Technology can be harnessed to fight drug cartels in Mexico

They were looking for violent criminals. Meanwhile, everyone we met with — civil society leaders, nonprofit activists, private-sector officials and young people — was looking around for answers.

Their city has been overwhelmed by crime, their lives overcome with fear. They felt defeated, disillusioned and a little helpless. They asked us: What can we do?

And to us, at least part of the answer was obvious: technology.

The cartels that roam Juarez are savvy. Smugglers wear GPS bracelets so they can be tracked — the same blue dots that help smartphone users get from A to B are blipping along in the service of kingpins and their associates.

We know that technology can be used more potently for good. As more people around the globe become connected, they see, read and hear more. Greater access leads to stronger demands for accountability. We believe the spread of modern devices and access for those most threatened will create a virtual, albeit nascent, counterweight against the world’s worst criminals. Even stubborn governments will one day have to meet their citizens’ rising expectations.

Yet connectivity will not, on its own, disrupt illicit networks. People tend to assume that “name and shame” will fix things — as though, once a video of wrongdoing is uploaded, the world will pressure the bad guys. It’s clear that external pressure seldom fixes weak or corrupt institutions. As we watch violence unfold in Syria, more than video is clearly needed. The pressure has to be internal, from those who are directly affected and have the incentives and mechanisms to fundamentally reshape the world they live in.

Consider an all-too-familiar situation in Juarez: A man cooperates with law enforcement — or is believed to have cooperated — and his wife is subsequently targeted. Many people are aware of such occurrences but do not report it, thinking: Why take the risk when the chance of meaningful change is so low? Some version of this plays out every day in Mexico.

When people think about speaking out in the face of fear, they almost always do so in pre-Internet terms. Victims find individuals or institutions to confide in. Sometimes that institution is online, but the basic interaction model is telephonic or broadcast. The model relies on central authorities with trustworthy track records, broad distribution, charismatic leaders, technical sophistication, and staffs that balance discretion and distribution. Simply put, these criteria do not scale. The system breaks down in environments where retribution is common.

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