As Guatemala debates creating a national data base to cut down on cell phone theft, a key source of funding for the country's street gangs, skepticism remains about the viability of such an ambitious undertaking.
The original proposal, shelved by Guatemala's Congress in 2011, would have created a registry of more than 15 million cell phones. Legislator Nineth Montenegro has again presented the bill, adding stricter penalties for mobile theft, including prison sentences of up to eight years and more than $30,000 in fines.
On Monday, a roundtable of government officials, civil society leaders, and phone company representatives began discussing the proposal, which would make two data lists available to the police: one of all active cell phones, and another of all the phones reported stolen. Guatemala's Superintendency of Telecommunications, a regulatory agency under the Ministry of Communication, Infrastructure, and Housing, would be required to create and update the lists.
Under the proposed law, purchasers would be required to give personal information when buying phones, ranging from providing a name to leaving a fingerprint. Advisor to the attorney general's office Javier Monterosso told Prensa Libre this will make prosecuting cell phone theft cases easier.
According to Monterosso, an average of 10,000 cell phones are stolen each month in Guatemala.
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The controversy over this proposal is reflective of the serious demands it would place on phone companies. Prensa Libre reported that a representative of cell phone company Movistar said it would take more than 1,500 full-time employees to manage the registry, which would still not cover every cell phone in Guatemala due to the difficulty of registering rural mobile users. Another representative, a legal expert, voiced concerns about the misuse of such a registry.
It is easy to imagine how such a database could be abused. For example, Javier Monterosso, the attorney general's advisor, suggested the law could be used to crack down on extortion by cell phone, but this raises questions about mass surveillance and civil liberties violations. The use of such a comprehensive database would likely not remain confined to tracking extortion and theft, if authorities discover its value in combating a wide range of other crimes.
Still, the ambition of the project reflects just how common cell phone theft has become in Guatemala. The practice is a perfect source of funding for street gangs: cell phones are ubiquitous, valuable, compact, and relatively unprotected. Like much of Latin America, Guatemala's mobile industry revolves around the use of prepaid calling cards, making it easy for phones to change hands. This means gangs can steal and resell mobile devices with ease. As a result, a study by one nonprofit organization estimated that almost three quarters of Guatemala's businesses had at least one employee who had been affected by cell phone theft.