Can Cell Phones Stop Crime In The World's Murder Capitals?

Uri Friedman | The Atlantic | May 7, 2014

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...