Israel Tiscas is not a typical engineer. Instead of oil, it’s blood that stains his hands. He’s the Engineer of El Salvador, the country’s only forensic criminologist. His mission is to serve his people in uncovering the lost murder victims of gang violence. Directors Matthew Charles and Juan Passarelli follow Tiscas in this documentary film titled The Engineer (2013) as he travels across the country, following up numerous missing person reports.
The documentary exposes how in a diplomatic cover up the El Salvadoran government have managed to treat the symptom but not the cause of the violent gang culture which dominates the country. Thanks to a truce forged by the government between the two ruling gangs of El Salvador (MS-13 and 18 Street) the murder rate fell from 14 to five deaths a day. This statistic however, was not evidence of an improved situation. The number of missing persons in El Salvador has since spiked drastically. Instead of being left on the street for police to clean up, bodies are now being disposed of in secret, at the peril of grieving relatives.
We follow the trail of Tiscas as he follows up cases of missing people in known human dumping grounds across the country. Crumpled and decapitated bodies reveal themselves buried in patches of forest outside towns and at the bottom of disused wells. Expect graphic and uncensored access to decaying human remains in this morbid portrait of mortality.
The two reigning gangs MS-13 and 18 Street, driven by child recruits and a hierarchy of tattoos, are fighting over their barrios and kill for the most trivial reasons. We see Tiscas speaking to gang members in prison and informers at police stations who reveal where missing bodies are buried.
The camera captures Tiscas over a long day at work uncovering a body. Self taught in his trade, he is measured and deliberate, approaching the scene like an archaeologist. He forensically examines and records the circumstances of burial and death, in a hope that this information will be used to identify the bodies and in some way help to alleviate families from grief. Despite harrowing day to day discoveries, Tiscas discusses his work with humour and pragmatism. Like a scientist, he returns to his office where photographs of bodies and burials create a database of his work which he uses as a daily motivation.
To people across El Salvador, Tiscas is a symbol of hope. The documentary captures the heartbreaking stories of the living victims for whom The Engineer has an unbreakable patience. He untiringly consoles mothers who telephone him and travel to meet him, yet he also takes on a huge burden of great risk and stress himself. Driving through the El Salvador countryside, Tiscas discusses his future, “I can feel I won’t die a natural death” he says. Tiscas is in the public eye and an easy target, but he remains rational and calm about the future. He worries about his family, but continues to teach his son about his work, who will follow in his footsteps.
As well as an insight into gang culture in El Salvador, this documentary is firstly a tribute to an incredible individual, who is proving that one man can make a difference. The story is told from Tiscas’ perspective, with his sharpness and cavalier revealing the many sides of his character. Israel Tiscas is a criminologist, an archaeologist, a forensic scientist, a friend, a father and an engineer.
Directed by Matthew Charles and Juan Passarelli Released 2013 by Guerilla Pictures Spanish (subtitles) 93 minutes Premiered at Hotdocs festival in Toronto May 2014 Produced in partnership with and co-funded by Wikileaks