While by size and population Colombia is small in comparison to the U.S., it is one of the most violent countries in the world. Recently, Colombia has been successful in reducing the crime rate. How has this occurred now? Significant change can occur when divergent forces come together.

Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the Occidental world. While small by size and population in comparison to the United States (U.S.), the Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations (1998-2000) lists 4.55 homicides per 100,000 persons in the U.S.; while in Colombia, the same metric is 58.69, more than ten times the U.S. numbers. The cause of most of these deaths is the on-going violence stemming from drug trafficking and five decades of civil war. Narcoterrorism, involving a host of combatants: the leftist rebels, government troops, right-wing paramilitary fighters, common criminals, and drug-traffickers, has been going on for nearly fifty years and flares up acutely at various times.

The conflict has an alarming number of human rights violations. Where large swaths of the country are under the control of leftist guerrillas, military personal, police, mayors, candidates, and judges are threatened, kidnapped, and killed. The deplorable phenomenon of “social cleansing” involves the murder of street children, beggars, and other targeted groups by armed gangs. Frequent armed robberies and kidnappings make wealthy residents extremely security conscious citizens who can have fled the country.

Most of the deaths are civilians. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young men in Colombian cities. Thousands of these bodies, killed throughout this half century of violence, have not yet been recovered, identified, and returned to their families.

Recently Colombia has been successful in reducing this murder rate. Why and how has this occurred? Significant change can take place when divergent forces come together. This is particularly true in Colombia, which has made great strides since 2000, lowering the homicide rate by 40%, kidnappings by 83%, and terrorist attacks by 76% by 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Three specific initiatives have synergistically impacted this improvement:

  • the implementation of a new judicial system
  • internal political change with community support
  • U.S. forensic science training and assistance to Colombia’s national lab system

witness testimony training

30,000 have confessed their crimes and surrendered their weapons because of amnesty

mass graves

Historically, the Colombian judicial system has been inquisitorial (as are many Latin American and European countries), but recently, the new adversarial system (similar to the U.S.) was adopted in four phases. In the past, the court was not a passive recipient of information. Proactively involved in determining the facts of a case, the presiding judge steered the search for evidence and questioned the witnesses, including the respondent or defendant, as part of the “Judges of Instruction” system of justice. Then, in 1992, Colombia changed their code and implemented a “mixed” system. In the “mixed” system, the prosecutor steered the investigation and determined what was evidence. The adversarial system began on January 1, 2005. In the adversarial system, the defense and the prosecution square off against each other, distinct from that of the decision maker, the judge. The court is expected to be objective and free from bias, rather than leading the inquiry.

Now evidence and expert witness testimony play key roles, with the courts serving as impartial referee. The system considers an investigative and trial stage, where emphasis is made onthe use of evidence: in the first stage, Colombian judicial officials present evidence, and in the second stage, additional evidence can be collected by the defense through the order of a judge, the highest judicial authority in court. Both the prosecutionand the defense can use evidence equally: the governmental attorney presents evidence, and the defense, in representation of their client, can refute this with additional evidence, if necessary.The huge drops in crime statistics are also due in part to the quicker adjudication of crimes through the adversarial system, down from an average of 3 years to 90 days.

Alvaro Uribe Velez was elected as Colombia’s President in 2002, continuing the changes initiated by President Andrés Pastrana Arango in 1998. President Uribe is a tough leader whose political life has been dominated by his desire to rid Colombia of the rebels who killed his father 25 years ago. He was re-elected in May 2006 with 62% of the vote (the first President to be consecutively re-elected in Colombia in more than a hundred years). This gave him another four-year term to continue his approach: tackling Colombia’s armed groups and drug-traffickers. His approval ratings have been above 70% for much of the time, indicating that most Colombians support his tactics.

As a key part of his plan, President Uribe has negotiated the Justice and Peace law with the AUCUnited Self Defense Forces of ColombiaAutodefensas Unidas de Colombia, one of the far-right paramilitary groups; with over 30,000 coming forward to confess their crimes as part of the peace deal with the government. In addition to surrendering their weapons, they are providing information on the locations around the country of mass grave sites of victims of paramilitary and rebel death squads. Some progress has also taken place toward a negotiated settlement with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN)Ejército de Liberación Nacional.

