Advancing Forensic Science in Latin America

Establishing the Brazilian National Database and More

Interview written and condensed by Carol Bingham, Promega

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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.

In your current position you are the custodian of the Brazilian National DNA Database.

What were the challenges in setting up the database?

The implementation of DNA databases in Brazil has a long history. It all started in the early 2000s, when the use of genetics in solving criminal cases began in our country, gaining the attention of society. At that time there were still few forensic genetics laboratories in Brazil, six to be exact. Since DNA analysis is comparative, and the DNA databases did not exist at that time, these laboratories used to analyze only warm cases. They also did not exchange genetic profiles with each other, which did not allow for the clarification of interstate crimes. It was a very limited performance of this technology for a country as large as Brazil.

In 2002, a proposal was included in the 2002 National Public Security Plan, which approved implanting DNA databases for criminal purposes in Brazil for the first time. Since then, investments have started on three main fronts: training of experts in forensic genetics, laboratory infrastructure and legislation.

In 2007, the 1st Meeting of the National Network of Forensic Genetics was held in Brasília/DF. This group was the precursor of what we now know as the Integrated Network of DNA Databases (RIBPG). It included academics and forensic experts, whose objective was to promote the discussion of the use of DNA tests in public security and the importance of DNA databases for comparing the profiles produced by laboratories.

In 2009, Brazil accepted the use of the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) DNA database technology offered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation - FBI. Through a Letter of Agreement between the FBI and the Federal Police, the use of CODIS by RIBPG was allowed. Installation and training were carried out in 2010.

Due to the lack of specific legislation, at first, only profiles related to missing persons and criminal evidences were uploaded to Brazilian databases. The entry of reference profiles (suspects and convicted offenders) was only possible with the enactment of Law 12,654/2012. The Integrated Network of DNA Databases and the National DNA Database were formally created in 2013, with the publication of Decree 7,950.

Nowadays, the National DNA Database receives genetic profiles produced by laboratories that are located in 18 states, the Federal District and the Federal Police. Another 8 states are in the integration process and in a short time they will also be sharing their profiles, connecting the entire national territory through DNA databases.

What has the database accomplished?

Despite being a recent database (it was formalized in 2013), it has already reached some important achievements. Currently, Brazil is the country with the largest network of DNA databases using CODIS outside the USA.

In addition, after conducting joint efforts to collect DNA from convicted offenders in Brazilian prisons (work carried out since 2018) the number of reference samples increased by 2,675% and the number of matches increased by 277%. The results of this project have recently been published in an important international journal (Forensic Science International: Genetics Supplement Series, Volume 7, Issue 1, 575 - 577).

Among the most recent accomplishments, an important Brazilian case whose elucidation was made possible by the DNA databases was awarded in 2019 with the third place in the international program DNA Hit of the Year. This global program, which aims to demonstrate the value of DNA databases to solve and prevent crimes, is considered the most important international recognition in this area. This achievement made Brazilian experts very enthusiastic and proud of the work that is being done.

Are there unique attributes to this database compared to databases in other countries?

The National DNA Database has been growing exponentially and, along with this growth, there has also been a significant increase in the number of matches. Although it is an excellent sign of increasing the efficiency of the database, it poses new challenges. One is how to monitor and organize coincidences so that they become an effective tool for the promotion of justice and public security. This becomes even more challenging in such a large country.

In our case, the solution was found through the integration of the matches from BNPG with Inteligeo - a geolocation system developed by the Federal Police.

The possibilities of this integration are many, considering that Inteligeo allows connection with external data sources, supports complex geospatial searches and allows the generation of dynamic maps. It can be used to instantly assess the general status of the database and view the correlations of each match as it occurs.

At this point, a new tool called DNA Integrated System (SInDNA) is being developed to automate the geolocation of evidences and its relationships. It will allow evidence data to be previously recorded and geolocated so that when a match occurs, crime scenes can be geographically linked almost automatically.

The first data from this work were recently published in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics Supplement Series, Volume 7, Issue 1, 549 - 551.

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.

A speaker presenting at the GCLAITH Meeting at the 30th International Symposium on Human Identification

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.

When do you realistically think these techniques will be widely in use?

I believe that in this decade we will see the growth in the use of MPS technology in forensic laboratories. Everything will depend on the new applications that are emerging and the cost of implementing this technology.

Interesting applications have been developed and they have potential for immediate use. The sequencing of animal and plant samples has great potential to assist, for example, in investigations of animal trafficking, food counterfeiting and drug trafficking (geographical origin of seized marijuana, for example).

The prediction of physical characteristics in humans, on the other hand, is an area with great potential for application in criminal investigations. But they often come up against legal impediments. As it is still very new, there is no legal provision in Latin American countries for the use of technology for this purpose, which can be a problem aiming at its implementation. I hope that as technology advances, legislation will also make progress and the use of MPS will be expanded.

What will be the first new technologies that you expect to see in use?

I have seen a huge increase in the demand for DNA testing in forensic laboratories across the region. As forensic genetics becomes more widespread and the results are recognized by public security and judiciary agents, the request for DNA analysis in official laboratories increases. The complexity of the samples has also increased.

In this context, I see a great need for the acquisition of more efficient and sensitive automation equipment and kits.

