The State of DNA Forensics in Latin America

In this interview, Ronaldo Carneiro de Silva Junior, Custodian of the National DNA Database of Brazil, discusses challenges the Latin American region faces around forensic DNA, projects they are currently working on, and how cooperation throughout the region has led to successes.





Laura: Hello, and welcome to the annual video series for the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we’re speaking with Ronaldo Carneiro de Silva Junior.


Ronaldo: Thank you for your invitation for this interview.


Laura: You’re welcome. We’re so happy to have you here. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?


Ronaldo: Ok, my name is Ronaldo and nowadays, I am in the Custodian of the National DNA Database of Brazil.


Laura: Wonderful. I always like to get a bit of a backstory. How did you come to this position?


Ronaldo: Yeah, I was a DNA analyst with the Federal Police since 2014. In fact, I have been with the Federal Police since 2009, and in 2014, I started to work in the DNA database lab. In that laboratory, I was an analyst and a quality manager. After, I was the head of the laboratory from 2016 to 2018 and was then invited to be part of the National DNA Database team. I’ve come to be the main custodian for a year now.


Laura: Ok, we’re excited to hear about that today. What is the state of forensics in Brazil today?


Ronaldo: Well, that’s a very interesting question. In Brazil we have an integrated network of DNA databases. This network was published in 2013 and the aim is to share and compare genetic profiles and analyses. Each laboratory from our huge country participates. We have 21 laboratories integrated into these networks and we have another 7 labs that are working to be integrated into this network as well. In our country, we work with a steering committee, so these integrated databases are organized by the steering committee. The committee is made up of five representatives from the Ministry of Justice, representatives of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, representatives from the states, federal districts, and federal office. So, it’s a huge team that specializes in the issues about DNA databases in our country. So, we work this way. We have a team to coordinate this kind of work in our country and differently, we have more or less 85,000 profiles in the National DNA Database.


Laura: So, what are some of the challenges associated with managing a database like that?


Ronaldo: We have a lot of challenges. I think that the biggest one is to maintain the functioning of the network, but I believe that the custodian of the National DNA Database has to know how to dialogue with different ranks, positions, and institutions, the whole project depends upon that. For instance, in the search for missing persons, we need to have open dialogue with different institutions and agencies. I think is a very important point.

In addition, it is expected that the Custodian must remain at the forefront of the technical knowledge of forensic genetics for several reasons. For example, as a reference for other experts in Brazil. Besides that, they need to communicate with technical personnel in different fields and institutions. I think that mainly for being the person responsible for conducting the work of elaborating the technical procedures that will be implemented in our county. In summary, I think they need to have the technical skills and knowledge that is essential to doing this work.


Laura: Wow, that’s quite a lot. It can’t be easy to keep up on the forensic genetics. It’s changing so quickly. Are there are few projects that you want to talk a little bit more about that you’re working on or are coming up?


Ronaldo: Yes, we have some projects underway right now here in Brazil. I think the first one that I would like to talk about is the project to collect conflict samples in Brazil. This project started in 2008, and we’ve already managed to collect more than 65,000 samples. It is already in the second phase and looks to become a permanent project in Brazil, since Brazilian legislatures have made it mandatory to collect samples of conflict offenders of violent crimes.

I think that another very important project revolves around sexual crimes, the Sexual Crimes Backlog Assessment Project. This was proposed by the steering committee between 2018-2019 and aims in protecting more than 150,000 biological samples that we have in our laboratories waiting to be analyzed. It’s a big challenge for us and we reach this objective.

We are also working in our working group about missing persons and using genetic profiles to identify them. There are more than 18,000 samples waiting to be analyzed in our labs. That’s another big challenge for us to analyze all of these samples, and we are hoping to continue in this work to analyze everything.

Last, but not least, we are developing a new system that will support the work of the forensic genetic laboratories in Brazil – SYNDNA, the degraded DNA system.


Laura: That’s wonderful. Do you want to talk more about SYNDNA and what that’s going to do?


Ronaldo: I’m very excited about that, because we are doing great work for the development of SYNDNA. In fact, the system has been proposed as the complete solution for the development of forensic genetics and databases in our country. It will be possible to obtain complete data information and reports of collections, biological samples, and analysis in forensic genetics in a practical way. SYNDNA will have an automatic integration with another system. This other system is also a tool developed by the Federal Police in Brazil, and is another proposed solution for the Brazilian DNA laboratories. We think that with these systems, all of the data from samples analyzed in the laboratories can be stored in SYNDNA. Such data includes the place where they were collected, the steps used in analysis, and the results of the data. So, we will have a faster response when a match occurs in the National DNA Database.


Laura: Those are some remarkable projects that you’re working on. Being in Latin America, what is the cooperation like between countries? How do you work together? What are some upcoming things you’re doing or challenges?


Ronaldo: I think there is great cooperation between Latin American countries, which is very important. Although each country has it’s particularities and differences, we also have many things in common that go beyond the language. We have similar difficulties, such as budget, infrastructure issues, international crimes, so in this context, collaboration between countries is extremely important. Some groups assist in this approach and collaboration. I think these working groups, such as ISFG, inspire discussions around important topics in the Latin American region. In addition, countries also have forms of collaboration whether through cooperation agreements or other tools. In Brazil, for example, we use INTERPOL’s international DNA database with genetic profiles with other countries, and this has already enabled us to solve international crimes, including crimes involving neighboring countries. So, this is an amazing tool for us, and I think that some countries in our region are already using that.


Laura: Wow, you’ve made so many advances. What are some of the most promising advances you think you’ve seen in Brazil or Latin America?


Ronaldo: Well, there is a great push in our region for the implementation of quality management systems in the forensic area. Several Latin American labs are undergoing implementation processes. Such development brings benefits to the entire justice chain. So, improving the quality of scientific evidence will give greater confidence to use it. I also hope to see an advance in the last Latin American countries which will open a wider use of forensic science. I, and other forensic scientists in our region, are doing a study on the legislation of DNA databases in Latin America. It is interesting to note that we are in a time of expansion, although the laws are still quite restrictive. We are in an interesting moment for Latin America. In summary, Latin America has a vast field for the forensic scientists and I really believe we will observe a lot of development in the region in the next few years.


Laura: Wow, we so appreciate you sharing all of this amazing information. I know you did so at ISHI as well. We just finished up our 31st conference last year, but our first virtual conference given the pandemic. How did find that experience? Did you enjoy it?


Ronaldo: It was amazing. I had amazing feedback from the speakers and the audience. I think that it’s a different way to learn and to share experiences. In this pandemic, and this time that we are living, I think that it was a great event. The quality of the talks that we saw was really awesome. So, I congratulate Promega and the ISHI team for putting on an event that was really wonderful. I hope that next year we have the opportunity to meet each other in person.


Laura: Absolutely, yes. I’d very much love to see you in Orlando. Thank you so much for doing this. We really appreciate it. I love hearing more about what’s going on in Brazil and Latin America. Is there anything else that we missed or that you’d like to share?


Ronaldo: No, I thank you so much for this opportunity for doing this interview. It was an amazing experience. Thank you!

Laura: Thank you! Have a wonderful day.