Colombia’s chief federal prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, estimates that 10,000 murdered Colombians are buried in unmarked graves across the country. Identification of thousands of victims’ remains and return to their families for closure, as well as collection of evidence for use in the adversarial judicial system is a priority.

crime scen investigation training in Colombia

Enter ICITAP. The International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), which provides technical assistance and training in many countries around the world in the field of forensics sciences, began in Latin America. Created in 1986, within the Department of Justice and funded by the U.S. State Department, to build capacity to prosecute key human rights cases in El Salvador and to enhance the criminal investigative capacity of police forces in Latin America, ICITAP continued through the 1990s, delivering training in every country in Central America, more than half of the countries in South America, and nearly all of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Colombia's national lab system
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Now helping countries around the world, ICITAP’s Forensic Services program supports:

  • training and mentoring of forensic laboratory managers
  • improvements in the quality of forensic services available to the criminal justice community through equipment donations and technical assistance
  • the development of management systems to help laboratories attain International Organization for Standardization accreditation
  • the implementation of quality assurance programs
  • the development of policies and procedures, and technical and training manuals

ICITAP has been working with the Colombian government since 1991 in forensics and law enforcement. Beginning in 2002, ICITAP greatly expanded its law enforcement assistance to Colombia through the U.S. Government’s Plan Colombia, a human rights development initiative funded by Congress.

The agency has had a major impact on enhancing the forensic capabilities of Colombia’s law enforcement agencies by:

  • upgrading their lab systems
  • training scientists and prosecutors in providing the expert witness testimony and presenting demonstrative evidence as part of the adversarial justice system
  • conducting forensic anthropology “dig schools” for investigators, prosecutors, and forensic professionals

The “dig schools” program is increasing the ability of Colombia’s crime scene investigators to properly process and recover evidence (including human remains) from those crime scenes—that will assist the Colombians in prosecuting those responsible for the mass murders. Before ICITAP’s instruction, the bodies were not routinely processed to international standards with regard to the collection, documentation, and examination of human remains.

Colombia enacted a new criminal penal code in 2005 with the transition of the adversarial system. To assist in the transition, ICITAP delivered training courses that taught investigators, police officers, and forensic examiners how to serve as competent witnesses, particularly how to introduce testimony and physical evidence at trial. To enhance its basic training program, ICITAP rolled out its first demonstrative evidence course in 2008 to teach prosecutors and witnesses to convey complex scientific findings through the use of graphicsand other visual aids.

Of the four program elements ICITAP is focusing on in Colombiajustice system development; sexual assault investigations; crime scene analysis and processing; and identification of victims and recovery of evidence from mass gravesit is this last initiative that reinforces the need for a specialized facility: the Human Remains Identification Center.

Human remains are mapped before removal from mass grave

Forensic scientists compare dental records to make identifications

Plan Colombia’s 2008 appropriations specifically identify $3,000,000 for investigations of mass graves and identification of remains. The concept of a national laboratory for human remains came jointly from the collaboration of Colombian and U.S. forensic personnel. ICITAP’s Chief Forensic Services Section, Daniel Garner, contacted Crime Lab Design for design assistance with this specialized forensic facility. ICITAP wanted to further assist the Colombians with a state-of-the-art prototype. With no need to replicate the units already set up in the four national labs, the concept behind the Human Remains Identification Center focuses on processing remains for two goals: to identify the human remains and collect evidence for prosecution.

With years of experience leading up to this point, ICITAP staff had a good idea of the components required for this facility to meet the two goals. Incorporating areas for body intake (brought by truck from around the country), pathology, photography, evidence collection, trace, x-ray, forensic anthropology and odontology, and DNA collection, along with field and lab support, shipping (specimens to the other national labs for processing) and storage, administrative, training,and public spaces were outlined.

In addition to forensic scientists, their techs, administration and building support staff, intelligence analysts, and investigatorswill occupy offices in this facility. Victims’ families will also cometo the facility once identifications are made.

While a specific location had not yet been determined for the Human Remains Identification Center, it is anticipated to be in the Bogotá area to start. Rather than anticipating growth in this facility, satellite expansion may happen in other locations as grave sites are identified throughout the country.

Confiscated buildings and sites are being considered for the location of this center. Part of the design team’s charge was to identify a gross area so the authorities can identify appropriate sites for further evaluation.

To transform the extensive amount of information ICITAP collected over the years into prototype lab plans for the Human Remains Identification Center, we used a methodology, a rational process that began when we translated the program numbers into bubble diagrams. Then we translated the bubble diagrams into actual prototype lab plans. These plans can beused to select the site and estimate cost.

