Monday 21 June 2021

Living With Death: Secrets of the Forensic Examiners in Costa Rica

Photo for illustrative purposes
Photo for illustrative purposes

COSTA RICA JOURNAL – “It’s tough, it behooves us to work with the results of domestic violence: abused children, battered women, femicide and traffic accidents which after all is violence (…) the results of drug trafficking or suicides (…) It’s shocking, definitely; we remain sensitive to that,” says Jorge Aguilar Perez, MD, chief of forensic pathology in the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ), Costa Rica’s investigative police, akin to the FBI in the U.S.

Medical examiners are responsible for unraveling the most heinous crimes, most inexplicable deaths and deal with the reflection of violence in the country.

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In Costa Rica there are about 46 coroners distributed in different legal-medical units of the Judiciary.

The title coroner or forensic examiner brings to mind television shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. However, they aren’t the reality lived daily by those who are surrounded by death, choosing to live their daily lives with the dead.

The real work of a forensic examiner includes hours of research to uncover if the death is a homicide and the need to be objective in each case.

“If you end up crying with the mother, then you’ve lost objectivity as an expert (…) Some people say that a coroner is insensitive, who lost his faith in humanity because all day sees homicides, but that’s not true. Our bearings in that sense, is we work to enforce and administer justice,” said Aguilar.

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Related: Repatriation of the deceased from Costa Rica

[/su_pullquote]Aguilar, with 15 years experience, remembers his very first case, one that sticks with him, that of a 3-year-old child in the Northern Zone, tied to a piece of iron and throw in the river to drown.

“Seeing case after case, you learn to value life. You know, as coroner, that at any moment death can strike and can be violent,” says the doctor, who uses the example of a recent case of a lady killed in a robbery of a corner store. “She didn’t get up that morning thinking she would die today,” said Aguilar.

The medical forensics centre located in Heredia
The medical forensics centre located in Heredia

There is nothing to fear in the morgue, there are no ghosts, nor is it a gloomy place.

The doctor explains that in recent years there has been an escalation of violence in the country, one proven over and over by the medical unit. For example, in the past, a murder victim usually came in with one bullet wound, today it can be 15, 20 or more.

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“They try to hide the body by burning it; hide the wounds to make identity impossible. That complicates the situation … things are different now, victims are muzzled, burned and mutilated (…),” says the doctor.

Forensic medicine in Costa Rica does not lie waiting, it moves with the pace of violence and accidents in the country, always at the ready of unmasking the causes of death of women, men and children.

Typically, when a doctor in Costa Rica cannot determine the cause of death, the OIJ is called in.  In the case the decedent cannot be identified, the death occurring under suspicious circumstances, foul play is suspected, or as in the case of the foreigner dying in the ambulance outside the Alajuela hospital, the body is automatically sent to the Forensic Centre.

Currently, for dozens of unclaimed bodies, including citizens of the United States and other countries, the morgue is their final resting place. Until … there is always hope someone will make a claim …

The main forensics laboratory is located in San Joaquin de Flores, in Heredia.

Following are some photos of inside the morgue in Costa Rica. (Photos from

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