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

The problem-solving power of mobile technology in Central America

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, 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)

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, "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 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.

The private-sector coalition behind Alertos is also working with mayors of cities like Villa Nueva, where "the mayor has weekly meetings with his security roundtable, which includes representatives from the National Police, Municipal Police, Military, and Fire Rescue, and uses an enhanced version of the Alertos application with Heat Maps to guide the discussion, evaluate past actions and define future tactics." Alertos is also planning to roll out an iPhone app to complement its Android app (Androids are more popular than iPhones in Guatemala).


The questions surrounding projects like Alertos aren't just about whether crowdsourced crime-mapping can truly reduce chronically high crime rates. More broadly, they're also about whether governments and development organizations can leverage widespread cell-phone use in the region to more effectively address intractable problems like crime, income inequality, and food security.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were 138 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in Guatemala in 2012, up from 13 per 100 people a decade earlier. In the developing world especially, people often have multiple mobile subscriptions or connections (SIM cards) for different purposes, which distorts penetration rates for cell phones. Still, the technology has made inroads even among poorer populations, with penetration rates not necessarily corresponding with levels of wealth. Yes, the numbers below suggest that only half of Guatemalans own cell phones. But 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15, meaning that most Guatemalan adults have one. This in a country with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world.

It's this widespread adoption, for instance, that prompted Oxfam to work with the mobile-phone operator Tigo in transferring mobile money to Guatemalan families in the eastern province of Chiquimula, a poor, rural region that is particularly hard-hit by drought and malnutrition.

Just outside San Pedro Sula in Honduras, I visited a farm associated with USAID's Accesso project, part of the U.S. government's Feed the Future initiative to combat hunger and poverty in 19 countries. As plantain and papaya growers gathered in one producer's plot of land to speak about the ways they had gained access to markets through the program, ringtones repeatedly intruded on the discussion. Many farmers gripped cell phones or sported them on their belts.

One Accesso staffer showed me the text messages these farmers now regularly receive with updates on market prices for their products, which they can then use to assess market demand and negotiate with buyers.

A farmer in Honduras displays a text message with market prices for vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, and onions. (Uri Friedman)

Text messages like this one can have a real impact in the agricultural sector. A 2011 Inter-American Development Bank study, for instance, found that while it's cheaper to alert Honduran farmers to market prices by radio broadcasts than text messages, it's less effective and sustainable. "When the [radio] message is broadcast, if the farmer is not there to hear it or one of his family members is not there to tell him later, the message is lost. The SMS, however, is stored in the mobile telephone even when there is no cell phone signal at the farmer’s location during the day, and it will be received when the phone is in an area reached by the signal. This enables the farmer to read the SMS at any time of day and to save it after it is received," the researchers wrote.

Cell phones, of course, aren't about to do away with hunger and homicide in Central America. But they can generate actionable intelligence to help solve these issues—whether in Guatemalan cities or on Honduran farms.

This reporting was made possible by CARE with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.