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The State Department's Tech.Del: Can People Power Crush Mexico's Drug Cartels?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, August 27 2009

The United States has tried a variety of tactics in its effort to confront the drug-fueled violence and instability that plagues the U.S.-Mexico border. Diplomacy with political leaders. The equipping of local law enforcement with helicopters and other aircraft. Direct cash transfers to the Mexican government. And now, add to that list Facebook? Yep. A State Department "tech.del," or technology delegation, has been in Mexico this week exploring how U.S. tech companies can support people-to-people resistance against Mexico's destructive drug cartels. On the State Department's DipNote blog, public diplomacy advisor Suzanne Hall says the purpose of the trip is determine how America's technology can "help Mexican citizens amplify their voices against narco-violence."

If that sounds crazy, it's worth remembering that (a) the U.S. hasn't found much success through the more traditional means listed above and (b) like violent thugs around the world, Mexican cartels themselves recognize the value of shaping public opinion through media, new and old alike. Here's how Hall explains it:

Mexican drug cartels are engaged in violent conflict -- among themselves and with Mexican security forces -- for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border...The cartels are willing to use any means of communication at their disposal to disseminate their messages of fear -- from as basic as hanging a banner across an interstate overpass, to glorifying their lifestyle through traditional songs known as 'narcocorridos,' to more savvy means like uploading violent videos to YouTube.

The State Department's Mexico tech delegation kicked off its trip with a night tour of the U.S.-Mexico border, and then made its way to Juarez, the Mexican city just across the border from El Paso, Texas, that has the terrible distinction of being the city with the world's highest murder rate. (An average of six people are murdered each day, in a city about the size of Phoenix.) The group then moved to Mexico City, with a stop at Google Mexico's headquarters. Along the trip, they've been meeting with federal officials, mobile company representatives, NGOs, and academics, writes Hall. "By introducing and advising on the right communication strategies," she blogs, "Tech.del participants are helping Mexican citizens best address the challenges they face." You can follow Hall's Twitter postings on the trip and also track the #techdel hashtag.

Broadband penetration in Mexico, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, was just 2.2 percent in 2005. (As a point of comparison, broadband in the U.S. comes in at about 17% in the United States.) Broadband is expensive there, and one company largely holds a monopoly over the market. That said, the adoption of cell phones in Mexico is, by one account, all the way up at 70%. Juarez is itself home to several universities. And a group calling itself TwitMX recently held a get-together of Mexican Twitter users.

Traveling on the State Department delegation to Mexico are representatives from major U.S. companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and AT&T, as well as from smaller American firms like Adfero, a DC-based public relations firm; the Democratic consulting shop Liberty Concepts; and FastFoward Groups. Academic representatives from MIT's Media Lab also made the trip.

This Mexico tech.del follows on the heels of the traveling of a State Department delegation of representatives from American new media firms to Baghdad. On that trip, participants made an effort to pin down actual projects that they might be able to help in bringing to fruition, like putting Iraq's national museum on the web or setting up Iraqi politicians with Twitter accounts through which Iraqi citizens might finally reach their elected officials. Many of those projects are still in the works. If these State Department-sponsored outreach from the U.S. tech world to the rest of the world is to fulfill its promise, it will have to move from conversations of the wisdom and merits of web 2.0 to working relationships that put points on the board for the local citizens they're meant to help, whether that's Iraqis rebuilding a nation or Mexicans resisting drug cartels. (As well, of course, to advance the United States' own interests.) The State Department's Hall agrees. The ultimate goal of State's Mexico tech delegation, she says, "is to tease out deliverables and implement them as quickly as possible."

(Photo credit: y-cart)

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