First Iberamericano course on forensic geology




‘First IberoAmerican Course on Forensic Geology’

Bogota, Colombia, 30 March to 3 April 2009


Laurance J Donnelly1, Alastair Ruffell2, Raymond Murray3, William Schneck4, Carlos Martín Molina Gallego5 , Jimmy Fernandez5


1Chair, The Geological Society of London, Forensic Geoscience Group, Wardell Armstrong, 2 The Avenue, Leigh, Manchester, WN7 IES UK

2Queens University Belfast, School of Geography, Archaeology & Palaeontology, Elmowwod Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1NN

3106 Ironwood Pl, Missoula, Montana 5980,USA.

4 Microanalysis Technical Lead, Washington State Patrol Crime Lab., 580 West 7th Street

Cheney, WA 99004, USA

5Carlos Martín Molina Gallego, Geólogo Forense, Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses, Laboratorio de Geologia Forense, Calle 7A No.12-61. Piso 4, Bogotá-Colombia


Colombia, located in South America, with a population of approximately 44 million, is a country where relatively few western geologists have visited. This is mainly because of the high personal and security risks associated with drug (cocaine) trafficking, paramilitary activity, the mafia and cartel organisations. These typically involve illicit production of coca, opium poppy and cannabis, blackmailing, extortion, money laundering, kidnapping and homicide. Colombia is the world's largest producer of coca derivatives and it supplies cocaine to most of the US market and the great majority of other international drug markets. Well organised criminal groups (often heavy armed) make geological field work difficult and at times not possible. However, with careful planning and in association with Colombian geologists it is possible to visit Colombia safely and to participate in geological investigations, provided that appropriate safety and security measures are taken.

In March 2009, four geologists’, two from the United Kingdom and two from the USA, were invited to Colombia to participate in the ‘First IberoAmerican Course on Forensic Geology’. This also gave the opportunity visit the headquarters of both the Colombian Police and National Forensic Laboratories  on to give advice on geological methods and techniques that may be used to either locate buried objects (such as homicide graves, mass genocide graves, firearms, explosive devises and drugs) or the analysis of rocks and soils to provide physical evidence which may suggest an associated link between a suspect or offender and a victim of crime.

Colombia is dominated by three of the world’s largest, most spectacular and distinct, mountain belts. These trend approximately north to south and are known as the western, central and eastern Andean Cordilleras. These in turn are divided by the fault controlled Magdalena and Cauca valleys. At least 14 active volcanoes and associated geohazards (such as earthquakes and landslides) dominate the mountain peaks and upper slopes. By comparison the intervening valley sides, floors and sedimentary basins contain rich deposits of gold, the world’s finest emeralds, and huge reserves of coal, oil and gas.

Colombian geoscientists are emerging as world-class geoforensics specialists and now join a global renaissance, which has occurred in the past few years, as geoscientists increasingly support the police and law enforcement to help solve some types of crimes, in different parts of the world. In Colombia, with its long and complex crime legacy, there is the need for those responsible for historical, recent and current crimes to be brought to justice. It is also desirable for homicide graves and mass graves to be located so family members can gain closure to their suffering. Furthermore, buried explosive devices, weapons, firearms and illegal drugs require to be located to hinder criminal activities, depriving them of their resources.

The ‘First IberAmerican Course on Forensic Geology’ was organised by Carlos Martín Molina Gallego. It was held at the ‘Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Department of Geology’, together with the ‘Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal’ (National Institute of Legal Medicine – the Colombian Forensic Laboratory). It took place from 30 March to 3 April 2009, in Bogota, Colombia. The course highlighted the importance of geology to prosecutors, judges, lawyers, forensic scientists and the ‘Colombian Judicial Police Penal System’.

Dr Donnelly, Chair of The Geological Society of London Forensic Geoscience Group, provided a series of lectures on; the importance of the development of a conceptual geological model to locate a homicide graves and buried objects, the development of a search methodology, determination of search assets and techniques, the importance of effective communication between the police and geologists, regulation and accreditation, training needs for both police officers and forensic geoscientists, police protocols at crime scenes and case studies in geoforensics.

Dr Raymond Murray (Forensic Geologist, Missoula, USA) spoke on: The History of Forensic Geology; Why Paint and Glass are Good Evidence; Case Studies Involving Soil. Bill Schneck (Microtrace Inc and Washington State Police) spoke on: Trace Geological Evidence, Case Studies Involving Microscopy). Dr Alastair Ruffell (Queen’s Unversity, Belfast) spoke on: Geophysics & Remote Sensing and Legal Issues. Jimmy Fernandez (National University of Colombia) spoke on instrumental techniques and Carlos Martin Molina of the Bogota forensic laboratory described his numerous and fascinating cases involving soil, rocks and minerals.

