eliteat war’s end. In most ways, the country has never quite recoveredsince. In 2015, homicides in El Salvador rivaled the mostviolent peak of the civil war, and it ranks consistently among theworld’s most violent nations. Before long, Ticas spots a bodyby the roadside.“It’s fresh,”he observes.“With clothes on.”Ithasn’t been stripped or dismembered. The victim, he says, waslikely shot at that spot during the night.8399_State of War_1P.indd 14 9/17/19 10:58 AMWILLIAM WHEELER COLUMBIA GLOBAL REPORTSTicas calls himself a“lawyer for the dead.”A self-taught15forensic criminologist, he locates and digs up the bodies of victimsof gang killings, and in so doing, he documents the crimesof the country’s notoriousmaras. On this hot March morningin 2018, his finger is wrapped thick with gauze—a few days earlier,he pricked it on a thorn covered in fluids from decomposingcadavers. His belt is adorned with a skull and crossbones pattern.As always, he carries a pistol in a handbag at his side.But we aren’t here for the body by the roadside. Instead,we stop outside a two-story concrete building where men inblue-and-white camouflage uniforms armed with assaultrifles are milling about. Our security detail piles into a ToyotaHilux, and we follow them zigzagging out of town and into thesurrounding sugarcane fields, the convoy kicking up a brightcloud of swirling dust. Our destination is a site that’s used bymembers of the local MS-13 clique to rape, torture, and executepeople. The victims include civilians, rivals from the Barrio18 gang, and their own members who break internal codes ofdiscipline. After a few minutes the convoy stops at a parchedbasin beside the fields, a spot where a river runs during thewetter months.As the river rises and falls in the jungle terrain, Ticasexplains, the land swells and crumbles. So the topography hasall changed since the site was in use, several years ago, and hisinformant has struggled to remember where all the bodies areburied. Still, Ticas has managed to find eleven of the twenty-oneremains his informant says are buried here. The attorney generalgave Ticas three months to work the location, and today isthe deadline. He thinks he can find one more before his time isup, and he’s brought the informant here to help.