These days, Google searches are used for everything, from checking movie times, to verifying quick facts to finding information about the person you just met. It is also used to track the movements of some of the world’s deadliest drug cartels.
A group of researchers at Harvard University is using Google searches to track the movement of Mexico’s drug cartels and found that, despite popular belief, the criminal organizations are far from taking over the country.
Using an algorithm that takes data from Google searches to determine where the cartels operate, the Harvard researchers found that the groups have an active presence in the less than one third of all municipalities in Mexico.
“The disaggregation up to the municipal level allowed us to challenge the widespread assumption that drug traffickers control vast regions of Mexico’s territory dividing the country in oligopolistic markets,” wrote Michele Coscia and Viridiana Rios of Harvard University. “Instead, we show that traffickers select their areas of operation with finer detail.”
For example, the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and thought to be the country’s largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization, was previously thought to have a heavy presence throughout its home state of the same name. The Harvard study, however, determined that the cartel only operates in 14 of the state’s 18 municipalities.
The study also found that the cartels tend to be concentrated around ports of entry to the U.S., large urban areas in Mexico and near major conduits that connect ports or roads to the U.S.
“Actually, according to our results, drug trafficking organizations only operate in 713 of 2,441 municipalities in Mexico. Large areas the country completely lack of the presence of a drug trafficking organizations,” Coscia and Rios wrote. “Our data changes our understanding of criminal territoriality, showing that drug trafficking organizations pick their areas of operation quite selectively.”
The Harvard findings also argued that despite common beliefs, Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations tend to operate in the same territory and share access to highways and other ports of entry into the U.S.
This does not mean things are friendly between the drug cartels and the Mexican government.
Since outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on the nation’s drug cartels in 2006, it is estimated that over 60,000 people have been killed in the ensuing violence. Included in these statistics are drug traffickers killed in turf wars, Mexican security forces and civilians.
“The Mexican government argues that the violence shows that its aggressive strategy is forcing gangs to split and take on one another, often in increasingly brutal and gruesome fashion,” The BBC wrote.
Incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to revamp the drug war strategy, to move away from Calderón’s tactics of taking down major cartel figures and instead focus on reducing the violent crime rate in the country.
“[Violence] is the most sensitive issue for Mexicans,” Peña Nieto told the Financial Times. “Mexico cannot put up with this scenario of death and kidnapping.”