The program contains diagrams, conversations, and past experience with spaces and size requirements for similar U.S. facilities into specific spaces. These are quantified and have net and gross areas, number of anticipated occupants, and storage requirements. This approach determines the total size for the facility, based on a desired one-story approach. This helps the Colombians consider various locations and existing facilities.

A graphic format of the program in bubble or flow diagrams shows issues of entry, flow, adjacencies of spaces and process, chain of evidence, security, and engineered systems, along with public and private circulation.

Utilizing the program and diagrams, we develop a conceptual floor plan to scale that shows the size and relationship between the spaces in an architectural drawing. The easy-to-read, color coded floor plan identifies lab, lab support, office, office support, infrastructure, and circulation. The floor plan becomes a tool to discuss layout, functionality, protocols, and staffing with the Colombians.

Along with the floor plan, the Basis of Design (BOD) further defines the project. The BOD outlines the level of quality for architectural and engineering systems, materials, and equipment within the building in terms of function, safety, reliability, flexibility, ease of maintenance, and value.

forensic facility design diagram
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The Human Remains Identification Center will have separate flows of human remains, from administrative staff and public access. The public will enter through the lobby and staff will have a separate entrance from the employees’ parking. There will be a separate entrance with a truck dock for delivery of dismembered bodies in body bags. The number of bodies delivered depends on the size of the grave uncovered. Recently, more than 100 bodies were exhumed in one day from one site.

The bodies will be unloaded in the body intake room, with dry and refrigerated storage available. Since the bodies are dismembered, several can be stored on a gurney-sized shelf. Overflow needs were taken into consideration with additional storage in the body intake room. A decomposed tissue/drying room with autoclave will be included for remains other than skeletal and for potential contaminated remains (BSL-3). This space will have its own entry and will also be accessible from the accessioning area.

The accessioning/inventory area will have trace evidence and digital photography. Dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE), staff members will open the body bags, inventory clothing, jewelry, and any other items found with the body, digitally photograph the remains, and bar code the information. If tissue remains are found, they will be collected and sent to the national labs for DNA and serology analysis. Dry specimens will then be distributed to different units for analysis, including the pathology lab, digital x-ray lab for bones and teeth, forensic anthropology, forensic odontology lab for X-ray review. Additionally, some dry specimens may be sent to exam and dissection, others to the DNA sample collection.

To support all of the units, the following areas will be included in the Human Remains Identification Center: reagent prep, QA lab, lab supply and storage, shipping area, and walk in refrigeration. An area to clean and store field equipment will be accessible from the outside. For long term dry bone storage, femur-size bone boxes will be utilized; currently the Colombians anticipate long term storage for approximately 1,000 bodies per year. The Human Remains Identification Center will accommodate storage for three years on site.

The office area for administrative staff will include space for intelligence analysts, investigative officers, technical and forensic staff, training classroom, computer server room, officesupply storage, break room, building support, lockers, and conference rooms, while the site will accommodate parking for employees and visitors.

Crime lab floor plan
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This unique facility, designed for a tight urban location is planned as a one-story building with two wings. The facility is supported with covered exterior access to form an integrated complex providing accessioning, analysis, and storage related to forensic and evidentiary services within laboratory, administrative, training, and support spaces. It is approximately 44,887 gsf/4,170 gsm, which includes a rooftop mechanical penthouse.

Once the location is selected, the prototype can be revised to more closely reflect the actual site conditions. This may require a multi-story building plan. This document will help the Colombian government select their site and secure financial resources needed to make the Human Remains IdentificationCenter a reality.

The Human Remains Identification Center is a fundamental component to the ongoing struggle against narcoterrorism. Continuous Colombian legal and political changes will allow forensic science to give families of the victims and the entire country of Colombia closure to this bloody chapter of history by evidence collection, human remains identification from mass graves and prosecution of the responsible parties. The Human Remains Identification Center will assist Colombia in bringing security and justice to its citizens and accelerating economic growth and prosperity in their rapidly changing environment.

Laurie Sperling, M.Arch, CPSM, is a Principal with Crime Lab Design. Gabriela Kleiman, LEED AP, is an Associate and Forensic Laboratory Planner with Crime Lab Design. Contact Laurie at and Gabriela at Crime Lab Design provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities worldwide.