The Engineer: “Cases worse than horror films”

October 29, 2013

By Caroline Schmitt

On Monday 28 October, the Frontline Club screened The Engineer, a documentary uncovering the extent of gang violence in El Salvador directed by Mathew Charles and Juan Passarelli. The Q&A that followed was chaired by Stephen Jukes, Dean of the Media School at Bournemouth University.

The Engineer portrays the work of Israel Ticas, the only criminologist in El Salvador who unearths mass graves in search of hundreds of missing humans – many teenagers among them – killed during the ongoing gang conflict. When the two biggest gangs MS-13 and 18 Street declared a truce in 2012, the murder rate fell but the number of disappearances has been rising since.

The Engineer2

After the screening, Charles and Passarelli provided the audience with personal background information on the total of three months they spent with Ticas, to get an insight into his day-to-day job. When Jukes asked what effect accompanying the engineer to underground sites and to film fragmented bodies had, Charles remembered:

“Once we shot the material we had to put it in a drawer for a while. When you’re there, you’re so focused on making sure you get the right shots but when you’re editing, that’s a different story. . . . I think in retrospect it affected us more than we thought.”

When a member of the audience asked about the role of the police in the conflict and whether they observed cases of corruption, Passarelli said:

“There are rumours that gang members infiltrate the police. . . . Indeed, many police officers didn’t care [about identifying victims]. Ticas does and in a way he’s the only hope for many families.”

The Engineer

A member of the public said she despised the portrayal of blood and violence. “Killing looks like something people become addicted to and that feels hopeless to me.”

Another guest added that even reconstructing scenes of crime is immoral: “I looked at the engineer and I thought he was a monster.”

Charles concluded the debate by referring to a personal strategy behind Ticas’ job:

“The engineer had an eccentric personality and a lot of it was show, but maybe that was his mechanism of coping with it.”

The future of the gang conflict is also set to be influenced by El Salvador’s presidential elections in February 2014. The current President Mauricio Funes (FMLN) is said to have facilitated the truce that has come under increased scrutiny as drug trafficking and other criminal activities continue.

A web version of the documentary with additional footage and information is available here and you can watch the trailer below: