Advancing Forensic Science in Latin America

The Grupo Cientifico Latino-Americano de Trabajo Sobre Identificación Humana or Latin American Scientific group on Human Identification Work began at ISHI 21 in 2010. It was formed to allow opinion leaders and forensic scientists from Latin America to exchange information, challenges and knowledge in their own languages: Spanish and Portuguese. This meeting connects the Latin American Forensic genetic community, consisting of over 20 countries. Those in attendance are analysts, lab directors and managers of different labs.

Each meeting is hosted by a different chairperson. Past chairs have included representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and more. This year’s workshop chairperson is Ronaldo Carneiro da Silva Junior, custodian of the Brazilian National DNA Database.

We caught up with Ronaldo for a preview of topics that will be highlighted this year at ISHI 31.



What is the state of DNA databases in the other countries of Latin America besides Brazil?

In 2019, the Iberoamerican Working Group on DNA Analysis (GITAD), of which I am a member, conducted a survey on the situation of DNA Databases in Latin America. Fifteen countries in the region participated.

This work revealed that at least 12 Latin American countries have some kind of DNA database. Among those who responded positively, 8 have databases for criminal purposes, 3 have civil databases and 11 have databases for searching for missing persons. It is common to have more than one type of database in the same country.

Regarding the regulation of these databases, the survey showed that 7 countries in the region have specific legislation regarding databases for criminal purposes, 3 have legislation for civil databases and 9 have specific legislation regarding databases for the purpose of searching for missing persons. However, we note that the laws regarding DNA databases in Latin America are relatively recent. The vast majority of countries that have a law or regulation have been it published in the last decade. Only two of them have laws prior to 2010.

In other words, DNA databases are tools under development in Latin America. Despite the great advances in recent years, there is still a large field of work ahead.

What level of sharing is possible between the various countries?

It is very important to highlight that each country is responsible for the security of the data contained in its DNA databases and for the appropriate use of this information. Based on this principle, no country can directly access the DNA databases of another country. The exchange of information is possible, but there are adequate tools for that. The level of information shared is defined by the country that owns the data.

One of the possibilities, widely used in Brazil, are the tools provided by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). All INTERPOL member countries can exchange information to assist in the investigation of international crimes, including information on genetic profiles. This can be done through INTERPOL’s international DNA database or specific forms that are sent to selected member countries. All Latin American countries are part of INTERPOL and, in principle, can use these tools.

There is also the possibility of international cooperation agreements. Such agreements can be bilateral or multilateral; can involve a lot of information or just a little; and use any type of tool to exchange information. It all depends on the terms defined by such documents. One of the most well-known agreements worldwide is the Prüm Convention, which was signed on 05/27/2005. It defines the exchange of genetic information between European signatory countries with a view to combating terrorism, cross-border crime and illegal immigration. In Latin America, this type of multilateral agreement involving genetic information does not exist. It would be interesting for the future.

Multiple parallel sequencing (MPS) has gotten a lot of press lately, but I wonder how many labs are using these techniques in the lab.

What are the obstacles for implementing MPS in labs throughout Latin America?

The cost of acquiring and maintaining MPS technology is still quite high for most Latin American public agencies. In addition, genetic profiling using capillary electrophoresis is a robust method and well implemented in forensic DNA laboratories, perfectly serving the vast majority of cases. I believe that nowadays the implementation of MPS in public forensic laboratories aiming at human identification is justified for complex cases, such as degraded samples, cases involving twin brothers, etc; but not for most of the routine cases where sequencing techniques are not necessary.

In Brazil we have two official laboratories that have MPS equipment. They use this technology for cases of difficult resolution, when traditional STR analysis techniques do not give good results. Some other Latin American countries have MPS implemented in governmental DNA laboratories, but they are still few.

On the other hand, in our region, MPS has been more widely used in research laboratories for various purposes, such as for population studies, for phenotyping and for the analysis of sexual markers. I believe that this research will subsidize much of the work in forensic genetics that will be done in the coming years in forensic laboratories.

What are the most promising advances in forensic science that you see ahead for Brazil/Latin America?

There is a great effort in the region for the implementation of quality management systems in the forensic area. Several Latin American laboratories are undergoing accreditation processes under ISO/IEC 17,025 and other quality standards. Such development brings benefits to the entire justice chain, improving the quality of scientific evidence and giving greater confidence in its use.

I also hope to see an advance in the laws of Latin American countries, which will allow for a wider use of forensic sciences as a whole.

And, of course, I expect to witness the growth of databases, not only of DNA but also of ballistic, biometric data, etc. This will allow, in addition to local development, the possibility of sharing information between countries in the region.

Latin America has a vast field for the forensic sciences, and I believe that we will observe a lot of development in the region in the coming years.

Learn more about the state of forensic science in Latin America by reading the full interview in the ISHI Report. Read how the Brazilian DNA database was formed, how common genetic genealogy and Rapid DNA are in Latin America and more.


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