In Mexico, Tech Is Used To Help Combat Narco Violence, Insecurity

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Google has been used for many ends, but in the hands of researcher Viridiana Rios, the search engine has become a tool to fight Mexican drug cartels and help the government organize to prevent violence. Rios is a researcher at Harvard University who recently published a paper about a tool she created to track publicly available cartel data and how it can inform Mexican security officials’ work.

Rios is one of a number of Mexicans applying technology in different ways to combat narco violence and insecurity in their country. TechCrunch spoke to Rios, as well as data scientist Diego Valle-Jones and the co-founders of a crowdsourced safety app, Ret.io. Each is working on projects that may not end the drug war but will illuminate and aid parties caught in the middle of it, said University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Tony Payan.

There are three basic ways that people in Mexico are using technology as a result of the drug war and resulting insecurity, Payan tells TechCrunch.

First, there’s data mapping to figure out which cartels are operating in certain territories, for example. Secondly, there’s social media in use that helps people protect themselves from dangerous people or places, he said. Finally, media blackouts about drug-related incidents began occurring when journalists were being killed for writing about them, so technology steps in as a way to circumvent the lack of reporting.

When it comes to data mapping, Rios, a Harvard researcher, said she first felt inspired to create a tool to filter publicly available Google data about drug cartels when she was working as an advisor to the National Security Council in Mexico. One problem Mexican law enforcement faces is not the lack of data, she said, but the overwhelming amount of it, thus, being able to search and categorize it efficiently is immensely helpful.

“If we are able to track and understand the way [cartels] move from one municipality to another, this is crucial information for the Mexican government to design policies,” she said, noting that her algorithm uncovered some interesting data, such as some places to see different cartels operating in tandem without spikes in violence, and some municipalities where cartels operate that don’t have any drug-related murders.

“That’s very telling for policy, there may be other ways to achieve low violence,” Rios said.

In the social media component, Mario Romero Zavala and José Antonio Bolio co-founded Ret.io three years ago to help everyday people avoid police harassment at checkpoints. Since then, the Twitter-based service has grown to a website and iPhone app, as well as every state in Mexico. Although the service was not set up specifically to fight narcos, Romero Zavala said there are corollary effects, such as shootings and roadblocks, that people are able to avoid because of Ret.io.

While Bolio is willing to admit that, since the website sees more than 100,000 monthly visitors and has more than 27,000 Twitter followers across Mexico, some folks “stay out of trouble” thanks to Ret.io, he’s hesitant to say the service is fighting the drug war.

“Being able to use tools to stay well-informed and safe is our responsibility and our right,” Bolio told TechCrunch.

And when it comes to media blackouts, one blogger has handily stepped in to critique the Mexican government’s version of the drug war.

Diego Valle-Jones is a data scientist who blogs about different drug war-related data sets on his website, especially critiquing government-provided data. He said he began his work in 2009 when he realized that there was no accompanying data to match the escalating violence in Mexico. He sees his work as a way to ameliorate the worrisome numbers he ticks off so easily: 96,000 homicides (from 2007 to 2011), deaths of unknown intent at 5,600 in 2011.

“By sharing my data and code everyone benefits,” he said. “Other people who want to conduct research on the drug war don’t have to start from zero.”

Professor Payan is quick to point out the failures of technology in combating something as tangible as a drug war, though. While many creative people are inventing ways to help everyday people protect themselves, it’s part of a larger way in which the world — even the narcos themselves — are communicating using electronic media. But because technology exists outside of direct government control, the Mexican government is more culpable in public eyes. That’s democratic accountability, Payan said.

Even the technologists themselves are wary of the role tech projects can play in allaying violence. Romero Zavala called technology the “wrong place” to look for a solution to the war on drugs. And Valle-Jones agreed, noting that although social media has been a great solution to media blackouts, there are serious tech-adoption barriers in Mexico. Tech is great, but it’s not an easy solution.

“I think it is naive to think that, by itself, technology can solve the drug war,” he said.

[Image via Ms. Phoenix]