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Coscia Rios

Coscia Rios

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Published by Houston Chronicle

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Published by: Houston Chronicle on Nov 02, 2012
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How and where do criminals operate?Using Google to track Mexican drug traffickingorganizations
Michele Coscia
CID, Harvard Kennedy SchoolViridiana Rios
Department of Government, Harvard UniversityAugust 14, 2012
We develop a tool that uses Web content to obtain quantitative infor-mation about the mobility and
modus operandi 
of criminal groups, infor-mation that would otherwise require the operation of large scale, expensiveintelligence exercises to be obtained. Exploiting indexed reliable sourcessuch as online newspapers and blogs, we use unambiguous query termsand Google’s search engine to identify the areas of operation of criminalorganizations, and to extract information about the particularities of theirmobility patters. We apply our tool to Mexican criminal organizations toidentify their market strategies, their preferred areas of operation, and theway in which these have evolved over the last two decades. By extractingthis knowledge, we provide crucial information for academics and policymakers increasingly interested in organized crime. Our findings provideevidence that criminal organizations are more strategic and operate inmore differentiated ways than current academic literature had suggested.
1 Introduction
Organized crime has become an increasing concern for international securitystudies. Violent criminal groups in Mexico have been attributed 51 thousandhomicides in the last five years
leading some to conclude that Mexico has be-come a failed state. The Japanese Mafia controls an increasingly profitablemarket of methamphetamines in Asia [26,21]raising concerns over the ability of the state to enforce the law. Rackets of human trafficking in Haiti operate
michele coscia@hks.harvard.edu
mostly untouched by authorities[30], as do rackets of endangered-species smug-glers in other developing countries like Singapore, Manila, Indonesia and Jakarta[52]. Bosnia’s sex trafficking industry[4], and contemporary African pirates[25] are expanding criminal enterprises that pose important security threatens.Yet, as much attention as organized crime has recently attracted, very fewis known about its territorial dynamics. Research has pointed out to its in-creasing degree of fluidity and structural complexity[2,49,58](cited by [9]), but as[56]mentioned in his influential review of our current understanding of crime, “studies tend to lack detail regarding the modus operandi and logisticsof transnational criminal activities.”If until now academics and policymakers have been unable to fully explainand understand criminal organizations in detail is because an inherent difficultyposed by the study of illegal actors: lack of data. Criminal organizations hide fora living. Most research has tried to overcome this fact by relying in interviews[59,16], or expensive long-term data classification endeavors from wiretaps ornewspapers[38,35]. Yet, the information extracted in this way is site-specific, and vary in quality and extension depending on who collects it. In the practicalground, the high cost of intelligence exercises has left few options for enforce-ment agencies in developing countries with low budgets to assess the activitiesof organized crime. Considering that criminology literature points to trackingthe location and territory of criminal organizations as one of the most basic anduseful tools for improving governments’ enforcement capabilities and for pro-moting the rule of law
,developing an easy-to-use, inexpensive tool to extractinformation of where and how criminal organizations operate feels urgent.This paper does it. We develop a tool that helps academics and low-budgetenforcement agencies to assess where and how criminal organizations operate,without requiring costly intelligence exercises. Our tool named MOGO, filtersthe vast amount of knowledge available at the Web and, utilizing some alreadyindexed reliable sources such as online newspapers and blogs and unambiguousquery terms, identifies critical features of criminal organizations, such as, forexample, the cities at which they operate. We first use MOGO to identify themunicipalities in which each of thirteen different Mexican drug trafficking or-ganizations have operated over the last two decades, as well as identifying howeach of these differ in their market strategies. Our results provide the mostup to date and accurate information of Mexico’s criminal industry, and indus-try that due to its large violence propensity
, has increasingly become one of 
Large reductions in homicide rates in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, a and variouscities in the United States have all been attributed to improved mechanisms for understandingcriminal mobility, territoriality and the timing of crime. For example, a reduction of 75% indrug-related homicides happening at Tampa, Florida from 1989 to 1991 has been attributedto the ability of local police departments to predict where criminals will go after one of theirbases of operation has been cracked down on
the most important concerns in terms of international security issues for the US.We use the web because it is an extremely valuable depository of up-to-date, public, and private information. Data that used to be secret and difficultto access is now publicly shared, discussed and posted on specialized blogs andforums. The activities of criminals groups are not the exception. Members of criminal organizations share information of their operations, activities and ri-valries on websites. They communicate with their allies, threat their enemiesand brag about their achievement in forums and discussion boards
.Not only criminals share information at the web, also journalists and civil-ians do. Sensitive information which would endanger the lives of those exposingit can be safely shared in digital, local newspapers and information blogs. Fur-thermore, unlike printed media, blogs have quite efficient ways to interact withreaders and extract additional information from them. People share more in-formation on websites than in personal interviews or any other form of humaninteraction
Furthermore, unlike traditional methods of collecting data, information comesto forums without the need for a researcher or intelligence agency to activelyseek it out. Common people - those who may remain out of reach even for themost dedicated journalist or investigator - seek out the web forum on their own,commenting and sharing insider knowledge at their convenience. If a decadeago the main constraint faced by investigators was information access, now theconstraint is how to manage, filter, and gather the massive amounts of informa-tion that we have access to. Under current circumstances, the huge potential of internet as a tool for information collection remains weakly exploited. We seekto harness this power with our information processing tool.Even if the web is the most famous and the largest repository of explicitknowledge, it is not until know that academics have started using it to extractexplicit knowledge because of two large difficulties: its size and reliability. Read-ing all that has ever been posted at the web is almost impossible, and many arethe concerns over whether the information contained in the web is to be trusted.In this paper, we prove that these two difficulties can be overcome in in-
Actually, large criminal organizations have been discovered and broken down preciselyby tracking their online communications’ forums. The key of this type of law enforcementoperation lies in figuring out which forums and blogs to search within the web. Our tool willalso be helpful for the execution of these operations by allowing law enforcement agenciesto perform larger searches that would otherwise require an unfeasible number of individualsreading online posts.
Academics and entrepreneurs have just begun to take advantage of this behavior withquite promising results. The success of new business models like online-dating services liesprecisely on their ability to extract extremely personal information from a large set of internetusers - information that people would normally refuse to share personally - and use it to feedcomplex compatibility-matching algorithms.

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