(IPS) – Spatula in hand, forensic scientist Israel Ticas carefully excavates a decomposed human foot protruding from a shallow grave in rough terrain in the mountains of Las Crucitas, close to Ciudad Arce in the west-central Salvadoran province of La Libertad.
Other body parts, already identified by the expert, give him some idea of what kind of person lies buried here in bushy thickets between plots of farmland planted with coffee and beans.
The body is that of a young man under 20, who at the moment of death was decapitated and dismembered: his head, feet and arms were severed from his trunk.
These are probably the remains of a person reported missing to the authorities in mid-October, who lived in the El Bosque shanty town in Ciudad Arce. Although the investigation has just begun, everything points to one of El Salvador’s notorious "maras" or youth gangs.
The main gangs in El Salvador are Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 (18th Street Gang), and they are sworn enemies. Drug mafias, maras and death squads are all waging undercover wars in this country of 5.7 million people.
"This young man was murdered about a month ago. There’s probably another body, about 15 metres away, because we have found more bones there," Ticas tells IPS.
Ticas, a forensic expert for the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República or FGR), is in charge of finding and unearthing remains in clandestine burial grounds, an activity that triggers flashbacks to the 1980-1992 civil war.
Some 75,000 people were killed in the armed conflict, most of them by paramilitary death squads and the army, which was fighting the then guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which is now the governing party.
FGR statistics indicate that between January and September this year, 80 bodies have been found spread around the country in 18 clandestine cemeteries and two wells, a method of disappearance used during the armed conflict by the fearsome death squads and army units who executed alleged left-wingers, although they also frequently left the bodies of their victims in public view by the roadsides.
Now clandestine burials are re-emerging in peacetime.
"Criminals try to evade justice for the crimes they commit, and the easiest way is to get rid of the body. Without a body, we can’t pin the murder on anyone," an FGR prosecutor who did not give his name told IPS.
The murder rate in El Salvador, at 52 per 100,000 population, is one of the highest in the world, and the new leftist FMLN government is under pressure to take vigorous action against the crime wave and produce results, in spite of only having taken office on Jun. 1.
An Oct. 22 study by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) says that more than half the people interviewed are afraid of becoming a prey to violence. Another 16 percent say they have been the victim of crime of some sort in the last 12 months, one percentage point higher than was found in a similar poll in 2006.
National Civil Police (PNC) records show that 80 percent of murders are committed with firearms, in a country where half a million weapons are unregistered and are freely traded on the black market.
The spate of homicides and other crimes over the last several years is reminiscent of situations that have not been seen since the days of the internal armed conflict.
As well as clandestine burial grounds and "pozos macabros" (grisly wells) as the local press calls them, the practice of forced disappearance, so common during the years of political violence, has reappeared.
The Truth Commission that was set up in El Salvador after the end of the civil war reported that some 8,000 people were forcibly disappeared for political reasons. It was a method commonly used by government forces at that time, copied from the dictatorships that held sway in the southern cone of South America in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now the motives are no longer political, but the result of the whirlwind of violent crime sweeping the country. The PNC reports that between January 2007 and June 2009, 1,272 people have been disappeared.
Some television newscasts give out information about missing persons, such as telephone numbers relatives of the disappeared can call to get clues to where they can be found. They are usually found dead.
The local daily El Diario de Hoy reported Oct. 12 the cases of three disappeared teenagers, among them 17-year-old Kevin Antonio Rivera. His father told the newspaper that his son was intercepted by a group of gang members on Aug. 14 in San Martín, 18 kilometres east of San Salvador, and has not been seen since.
Many Salvadorans are even calling for the return of curfews, normally only imposed by military regimes to control the movements of the population.
On Oct. 15, supposed gang members sent email messages to several media outlets warning that they would step up criminal actions against the population in response to a plan – not yet implemented – by the government of President Mauricio Funes to send military troops on to the streets to reinforce public security.
That day, many businesses in the Salvadoran capital closed their doors early, and some schools in the provinces where the crime wave is worst, such as in Lourdes, in La Libertad, closed completely, turning their students away.
"The people of this country suffered during the civil war and now, in peacetime, we are again seeing kidnapping, extortion, executions, disappearances, fear, and calls for curfews," Miguel Montenegro, head of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES) which played a major role in denouncing detentions and forced disappearances during the armed conflict, told IPS.
"The question is, why, so many years after the end of the war in 1992, are situations that were common during the conflict happening again?" he asked.
Montenegro says the high levels of crime in El Salvador are a direct consequence of the apathy and wrong-headed strategies with which the rightwing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), in power for the past 20 years, tackled the issue. ARENA lost the presidential elections in March and was replaced by the first left-wing government in the country’s history.
The neoliberal free-market policies espoused by ARENA made the rich wealthier, but further impoverished the rest of the population, and young people found themselves without any opportunities or prospects to better themselves and escape the vicious circle of violence, Montenegro says.