Can Cell Phones Stop Crime in the World's Murder Capitals?

The problem-solving power of mobile technology in Central America
A visualization of 90 days of crime in Guatemala (Alertos.org)

GUATEMALA CITY—In the last three months, Guatemala has witnessed 356 homicides, 202 armed attacks, 44 illegal drug sales, 11 kidnappings, and six cases of "extortion by cell phone."

These numbers come courtesy not of Guatemalan law-enforcement but of Alertos.org, a new platform that recruits citizens to report crimes. And they've enlisted in the effort, using email, Twitter, Facebook, mobile apps, and text messaging to chronicle thousands of criminal activities since last year—in a country where a hobbled police force is struggling to address the fifth-highest murder rate in the world.

In recent years, police have courted cell phone-toting citizens as crime "censors" everywhere from Washington, D.C. to the tiny Kenyan village of Lanet Umoja. But the practice has gained particular traction in Latin America, which, as the UN reported in April, has the highest rate of criminal violence on the planet (the region accounts for 8 percent of the world's population and a third of its murders). The criminal syndicates and drug cartels behind this bloodshed have overwhelmed, crippled, and corrupted national police forces, resulting in the highest levels of impunity in the world as well. In these countries, criminals literally get away with murder, again and again. Amateur crime-mapping has emerged as a parallel law-enforcement mechanism—in part owing to the popularity of cell phones in the region.

National homicide rates per 100,000 people, with the darker colors corresponding with higher murder rates. Click here to enlarge. (UNODC)
The conviction rate is the number of people convicted of homicide divided by the number of homicides in the same year, per 100 homicides. Click here to enlarge. (UNODC)

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Initiatives like Alertos are often incubated in the private sector or among civil-society organizations, and then shared with the government. Just this week, for instance, an Uruguayan software developer launched CityCop.org, "a social network for victims of crime" with Waze-like iconography, in the hopes of collaborating with the Interior Ministry. In 2010, police in Honduras, the murder capital of the world, worked with the Inter-American Development Bank to pilot a mobile phone-based crime-mapping project in the city of San Pedro Sula, later expanding the program to the capital (a scan of the resulting "Map Against Crime," however, suggests that it is rarely used).

Uruguay's new CityCop.org platform

Alertos, for its part, asks crime-spotters to identify the timing, location, and nature of the illegal activities they submit. The reports are posted anonymously, and users can even make note of "positive developments"—the term of art for successful arrests and raids by security forces. Administrators helpfully assign a level of credibility to each report, and some reports include a link to a news story on the crime (the discovery in March of a corpse near a ravine in San Juan Sacatepéquez, for instance, is deemed 65-percent credible). The site's crime statistics are surely under-reported (Guatemala averaged 438 homicides per month last year, far above the 356 reported by Alertos over the past 90 days). But then again, official crime statistics in countries like Guatemala are under-reported as well, since people are reluctant to file reports with the police either because they fear retribution or because they doubt anything will be done about the incident.

Online crime reporting can work remarkably well, harnessing the knowledge and networks of communities and saving money that would otherwise be spent on desk officers taking reports in person or by phone. But that success depends on people believing that police will swiftly take action on their reports, which in turn depends on law-enforcement agencies integrating crime-mapping initiatives into their broader operations in the first place.

Alertos isn't there yet. A disclaimer on the website warns users that the site is merely an "informational tool" and not a "competent agency" capable of relaying complaints to the authorities or resolving them. Any reports made to Alertos should also be made to the police, the site advises.

But Salvador Paiz, a Guatemalan businessman and the vice president of FUNDESA, a development organization that supports Alertos, says the goal now is to establish links between the Alertos system and the crime database used by Guatemalan police. "We hope that this would allow the police to view 'layers' of information and use this enhanced view to make better and more informed policy and tactical decisions," he told me by email.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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