Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Crime in Mexico and Cell Phones. Mexico’s Fight Against Insecurity Moves to Congress.

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Security is one of Mexicans’ top concerns. Since taking office, the government of President Felipe Calderón has responded. Troops and federal police are one answer, but the government now has a new weapon: a law that creates a national cell-phone registry. Cell phones are not AK-47s but they are used by criminals for kidnappings, organized crime and extortions.

The registry—passed by the Senate on December 9 along with other measures to widen police powers—mandates substantial changes to the way telecoms operate. But in the English-language media, the registry received just passing attention.

Its goal is laudable: to help police in cracking down on ransom demands made from often untraceable cell phones.

To accomplish that, the law requires all cell-phone users to show documentation and to submit a fingerprint to keep their phone or purchase a new one. This information will then be entered into a national database. Cell users that do not register their phone and/or phone memory chips will have service cut without the possibility for reactivation. Beyond that, cellular companies are now required to have the capability to identify the time, day and duration of any call. And this information must be turned over to federal authorities during an investigation.

Efforts to pass this bill began last year. The joint Citizen Public Security Council and Mexico City justice office—launched in January 2007—proposed the registry to facilitate its work aimed at stopping kidnappers and extortionists. This is no small chore. In just one year, the Council’s call center received 111,000 calls from citizens thought to be the victims of extortion. When someone calls, the Council, with support from the public ministry, sends a two-person team to the victim’s house to investigate. By snuffing out extortionists, the Council has helped citizens save approximately 539,980,000 pesos (US $40,585,000).

Senator Mario López Valdez of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) championed the bill given his concerns that “nobody has control” over cell phones, especially the almost 90 percent of the 73 million cellular customers with prepaid phones.

But what is the right balance between government intrusion and security in the post-9/11 world? In the U.S., many cried foul this past summer when Congress struck a deal to expand the president’s powers to spy on our phone conversations. And bloggers are rightly worried about the Mexican government’s new “invasive surveillance.” 

The Mexican telecom chamber has also voiced concern. It says the new law could actually result in “negative effects,” and possibly threaten users’ privacy and security. Criminals can still resort to public phones or the Internet or kidnap cell-phone owners and then use the phone for extortion purposes. This would just add to the number of people affected by these crimes. Telcel—Mexico’s largest mobile phone carrier—has noted the importance of creating “clear rules to guarantee the protection of consumer information.”

The Mexican Congress should be applauded for stepping up to the plate. Kidnapping and extortions must be stopped. But human rights groups and others should pay careful attention to the law’s implementation. Personal rights have to be protected, even in an era of greater insecurity.



Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

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