Costa Rica is known around the world for its rainforests, coffee and beaches. But despite Costa Rica's reputation for safety and its recent economic growth, criminals use its strategic location for smuggling activities.
A team of U.S. forensic science experts, led by two West Virginia University professors from Costa Rica, aim to fix that.
A new international and multidisciplinary partnership between the WVU Department of Forensic and Investigative Science and the Costa Rican government is working to build the country’s capacity for law enforcement, forensic laboratories and legal medicine – and lifting it up as a model for better criminal justice practices across Central America.
“We knew this was a natural partnership to pursue given WVU's expertise in forensic and investigative science," said Tatiana Trejos, an assistant professor of forensic and investigative science in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. "Our department is one of the most prestigious programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. The variety of backgrounds from our faculty is one of the notable elements that distinguish our academic program. In particular, our vast experience in chemistry, drug analysis, toxicology, trace evidence, firearms, fingerprints, DNA, crime scene investigation and quality control provided a competent team to lead this effort.”
The partnership is led by Trejos and Assistant Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science Luis Arroyo, who were both born and raised in Costa Rica.
“Having both grown up in Costa Rica, we have a particular interest in supporting its judicial system,” Trejos said. “We live in a small world. Before moving to the U.S., Luis provided technical support to the country’s Department of Forensic Science for forensic mass spectrometry applications, and I worked several years for the Judicial Investigation Department. We are very familiar with the operation, its professionalism and high-quality standards.”
Prevalent crimes like drug trafficking, human trafficking and money laundering are examples of problems that continue to affect the region and, indirectly, the U.S.
“The geographical location of Costa Rica provides a bridge between criminal networks located in South and North America,” Arroyo said. “In response to these challenges, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs developed a program to support the Central American region in reducing crime, and our project is one of those efforts funded by the U.S. Department of State.”
Over the next two years, the team from WVU will offer consulting and training to scientists, crime scene investigators and medical examiners in Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department. The team also includes forensic and investigative science faculty Casper Venter, Keith Morris, Tina Moroose and Roger Jefferys; students Jamie Spaulding, Veronica Franklin, Alexander San Nicolas and Zachary Andrews; and Chambers College of Business and Economics professor Paul Speaker. WVU’s faculty and students will have the opportunity to expand their knowledge and expertise as well as their professional network.
“The U.S. Department of State identified a need to strengthen Costa Rica’s criminal justice system by developing a quality control and competence culture across its Judicial Investigation Department,” Arroyo said. “While most of the department’s services are already accredited, the legal medicine and crime scene units are just initiating efforts.”
This project will support those efforts by providing advanced technical training to all units involved in crime scene investigation: evidence collection, examination and interpretation; the respective chain of custody for evidence; and expert testimony in courtrooms.
“The strengthening of the judicial and technical-scientific framework in Costa Rica will benefit its society, as well as neighboring countries and the U.S., in combating more effectively drug trafficking and criminal networks,” Arroyo said. “We are very honored and hope this project can provide a valuable model for other law enforcement agencies in central America as well as expand WVU’s international prominence.”