Do mobile phones deter kidnappings?



MOBILE phones have allowed African farmers to check the market price of their crop and migrants to send cash back home. Might one of their less familiar benefits be the foiling of kidnappings in Colombia? That is the claim made in a new paper* by Santiago Montenegro and Álvaro Pedraza, two economists linked to Bogotá’s University of the Andes.

Colombia suffered a surge in kidnappings, peaking first in the early 1990s and then at a higher level at the end of the decade. Illegal armed groups—left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries—were responsible for most of them. But in recent years the number of kidnaps has fallen dramatically (see chart). The obvious explanation is a big security build-up under Álvaro Uribe, who was elected president in 2002. Over the next five years the security forces expanded from 307,000 members to 405,000, and police were deployed in 160 municipalities that lacked them.

But the fall in kidnappings began two years before Mr Uribe took office. Additional factors seem to be at work. Messrs Montenegro and Pedraza argue that the huge rise in kidnappings triggered its own response, with people seeking to protect themselves and demanding that the government do the same.

They find that data for different Colombian regions reveal an intriguing statistical correlation between mobile-phone coverage and falling kidnaps. For a given rise in police numbers, kidnappings fell in line with the expansion of mobile coverage in each area. Mobiles enable kidnap victims and witnesses to inform the police swiftly. Since speed is of the essence in foiling kidnaps, this made police more effective and kidnapping riskier for its perpetrators.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

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