Building a Quality Culture at the Mexican Forensic System

Forensic training image courtesy of USDOJ/ICITAP

 

Crime rates and violence in Mexico are topics that demand the attention of both domestic and international communities on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. The U.S.-funded Merida Initiative, beginning in fiscal year 2008, created a mutually beneficial, bilateral partnership between Mexico and the United States. The objective of the initiative includes countering drug trafficking and organized crime, the institutionalization of human rights and rule of law reforms in Mexico, as well as strengthening a modern international border between both nations.1 The initiative is key to addressing the issues resulting from the transnational nature of modern crime and is perceived as essential to the security of both nations.

On June 18, 2008, Mexico’s National Gazette published the constitutional amendment decree, mandating a transition to a new national criminal justice system.2 This amendment signaled the change from a federal system and 32 individual state justice systems, which were semi-inquisitorial in nature, to a national adversarial, oral system. This was viewed as a comprehensive and profound reform, creating a national law enforcement and justice system to be fully implemented country-wide by June 2016. In the law enforcement arena, the most important reforms concern the National Public Safety System. In addition to human rights, the reform regulates the recruitment, selection, training, and retention of law enforcement personnel by setting minimum training and quality requirement standards. Competencies are now being established, which require the professionalization of prosecutors, police officers, and forensic examiners.

All photos courtesy of USDOJ/ICITAP
All photos courtesy of USDOJ/ICITAP

This mandated reform underlines the relevance of reliable forensic lab results in support of investigations, reconstructions, and reporting of facts within a legal process, as well as evidence collection, submission, examination, and admission at trial. In this context, forensic labs must prove their individual reliability and technical competence, and forensic experts must provide credible, factual expert testimony based on unbiased scientific analyses, reproducible in any other laboratory around the world.

Prior to June 2016, field investigators and technicians who collected and processed evidence at the crime scene and forensic laboratory experts responsible for processing and analyzing such evidence at forensic specialty laboratories were not subject to direct or cross-examination in a court of law. Currently, the new legal reforms bring investigators and forensic experts into the court, where they are confronted with the evidence that has been collected, processed, and analyzed. Not only are they required to testify in an ethical manner, but their suitability as witnesses, the scientific validity of their methods, the level of standards that govern laboratory practices, and the reproducibility of their results are all brought into question. In this manner, it is expected that the judge will consider all evidence presented and objectively render the appropriate verdict. This process is expected to create and foster confidence in the new system not only with the public, but also with the judges, attorneys, experts, investigators, and police who administer it.

img_6219 from USDOJ - ICITAPThe leaders and scientists within the various forensic laboratories of Mexico now face the challenge of creating a strong culture of quality in response to the pressure generated by the new paradigm of the adversarial system. Attitudes and practices on multiple levels must be changed to make financial and human resources available in order to update equipment, infrastructure, and methods and practices, as well as preparation for the oral presentation of scientific analyses during testimony, with the long-term goal of decreasing impunity, even as national and international crimes have increased. This change process requires a special buy-in by Mexican agencies, since it implies a radical change in the way problems are perceived, defined, and solved. The current Mexican system is based on the delivery of results, whereas the new culture of quality is concerned not only with the results themselves, but also with the quality, validity, and credibility of the processes that were followed to achieve the results.

To this end, technical assistance and specialized training is being provided through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). This partnership between Mexico and the United States aims to develop and augment the capabilities of Mexican forensic technicians and laboratories and centers for forensic pathology throughout Mexico. In addition, the partnership seeks to guide federal and state laboratories in utilization of modern forensic equipment through validated procedures aligned with internationally recognized best practices, technical training, and the mentoring necessary for the attainment of accreditation in line with the recommendations for forensic science from the American National Academy of Science.

img_6492 from USDOJ - ICITAP

Globally, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is responsible for setting standards that provide specifications for products, services, and systems to ensure the quality, safety, and efficiency of offered products. Two specific international standards have been applied in forensics: ISO/IEC 17025:2005—General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories and ISO/IEC 17020:2012—Conformity Assessment: Requirements for the Operation of Various Types of Bodies Performing Inspection.3 The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) supplements the ISO standards with forensic-specific guidelines in ILAC G19:2014–Modules in a Forensic Science Process.4

The purpose of adopting these standards is the implementation of a quality management system that is necessary to monitor adherence to policies and to provide systematic feedback in a continuous improvement model. Continuous improvement is achieved through the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle where procedures and policies are developed and implemented, adherence is monitored, and management reviews are conducted to identify ways to improve performance.

