Cell phones, Extortions and Regulation



El Salvador is a nation with more cell phones than inhabitants. In fact, according to the Superintendencia General de Electricidad y Telecomunicaciones, there are 7,445,736 mobile telephone lines for a country of 5.74 million people. Of these mobile connections, 6,286,967 are pay-as-you-go and only 663,736 are based on a fixed payment contract.

These numbers speak for themselves. As can be reported from almost any other developing nation it’s difficult not to encounter someone with a cell phone even in the most remote regions of the country. The penetration of mobile telecommunications has brought incalculable benefits to the economy. This is especially for small and micro enterprises that can monitor prices and sell their goods by contacting suppliers and wholesalers. A cell phone, could be argued, has given them a sense of formality since now they can be contacted more easily.

However, there´s been an unforeseen consequence of cell phone penetration in El Salvador and presumably other developing nations: the use of cell phones to commit criminal acts, specifically extortions.

El Salvador’s security and defense authorities claim that 85 percent of extortions are committed using cell phones from penitentiaries across the nation. Given the fact that access to a cell phone number is easy through pay-as-you-go schemes, phones can be used within jails for any range of criminal purposes, including extortion.

In response, the Attorney General is calling for a legal reform that would allow for verification of the location of the owners of some 300,000 cell phone lines and request pre-registration with personal information. Those that don’t register will have their line blocked permanently. This solution is used in many countries including South Africa and most recently Mexico.

Of course, it would be naïve and short sighted for anyone to blame technology for upswings in criminal activity. But we should recognize that communication technology can be an effective criminal tool.

In this particular case legal reform should, perhaps, go further and require every user to register with a national system. This should come along with the complete blocking of cell phone signal in the immediate vicinity of penitentiaries and requirement of active participation and collaboration from telecommunications operators to clamp down on their nefarious use.

* Julio Rank Wright is guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org and is an author in the Winter 2010 issue of Americas Quarterly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julio Rank Wright is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily lives in Washington DC.

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