Newton RCUK-CONACYT - Mobile Solutions to the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic: Beyond Elite Counter-Measures Towards Citizen-Led Innovation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Law


Kidnapping has emerged as a major source of societal insecurity in Mexico, with public authorities recording 1,698 kidnappings in 2013. However, despite this being the highest number on record, official statistics reflect only a small fraction of incidents and the majority of kidnappings go unreported. Police complicity; high levels of impunity; failure to uphold the rule of law: all have eroded public confidence in state capacity to combat this illicit practice. In this context, the insecurity born of kidnapping pervades Mexican society and the so-called 'democratization' of this threat ensures that it is no longer just the rich who are exposed. This criminal phenomenon also manifests extra-territorial reach as its ramifications seep across the US-Mexico border.

Our project will chart the shifting topography of the Mexican kidnapping epidemic and examine various 'mobile solutions' that have emerged to counter it. These include strategies such as: internal/external migration; cross-border security services; escort security; and, personal locator-chips. However, our ambitions extend beyond these multiple mobilities and the protection of wealthy elites, to engage with innovative 'citizen-led' responses. Working with activist-citizens, NGOs and human rights defenders, our transnational academic collaboration will build capacity within Mexico by developing a portfolio of counter-kidnapping resources. Together we will work to provide answers to the key question: how do you counter kidnapping when you cannot access private solutions or rely on the state?

Through Participatory Action Research (PAR) with activists and victims' groups, we will explore the potential of the following resources: a counter-kidnapping handbook; a support-network for the families of kidnap victims; and, a mobile-phone 'app' developed as both a secret alerting system and a secure reporting mechanism. Harnessing the potential of new technological resources -most notably Amnesty International's 'Panic Button' app- we will explore new means to foster strategies of peer-to-peer security planning, to strengthen victims' independence and to improve their capacities to assist others. Integrating new technology into citizen-led counter-kidnapping we will work to bring forth much needed social change. We will also encourage project participants to contribute to a database of 'kidnapping diaries' by recording their narratives of this illicit phenomenon using new technology.

Whilst the connection between security and technology is often framed in terms of social or mobility control in academic debates, our research takes an alternate approach. We examine how technology can facilitate, rather than restrict, mobility, as well as how it can both protect human rights and those who defend them. By making smartphone technology available to participants and training them in Amnesty International's recently developed 'PanicButton' app, we will initiate a feedback process to calibrate this app towards the specific challenges of kidnapping in Mexico. Through collaboration with those experts who developed the app, our project is uniquely placed to harness both their expertise and the transformative potential of PAR to innovate technology for social impact; in this case citizen-led counter-kidnapping.

Our project is ambitious in seeking not only to track this illicit phenomenon across Mexico's social classes and territorial boundaries, but also to harness deeper understanding of kidnapping to both inform and innovate citizen responses. By extending counter-measures against kidnapping beyond entrepreneurial private security solutions for elites towards wider societal benefit through citizen-led action, we pioneer new thinking on how to guarantee security when states fail to uphold the rule of law. Furthermore, as kidnapping is a regional problem across Latin America, our research builds Mexican capacity but also provides a template that can be adapted for other contexts.

Planned Impact

Through ethnographic input and engagement in the participatory element of our research, users from Mexican NGOs and victims' groups concerned with kidnapping will both shape, and directly benefit from, our project. Their involvement in a cycle of PAR events will ensure ongoing feedback into research design and execution. Their contribution to group work will facilitate knowledge-exchange on counter-kidnapping. Their engagement in training exercises will stimulate peer-to-peer security planning. These activities will all contribute to three key non-academic outputs (see 'Pathways to Impact'): a citizen-led counter-kidnapping handbook; a support network for victims/their families; and, a counter-kidnapping smartphone app. This portfolio of citizen-resources will find users amongst our research participants, but will be further promoted to Mexican civil society through the relationships of our local research team and Project Partner, Gobernanza Forense Ciudadana, with interested groups such as: La Asociacion Alto al Secuestro; Comite de Accion Social; El Consejo Para la Ley y los Derechos Humanos; and, Mexico SOS.

Our project is relevant for Mexican federal institutions, as well as for international organizations actively combatting kidnapping in Latin America, notably: the United Nations Development Programme; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; the Organization of American States; and, its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Whilst their efforts to date have focused on state action and/or international co-operation, our project addresses calls for parallel efforts to promote and strengthen citizen-engagement. Our Colombian Project Partner, Fundación Pais Libre -an NGO specifically concerned with kidnapping- will have valuable input to the counter-kidnapping resources emerging from this project and will also help establish a regional platform for counter-kidnapping exchange.

Working with collaborators from Amnesty International, The Engine Room andconsultant technology developers, Iilab, our ambition to adapt the 'PanicButton' app as a counter-kidnapping device coincides with their organizational goals to engage local users and adapt 'PanicButton' for varied contexts and threats. Working at this nexus between human rights and technology, our research offers potential benefits to both spheres and is very relevant for groups exposed to risks of abduction, kidnapping and disappearance, in Mexico and other contexts, notably: human rights defenders; humanitarian workers; and, investigative reporters.

