Puerto Rico’s Forensics Institute is under investigation after several complaints were filed regarding backlogs, understaffing, and a foul smell emanating from containers holding 76 decaying corpses.
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On Friday, employees at the institute tried to block health inspectors from the House Public Safety Commission by preventing them from opening five corpse-filled containers and physically barring one from entering a certain area.
"They’re hiding information. Obviously, that causes suspicion," said Puerto Rico Representative Jose Perez, who was present during the inspection.
Juan Morales, president of Puerto Rico’s Health Commission, told Bloomberg that "objectionable odors" could still be detected at the facility: "When you get close to the doors of the trailers, it’s more than evident."
The investigation was launched after staff from the institute moved two of the 76 corpses back to the morgue in the early hours of July 17, following complaints that foul-smelling liquids had been leaking from one of the storage containers.
None of the five refrigerated containers, donated by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Maria, are equipped with back-up generators or monitored to regulate temperatures, Morales said.
"This leads us to conclude that the temperature in those containers is not the correct one," he said, noting that legal action may now be taken.
The institute has reportedly struggled with understaffing since Hurricane Maria, with only five employees rather than the required minimum of 15.
It is currently housing 300 corpses. Although none are believed to be victims of the hurricane, staff at the institute have consistently been unable to match remains with formal identifications.
The body of Luis Angel Correa Ayala’s son is believed to be among them: "We call every month and they tell us that the pathologist asked for an additional exam, and we know that there are thousands of people in Puerto Rico going through the same situation," the grieving father said.
Some of the corpses being kept at the insitute have been there since 2012, according to a report by Associated Press.
Morales said: "It’s time that we leave all doubts behind. The island today should be asking itself if the Forensic Institute is truly operating the way it should."
The institute reportedly missed out on an additional US$1.5 million in funding because of the level of public debt in Puerto Rico. Its current annual budget is US$2 million.