A Mexican website that publishes and maps Twitter reports on gang activity has the potential to help combat organized crime, although there is a risk that it could expose its users to retaliation.

Retio went live in Merida, Yucatan state, in July 2011. Coverage was gradually extended to other cities, and by February this year Retio had become an iPhone app and was available in every Mexican state, as the Texas Observer reported.

The idea behind the project is that, via Twitter, the public can report anything from homicides and police abuse/corruption, to traffic jams and faulty traffic lights. Users simply have to Tweet to the city or area’s Twitter account and their message will be filtered and categorized on the Retio website, with reports being mapped where possible.

Speaking with the Texas Observer, Mario Romero, who co-founded the site with Jose Antonio Bolio, highlighted Retio’s contribution to increasing transparency and accountability. When asked whether it had attracted threats from criminal organizations, Romero said it had not, adding, “As far as criminals, especially narcos, I think they would probably be more worried about … journalistic investigations … [rather] than about citizens alerting each other about shootings.”

Romero stated that they intend to launch Retio in other countries, declaring, “The advantages offered by the collaboration and coordination between citizens are universal.”

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As the role of social media and technology in everyday life has grown in recent years, the question has arisen whether it can be used to fight organized crime. Google Ideas convened a two-day conference in July dedicated to discussing how technology can be harnessed to fight criminal gangs.

Retio is still in its infancy, but, as the Texas Observer notes, the project has over 62,000 followers on its Mexico City Twitter feed, along with some 6,000 Tweets. However, some other parts of the country have seen less of a response. Ciudad Juarez, whose account was launched in July, only has 15 followers and three Tweets. Romero says many other cities saw a similarly slow start.

Security has been improving in Ciudad Juarez, but based on 2011 homicide rates, it was still the second most violent city in the world, with a rate of 147 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Civic Council on Public Security and Criminal Justice.

By Romero’s own admission, Retio offers no option of anonymity. His assertion that gangs are more concerned with journalistic coverage may be a little optimistic. If Retio was to progress to providing more detailed information on gang activity it could bring users unwanted attention from criminals.

The potential for gang retaliation against citizens who use social media to expose criminal actions was demonstrated by the brutal killings of four people in Nuevo Laredo last year, who the Zetas claimed had posted information about the gang online. One of the dead worked for a website that included interactive maps marking drug sales and stash houses. A note left with two of the victims read, “This will happen to all Internet snitches.”

In addition to this, there is the risk of false reporting. Even though Retio employs a filtering system, it will not be able to rule out all bogus claims of violence or police corruption. Rumors circulating online last month about a criminal rampage in parts of Mexico State, which authorities claimed were false, resulted in businesses and schools closing and 500 extra police being deployed.

Retio’s objective of increasing transparency and exposing injustice — be it within the official or criminal realm — could make a contribution to combating crime if Mexican authorities respond to the initiative. However, as with other social media initiatives, there is a risk that users could be exposed to retribution from gangs.

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