Both experiential and technological elements of our research will interest global risk professionals active in the kidnapping field. Security consultants; providers of emergency assistance; insurance specialists: these private actors similarly employ smartphone technology for travel security and emergency location. They will see value in our findings on Mexican kidnapping patterns.

The extent of societal insecurity caused by kidnapping also ensures that our work will have direct interest for Mexican media. Whilst we will promote our research through traditional outlets of press releases and interviews, we will also seek to engage with new citizen-reporting mechanisms that have emerged via social media regarding sensitive public security issues in Mexico.

As our research agenda will raise awareness of what citizens can do in the face of kidnapping, open access resources are integral to its impact strategy. We will work with local communications experts to maximize project impact via a bilingual website that will host: key findings; research briefings; project outputs; media information; and, a discussion forum. This approach will mirror that successfully used by the UK-CI in his project on the disappeared in Mexico. Members of user communities will also be invited to open project events and to the final conference in Mexico City; the latter serving as the platform to launch our counter-kidnapping resource


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Description "Kidnapping and Crime-Apping in Mexico and its Borders' - Project Workshop, University of Exeter, England 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This workshop entitled "Kidnapping and Crime-Apping in Mexico and its Borders" was convened at the Project Co-I's host institution, The University of Exeter. In addition to project members, Dr. Ernesto Schwartz-Marin, Dr. Conor O'Reilly and Dr. Camilo Tamayo-Gomez, participants also included project consultant, Dr. Gabriella Sanchez (European University Institute, Italy), invited speakers, Dr Arely Cruz-Santiago (Durham University) and Alejando Lerch-Huacuja (Cambridge University), as well as staff from the University of Exeter's Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, including representatives from research groups concerned with Science and Technology Studies as well as from Egenis, The Centre for the Study of Life Sciences. This workshop was an important opportunity to disseminate findings from project fieldwork. to 'test' new conceptual frameworks and also to discuss the ethical and technological challenges of the counter-kidnapping app that is being developed within our project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Participation in UNODC and Migration Policy Centre Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact In October 2017, Conor O'Reilly was an invited speaker at the workshop 'When Smuggling Goes Wrong: From a Crime Against State Sovereignty to a Crime Against Persons' jointly convened by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Migration Policy Centre (MPC), European university Institute, Florence, Italy. At this workshop, Conor O'Reilly presented a paper on 'Capturing (Im)mobility: The Challenges of Kidnapping Research' to peer academics, policy-makers and journalists. This workshop was aimed at framing the policy agenda regarding migrant smuggling, Conor O'Reilly's presentation spoke to the widespread problem of migrant kidnapping, the research challenges it presents and the need for it to be given greater emphasis on the policy agenda of UNODC and other relevant INGOs/NGOs. Highlighting ongoing research for the Newton Fund (ESRC) project 'Mobile Solutions to the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic: Beyond Elite Counter-Measures, Towards Citizen-Led Innovation', this workshop contribution also emphasised the importance of non-state 'solutions' to kidnapping, not least as this phenomenon is often present in locations where state influence and/or rule of law are weak. A forthcoming chapter contribution linked to this workshop and focused on policy recommendations will be published in 2018. The purpose of this event was described as follows by the organisers: 'The objective of the workshop is to strengthen partnerships between UNODC and academia, to gain a better understanding on the overall status of research in the field of smuggling of migrants, and to strengthen synergies by establishing new partnerships. The workshop will gather experts working on issues revolving around migrant smuggling to discuss their views, findings and policy recommendations.'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Radio Programme on Colombian National Radio: 'Secuestros en la Frontera Entre Mexico v Estados Unidos', Radio Nacional Colombia" (September 25, 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Conor O' Reilly (University of Leeds), Dr Camilo Tomayo Gomez (University of Leeds), Dr. Ernesto Schwartz-Marin (University of Exeter) and Dr. Gabriella Sanchez (European University Institute) appeared on one of the most popular radio programmes in Colombia to discuss their Newton Fund research project - 'Mobile Solutions to the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic: Beyond Elite Counter-Measures, Towards Citizen-Led Innovation'.

This two-hour special programme on Radio Nacional Colombia, which was also syndicated to dozens of other Latin American broadcasters, discussed their research into the Mexican kidnapping epidemic. The project works with activist citizens, NGOs and human rights defenders, to develop counter-kidnapping resources which do not rely on private solutions or the state. These include a counter-kidnapping handbook; a support-network for the families of kidnap victims; and a mobile-phone app developed as both a secret alerting system and a secure reporting mechanism. It also explores how kidnapping dynamics take on additional dimensions in the US-Mexico borderlands as they both shape, and are shaped by, border mobilities. The project will create strategies for peer-to-peer security planning, to strengthen victims' independence and to improve their capacities to assist others, which will be promoted across Mexican society.

The programme covered a range of issues around kidnapping in Mexico, the dynamics of kidnapping on the US-Mexico border, the ambitions of our project and how to combat kidnapping. Whilst the radio programme was on Colombia's national broadcaster, it was also syndicated to dozens of other Latin American radio stations. In terms of listening audience in Colombia, we had an average of 789,456, with a peak audience of 965,567.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018