Conformance to the standards and policies is evaluated not only through internal audits, but also through inspections by a recognized accrediting body. The accreditation status communicates the assurance that the laboratory complies with the standards for competence, impartiality, and skill. There are a number of accreditation bodies around the world; in Mexico, the ICITAP forensic assistance program works jointly with federal and state laboratories for accreditation by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB), which is a widely recognized, nongovernmental organization providing accreditation services to public and private sector organizations.

img_0245 from USDOJ - ICITAPThe ICITAP forensic assistance program, funded by INL, started operating in 2010 with two federal agencies whereby the Federal Police forensic DNA lab obtained its accreditation in 2012 through the Mexican Accreditation Entity (EMA). Between 2015 and 2016, international accreditations for the DNA, Chemistry, Questioned Documents, and Firearms Laboratories from the Office of the Attorney General (PGR) were obtained through the ANAB. State-level collaboration began in 2013, and, to date, ANAB’s international accreditation was accomplished by the Crime Scene Processing units in the states of Querétaro in 2015 and Puebla in 2016.

During 2015, extensive visits were conducted at all 290 federal and state forensic services laboratories. Through a mutual decision between the government of Mexico, ICITAP, and INL, the forensic assistance program has focused on advancing accreditation efforts for seven forensic specialties: genetics, chemistry, questioned documents, firearms, fingerprints, forensic medicine, and crime scene processing. U.S. and Mexican forensic advisors and specialists in the aforementioned seven forensic disciplines are jointly working with prioritized laboratories through the forensic program to assist in building a culture of quality in accordance with existing accreditation requirements. Each advisor is a facilitator, providing the on-site technical training, assistance, and mentoring, as well as providing guidance for the development of procedures, protocols, and manuals. The advisors, together with the laboratory staff, work through a checklist of requirements needed for the adoption of ISO standards in preparation for the accreditation visits by ANAB assessors. Training and mentoring is aimed at supplementing the knowledge and experience of laboratory personnel and the standardization of procedures, ensuring the integrity of all evidentiary materials in an investigation and producing reliable results.

ca941a61-0959-4d4c-a377-670349e0c2ecICITAP and INL, assisting the government of Mexico, share a common goal of providing assistance to Mexican laboratories in reaching full accreditation in the identified disciplines over the coming years. Working through memoranda of performance and transference (MPT) with each state, INL and ICITAP, together with the government of Mexico, have prioritized laboratories according to facilities, equipment, infrastructure, and training needs, as well as other factors. Each MPT establishes not only the assistance each state is to receive, but the conditions and a timeline for the transference of budgetary responsibilities to local government for continued support of the forensic laboratories within the state.

To date, ongoing training and mentoring efforts exist within the following 16 states and Mexico City:

  • Aguascalientes
  • Baja California
  • Baja California Sur
  • Campeche
  • Chiapas
  • Chihuahua
  • State of Mexico
  • Guanajuato
  • Jalisco
  • Morelos
  • Nuevo León
  • Puebla
  • Querétaro
  • Sinaloa
  • Tabasco
  • Yucatán

Thus far, the transition process has required joint efforts by all parties involved. The government of Mexico has spent considerable effort in developing specific documentation guidelines in order to appropriately describe and document activities performed by forensic scientists and technicians within their assigned duties and analyses. Through ICITAP, Mexican and U.S. advisors continue to advise and mentor federal and state laboratories in the development and implementation of their own quality management systems.

img_6080 from USDOJ - ICITAPThe strategy that has been adopted for the forensic assistance program in creating and implementing an ISO quality management system begins by conducting an initial assessment in order to develop an individualized action plan according to the current status of laboratories in individual Mexican states.