Dr Donnelly, Dr Murray and Dr Molina visited the Colombian Police at their headquarters in Bogota, to gain a greater understanding of some of the challenges which face the police on a routine basis. This included addressing approximately 100 police officers followed by an inspection of the crime laboratories. The police have major challenges, for example disarming criminal organisations and in combating the illegal trafficking of drugs (from Colombia) firearms and weapons (into Colombia, often in exchange for drugs). In addition, anti-personal land mines and other explosive devices make some parts of Colombia too dangerous to visit to undertake conventional geological surveys. Furthermore, many of the homicide victims of Colombia’s violent past have been placed in unmarked graves. There is in addition suspected locations where mass graves may exists; the result of genocide.

So how can geologists be of assistance? The crime laboratories in Bogota Police provide countless examples of explosive devises, firearms and drugs which have been ceased by the police. Some of the more recent anti-personal mines are made form plastics, which make their detection in the ground more difficult.

Traditional police methods of finding graves often involves large-scale gridded areas with personnel ‘finger-tip/line searches’ and ‘trial-and-error’ excavations. These may be inefficient, cost prohibiting, often non-productive, labour intensive, may destroy evidence and ignore subtle ground disturbances. The search for a homicide victim’s grave is one for, rather than of, the crime scene. The aim is to progress the investigation by locating the victim using an offensive/detective search procedure. The objectives would be to obtain evidence for a prosecution, gaining further intelligence, and locating the remains of the victim. The search does not have the objective of the recovery of evidence or the victim.

The conceptual geological model provides estimates of the target’s age, size, and geometry, expected depth of burial, time and duration of burial, physical, chemical, hydrogeological and geotechnical variations compared to the surrounding ground. A conceptual model of a potential burial site gives an estimate of what is likely to be found and the condition of the target. Conceptual geological models are developed at the beginning of a search. It is a model to be tested, revised and tested again until it can be verified (at discovery) or proven otherwise and therefore abandoned

The development of a geological model for a victim of homicide, or a grave, requires a specific understanding of the natural (geological) ground conditions and how these have been influenced by the activities of the offender (e.g. digging, and subsequent reinstatement of the disturbed ground). At any one location there are likely to be a number of interactive, dynamic, active surface geological processes, which have affected the rocks, soil, groundwater and topography. These processes were active long before burial took place and are likely to have continued in the time which has passed since

An understating of the undisturbed (pre burial) and disturbed (post burial) geology and the target, whether buried drugs, firearms, human remains, explosives or money is required before the correct search strategy choice of instrumentation may be decided, and the optimum method of deployment identified. These may include geophysics, geochemistry, satellite imagery, air photo interpretation and invasive methods (such as auguring, drilling, trial pitting and trenching). Geological investigative techniques are applicable to law enforcement searches, since the underlying search philosophy, concepts and principles are similar. That is, there is a buried/concealed ‘object’ or ‘target’ desirable to be found. 

The most important services a forensic geologist can give the Police and a law enforcement search strategist is; the production of a geological model of a potential grave or burial site, an understanding of the geological and geomorphological processes, the characterisation and understanding of the origin, source and properties of the soils, rocks and target (body), and a choice of detecting methods. For the geologist (and other subject matter experts) to be effectively incorporated into a search team he/she must be an effective communicator of complex geological (scientific) terminology, recognise the limitations of his/her skills and capabilities and be aware of the boundaries and interface with other subject matter forensic experts.

No single geological model suits all types of search areas and there is no single approach to producing a geological model, as each homicide case and search area will have unique characteristics. This is one of the primary roles for the geoscientist, which will vary from case to case. Geologists should not act alone when searching for grave or other buried objects, but form part of a multi-disciplinary team of specialists.

The geoscientists must recognise how their expertise and capabilities fit into the broader homicide investigation. For most geoscientists, involved in searching for victims of homicide their input may begin to reduce once the target (body) has been located, when the investigation moves into victim recovery and crime scene investigation. It is then important to hand-over to other forensic practitioners in related sciences, such as forensic archaeology and anthropology for the victim recovery and post recovery analysis phases.

Effective communicates is crucial along with an understanding of other specialists’ skills and their limitations. Also important, for the forensic geoscientist, are the strict police protocols for the investigation of crime scenes and an appreciation of the judicial systems, unique to each country.

Mr Schneck and Dr Ruffell visited the ‘Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal’ effectively Bogota’s forensic laboratory. Here, they had a summary tour of the seven floors of labs, concentrating on physical trace evidence and microscopic methods. The view from the seventh floor allowed a good feel for the layout of Bogota, at the foot of the mountains, to be appreciated. A meeting with the directors of the institute will form the basis of further collaboration, including exchanges of scientists between Colombia, the UK, USA and other countries now participating in the global network of contacts developed (initially) by the Forensic Geology Group of the society.

Concluding statement: There is now a growing network of geoforensic specialists in academia, industry, consultancy, police, law enforcement and the military, throughout; Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Russia, Sicily, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States of America. The success of the ‘First IberAmerican Course on Forensic Geology’, held in Bogota, Colombia has brought Latin America into the global association of Geoforensics. Colombia must be congratulated on its proactive stance of fighting crime and in do so recognising the potential role of geoscientists. The next major geoforensic conference is scheduled to be held in California on 2010 (please contact Marianne Stamm of the California Institute for Justice [] for details and the Second IberAmerican course on Forensic Geology may be held in Brazil in 2011.