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BRAZIL: Rio de Janeiro Centralises Data to Identify Missing People

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - An average of 100 people go missing and between 40 and 50 unidentified bodies are found every month in this Brazilian city — mysteries that could be cleared up simply with the sharing of information across agencies, a task that judicial and forensic experts have begun to successfully implement.

“The principle underlying the system is that for each victim, for each body found, we have a missing persons register,” Rio de Janeiro state prosecutor Rogério Scantamburlo, coordinator of the new system, told IPS.

It was a much more complex task before the various agencies and institutions began to work together: the prosecutor’s office, hospitals, forensic experts, and the hundreds of police stations where people are reported missing.

Public prosecutor Pedro Borges said the solution was based on a new concept of public security in Brazil.

This new model brings together “technology, as the element that allows the information to be located or relocated; coordination among the agencies that produce that information — which mainly comes from police records; and the dissemination of that information, in order to put it at the disposal of everyone who needs it,” Borges said, describing the “programme of victim identification” (PIV).

The PIV, which was established by the Rio de Janeiro state public prosecutor’s office, identified 33 bodies in the space of a month.

Although there is still a long way to go — 4,195 people have been reported missing in this city alone in the last 10 years — the creators of the new system believe the optimisation of resources will allow cases to be cleared up with growing ease and speed.

“This is a new approach to the relationship between the disappearance of people and crimes,” Borges said. “It is also a new way of handling the information we already have and analysing it in a smarter context, which allows us to extract more knowledge from the data.

“The management of this information and data had never been approached in a modern, professional way,” he added.

The goal is to clear up, by mid-2011, more than 90 percent of the cases of people who have gone missing over the last 20 years.

Scantamburlo said that of the 100 cases of missing people reported monthly by the homicide division of the civil police in the city of Rio de Janeiro, between 40 and 50 percent involve murder victims.

The rest involve what he called “social” cases, which are not in the hands of the new system.

He was referring, for example, to people who leave their homes, to children or adolescents who run away, many of whom end up on the streets, or to elderly or mentally ill people who get lost.

That is not the case of Alex, whose mother Claudia da Silva has been looking for him since he was kidnapped from their doorstep three years ago, when he was 15 years old.

Two military police were arrested in connection with the case, but were released due to lack of evidence. Claudia said an “X9” — slang for “snitch” — allegedly told the police that her son had stolen a police car. The informer’s motivation was apparently that Alex “was horning in on his girlfriend,” she said.

Claudia lives constantly with the question of what happened to her son. And she hasn’t entirely given up hope that he will walk through the door one day.

“I haven’t had any news about him yet,” she told IPS with tears running down her face. She has given a DNA sample at the civil police institute of forensic genetic investigation, and says she has hopes in the new programme.

The institute, headed by Rodrigo Grazinoli, is one of the agencies operating under the PIV umbrella.

“Our laboratory specifically compares the DNA samples of family members and missing people, who often end up here as mortal remains,” Grazinoli explained to IPS. “We are the scientific-technical arm of the project.”

The laboratory has the latest technology to study DNA samples, which makes it possible to obtain results even in difficult cases.

For example, drug mafias often attempt to eliminate any trace of their victims by incinerating their bodies in a kind of improvised grave made out of car tires, known as the “microwave.”

Thanks to the PIV, Grazinoli said, “they are able to bring to the laboratory people with a greater probability of actually being relatives of the missing people, thus reducing our universe of investigation.”

The centralised, shared data now shows where the person went missing, the kind of crime they may have been a victim of, in what area the body might be found, and what identifying marks could be found on the corpse.

These are all apparently obvious questions, but prior to the creation of the PIV, no one had managed to bring all of the information together in the same place.

“We did not merely create a central register of missing people,” Scantamburlo said. “We have established a computerised, intelligent system that allows all of the data — a birthmark, scar, tattoo or simply description of a shoe — to be crosschecked and compared with a body that turned up.”

The experts say the new system did not involve major additional costs because it used existing staff and resources.

“The big difference was that all of the procedures carried out by the different agencies involved were brought together in an intelligent system, cutting out red tape and creating short-cuts in the channels of communication,” Scantamburlo added.

For example, messages can now be shared by intranet, and the information currently sitting in dusty files can be computerised and made easily accessible.

Scantamburlo said the PIV emerged in response to the large proportion of homicide victims who are never — or are not “satisfactorily” — identified.

In the 15,000 cases of homicide pending clarification in the state, only 10 to 15 percent of the victims have been identified.

“That means that many of the investigations that we had here were shelved, because the basic task — the identification of the murder victim — was never carried out. And if we didn’t have the identity of the victim, it became virtually impossible to identify the killer,” he said.

But in the view of the experts, who want to “export” the programme to other Brazilian states, the main objective is not only to reduce the number of unsolved crimes and combat impunity.

“Identifying the person who committed a crime is very important — it is an obligation of the prosecutor’s office — but identifying a missing person, giving the family answers, the peace of knowing where their loved one is — I consider that equally important,” he said.

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