Large automated platforms have been the acquiring trend of laboratories today. In Brazil, for example, since 2018 platforms have been acquired for all official forensic genetics laboratories. Some of the few automated platforms specially developed for the differential extraction of sexual crime samples in the world are set up in our country. This is a breakthrough in a place where sex crimes have such alarming numbers

The demand for direct amplification kits has also been a trend, considering several projects involving the collection of reference samples, either for criminal cases or for missing person cases.

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.

Genetic genealogy is being used to solve cold cases in the United States. One high profile example is the Golden State Killer case.

Is genetic genealogy being widely used in Brazil and other Latin American countries?

Are consumer databases very popular in Latin America?

Definitely, forensic genealogy is a field in wide expansion, and it is already considered a new branch of forensic sciences. If added to the tools for predicting physical characteristics (phenotyping) and databases, the capacity of forensic investigators to solve crimes further expands. In the USA, not only the Golden State Killer case, but also the “Lisa Jenson case” and “Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg's case” were concluded from the forensic genealogy. It excited the whole society by the potential of the tool we have today in our hands.

However, this area of knowledge is very recent and there are still discussions on ethical and legal issues regarding the use of data contained in these databases.

In Latin America, until now, no case has been reported in which forensic genealogy has helped to solve a crime. This is also due to the fact that ancestry tests are not as common in our region as they are in the USA, for example. For this reason, consumer databases are still not very popular in Latin America.

But this does not mean that Latin American forensic experts are not following up on cases and studying the implementation of this science in their countries. In the past few years some American companies have started to launch their tests in Latin American countries. Recently some private laboratories have started to carry out ancestry analyses. So, this is a subject that deserves to be followed very closely.

Are labs in Latin America using Rapid DNA?

When do you think it will be widely adopted and what obstacles must be overcome to bring Rapid DNA to more agencies?

Yes, there are already some countries in Latin America using Rapid DNA technology. These countries use it against illegal immigration, in addition to cases of mass disasters and even as a method of analyzing samples of convicted offenders in prisons. Of course, these are very specific cases, usually when you need quick answers or if you don't have a laboratory nearby for analysis.

Some obstacles to the expansion of the use of this technology in Latin America are the high cost and the carrying out only a few analyzes at a time. In addition, there are also important legal issues to be overcome for the use of Rapid DNA in Latin American countries. For example, in the USA, the use of this technology has expanded because some police stations can analyze the DNA of arrested people. The profiles are uploaded to DNA databases to find out in if such an individual is related to a crime. The entire process is done in a few hours with Rapid DNA technology. USA’s legal system allows this, but the laws of Latin American countries are silent on this procedure.

What are the biggest issues facing forensic laboratories in Latin America?

In an area in which knowledge and technology are advancing very quickly, a major challenge is to keep the structure of the laboratories and the laboratory staff always up to date.

Undoubtedly, overcoming the economic difficulties that countries in the region sometimes face is a big issue for the development of forensic laboratories. Some countries are able to move forward through specific agreements and projects for the forensic sciences.

Finally, another important issue is the progress in legislation. It is not enough to have material and human resources if local laws do not advance with science. Forensic experts need to have their work supported by rules that establish the possibilities and limits of their activity. This brings security to everyone within a judicial process.

You are organizing the GCLAITH meeting this September for ISHI 31.

Why should people register to attend this meeting? How can they apply to give a talk or find out more about the meeting?

I encourage all Latin American ISHI participants, as well as other attendees interested in research developed in Latin America, to participate in the GCLAITH meeting. This year's theme is “New frontiers of knowledge: building the forensic genetics of the next decade”. We intend to debate several current issues that will guide the development of forensic genetics in the coming years.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is July 5. All abstracts will be evaluated, and a selection will be done to set up the event's agenda. Abstracts that are not selected for the oral presentation at the GCLAITH meeting will be invited to the ISHI poster exhibition. So, it's a great opportunity for scientific dissemination!

Abstracts can be sent directly to

People who just want to attend the GCLAITH Meeting are also welcome. To do so, simply register for the event on ISHI website. The meeting will be conducted entirely in Spanish.

Latin America is rich in culture and history, but it is also a science hub in the world. We want to explore the development of forensic sciences in the region at this meeting!

Animo a todos los participantes latinoamericanos de ISHI, así como a otros asistentes interesados en la investigación desarrollada en América Latina, a participar en la reunión de GCLAITH. El tema de este año es " Nuevas fronteras del conocimiento: construyendo la genética forense de la próxima década". Queremos debatir varios temas actuales que guiarán el desarrollo de la genética forense en los próximos años.

La fecha límite para la presentación de resúmenes es el 5 de julio. Todos los resúmenes serán evaluados y se realizará una selección para establecer la agenda del evento. Los resúmenes que no se seleccionen para la presentación oral en la reunión de GCLAITH serán invitados a la sesión de presentación de pósters científicos de ISHI. ¡Entonces es una gran oportunidad para la difusión científica!

Los resúmenes se pueden enviar directamente a

Las personas que desean solamente asistir a la reunión de GCLAITH también son bienvenidas. Para hacerlo, simplemente regístrese para el evento en el sitio web de ISHI. La reunión será conducida íntegramente en español.América Latina es rica en cultura e historia, pero también es un centro científico en el mundo. ¡Queremos explorar el desarrollo de las ciencias forenses en la región en esta reunión!