There are bodies down there. Not prosecutors, not gang members, not journalists, not policemen, not even the government doubts that in this exact spot, deep below ground level, there are bodies. And now that everybody knows, the question remains: What do we do? This is the story of a well—and of the country that surrounds it.
At the bottom of the well there are bodies. Maybe 10, maybe 12, maybe as many as 20. Definitely there are at least four. Entering into the small city of Turín in western El Salvador, if you continue on the dirt road, cross the train tracks, pass by the mud house, and keep going through the cornfield, you’ll come to the well. At the bottom of the well, there are bodies.
A man straps himself into a harness. He anchors a rope to a tree, hangs an oxygen tank on his back, and takes up his flashlight. Then he drops down into the well. Darkness envelops him. He descends. Ten meters. Twenty meters. Thirty. The well is deeper than he thought. He figured it would be about 30 meters deep, about the depth of another well in the area he dove into a few months back. Forty meters. Fifty. Fifty-five, and then the man touches water at the bottom. He turns on his light. He sees socks, clothes, junk, a collection of bones, feet, toes. He gives the signal to come back up. The well is too old and seems too fragile to do any straight-down pick-and-shovel excavating. But it’s clear now: There are bodies in the bottom of the well.
The man’s name is Israel Ticas, and he’s the only working forensic investigator in the entire country, as well as the only person to descend into the well. There is nobody else but him in the entire country working to dig up graves, uncover bodies, and send the evidence to the courts.
In November 2010, testimonies from two gang members came together to tell a single story about the well. One of the members was from the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha clique. The other was from the Parvis Locos Salvatrucha. They were both part of the Mara Salvatrucha in the state of Ahuachapán. Both of the men turned against their own gangs. Neither of them have ever been to the United States, which means they wouldn’t know where to find Hollywood Boulevard or Park View Street (bordering Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park), which gave the cliques their names. Both of the young men are from outside of Turín, from the hills, the countryside. Both of their testimonies coincided exactly: Turning off the highway into Turín, following the dirt road, crossing over the train tracks, passing by the mud shack, and then turning left on the next dirt path you come to, which is just wide enough for a car, and driving on past the cornfield, there you will see a field open up before you, where there is a jocote tree, a rudimentary sink, and a well. At the bottom of this well, there are bodies.