Each action plan includes elements of the following 10 activities:

  1. Definition of the scope of the accreditation
  2. Development of a quality manual and outlining procedures (administrative and technical) to meet the scope (by incorporating ISO 17025, ISO 17020, and ILAC G19 guidelines)
  3. Validation of the desired analytical or examination methods
  4. Implementation of the designed management system (a three-month time frame is needed for the implemented system to generate documentary evidence)
  5. Application of an external competency test through the validated analytical methods in at least one subcategory for each category in the accreditation scope (proficiency testing by ISO/IEC 17043 vendors)
  6. Application of a thorough internal audit by in-house auditors who have been trained in ANAB’s criteria
  7. Corrections and adjustments to international standards according to deficiencies identified in the internal audit findings
  8. Application of a management review for the entire quality management system and preparation of a four-year proficiency testing plan
  9. Submission of audit request to ANAB
  10. Post-audit adjustments as per requirements made by the ANAB auditors

Each laboratory works at a different pace, determined by the scientific discipline (chemistry, genetics, etc.); training required; and staffing, as well as the level of preparedness at the beginning of the process. Advisors and staff set the priorities for each consultation visit beforehand and plan the activities in order to maximize each visit according to the specific objectives identified in the action plan previously developed, systematically moving through the list until each activity has been completed. Currently, four states (Aguascalientes, Baja California, Guanajuato, and Puebla) have finished the 10 activities listed and have submitted requests to ANAB for accreditation of 16 laboratories in the seven forensic specialty areas.

The accomplishments achieved thus far toward the accreditation of forensic laboratories in Mexico are unprecedented. They represent a major change at the top levels of law enforcement and state political leadership, demonstrating a willingness to dedicate Mexican financial and human resources to the establishment of a 21st-century system of forensic laboratories dedicated to competent, scientific, and ethical services through accredited facilities and personnel. As the level of preparedness rises, so do the confidence and credibility of each expert witness who is called upon to testify. With the ability to effectively communicate scientific results within the courtroom setting, criminal impunity must decrease. It is only a matter of time until all Mexican laboratories and personnel, scientists, and investigators have joined the quality revolution. The impact and transcendence of modifying previous practice coupled with the birth of a culture of quality in forensic examination processes are merely the beginning of the task of improving social confidence in Mexican law enforcement agencies and criminal justice system.

In summary, Mexico is currently committed to working through the Merida Initiative toward the accreditation of each of the forensic laboratories and forensic pathology centers in the 31 Mexican states and Mexico City. The process is based on the quality guidelines set forth for forensic specialty laboratories, as described in ILAC’s G19 document; the forensic investigation process begins with crime scene processing, continues with evidence examination at laboratories for the different forensic specialties, and culminates in the presentation of courtroom testimony by expert witnesses in an oral trial. The process, although advancing well, faces certain challenges to the continuation and growth of the culture of quality within the Mexican criminal justice system. Smaller states with smaller budgets present special challenges. In addition, the complexities of international crimes continue to challenge law enforcement efforts to identify all ramifications. Finally, deep-rooted past practices and roles established under the previous criminal justice systems require generational persistence to ensure the full establishment of the new criminal justice system. In the meantime, a new culture of quality has been born in Mexico.v

Notes:

1 Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Merida Initiative and Beyond (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41349.pdf.
2 “Decreto por el que se Reforman y Adicionan Diversas Disposiciones de la Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos,” Diario Oficial de la Federación, June 18, 2008, http://www.dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5046978&fecha=18/06/2008.
3 International Organization for Standardization (ISO), “General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories,” ISO/IEC 17025:2005, http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail?csnumber=39883; ISO, “Conformity Assessment: Requirements for the Operation of Various Types of Bodies Performing Inspection,” ISO/IEC 17020:2012, http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail?csnumber=52994.
4International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC), “Modules in a Forensic Science Process,” ILAC G19:08/2014, http://ilac.org/?ddownload=805.

 

Leticia Collado formerly served with the Federal Police in Mexico as a DNA scientist specializing in human identification. She is a founding member of the Federal Police DNA laboratory and was involved in the expansion of the laboratory accreditation process from the initial design stage. While in the Federal Police, she was appointed as a specialist to interpret complex samples in difficult cases, primarily relating to the processing of burned bone samples, as part of Mexico’s Missing Persons Project. She is currently employed as a subject matter expert and supervisor of a U.S. State Department–funded forensic assistance program. In this role, she mentors personnel within Mexican police genetics laboratories seeking ISO forensic accreditation.