About the Author: Alec Ross serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On October 11, I traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city just on the other side of the border from El Paso, Texas. The 1.3 million people of Juarez have been living under the horrific impact of narcoviolence for several years. The numbers speak for themselves -- in 2009, transnational criminal actors killed more than 9,600 people. Since taking office in 2006, President Felipe Calderon and the Mexican government have bravely stepped up to confront this drug-fueled violence. In April 2010, the Mexican Secretariat of Public Safety (SSP) took over responsibility for security in Juarez, and now 4,500 federal police officers attempt to keep peace on the city streets. In spite of this, the homicide rate in Juarez so far this year is on pace to exceed the devastating rate witnessed in 2009.
So how can we get our arms around this situation, and work with our partner Mexico to help provide a safe environment for their citizens to study, work and raise their families?
There is no single and simple answer, but one ingredient we know is the key -- helping Mexican citizens take an active and effective role in their own security.
Secretary Clinton has recognized the United States' co-responsibility for the situation in Mexico, as demand for drugs on the U.S. side of the border in large part fuels the crime. The United States is partnered with the Mexican government on security issues through the Merida Initiative. Through Merida, we provide equipment and training in support of law enforcement operations to promote the long-term reform and professionalization of Mexican security agencies. Secretary Clinton is very focused on how we can empower the citizens of Mexico --and specifically Juarez -- to help achieve a long-term, sustainable peace. Without the active participation of the residents of Juarez and other cities throughout Mexico, security solutions brought to the table will only serve in the short term.
One clear way the people of Mexico can help combat the violence is by sharing information on criminal activity with local law enforcement authorities. Unfortunately, many Mexican citizens do not feel safe calling the current emergency lines, as they believe their personal security could be at risk. This results in missed opportunities for Mexican law enforcement officials to take down criminals. According to a recent survey by the Instituto de Estudios Sobre la Inseguridad (ICESI), 78 percent of crimes go unreported in Mexico, and less than two percent actually result in convictions.
In my role as Senior Advisor for Innovation, I have led a team over the last year to explore how we can use technology to help overcome the challenge of personal security risk in the current emergency line in Juarez. Mobile phone penetration is extremely high in Juarez: approximately 80 percent of the population has a cell phone. We saw an opportunity to draw in the people of Juarez to be part of a positive change in their communities through mobile technology.
Our team in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City has worked closely with the Mexican government and private Mexican mobile providers to develop a secure tipline that will be available to residents of Juarez in coming months. The immediate challenge is to encourage the people of Juarez to have confidence in the new system and share information that could lead to prosecutions and eventually arrests of criminal actors.
Both the Mexican and U.S. teams are also working with civil society organizations in Mexico to develop an online platform through which they can review trends in both crimes reported and responses by authorities. This critical participation by civil society can help create a positive feedback loop required to achieve real improvements in the response time by Mexican law enforcement to reports from citizens.
Our end goal is to support our Mexican partners in creating a safer, more productive Juarez. Our strategy involves multiple components. One absolutely critical element is engaging the people of Mexico through mobile technology to be part of this positive change.
Hector Murguia was inaugurated as the new mayor of Juarez this past Sunday, October 10. Mayor Murgu noted in his inaugural speech: "Crime is powerful, but it's not invincible." Clearly, he couldn't be more right. Our hope is that the anonymous citizens' complaint program will empower the citizens of Juarez to contribute to reestablishing a safer community for themselves and their families.