WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Google, so far, has won the search engine war. Now it wants to target international crime, including Mexico's powerful drug cartels.
Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, has taken a keen interest in Mexico, where more than 47,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against the cartels in 2006. Schmidt recently visited one of Mexico's most violent cities, Ciudad Juarez, where civic leaders asked for help.
"Defeated, helpless, these people have been so hardened in their experience with cartels that they have lost battles and they have lost hope," Schmidt told a conference on international crime this week. "They were looking for a universal hammer to protect them. For me, the answer was obvious: It was technology," he said.
Experts told the conference that Mexico's cartels often use more sophisticated technology than law enforcement. Cartel assets include mapping software that tracks the location of police from high-tech control rooms; remote control submarines; and military-grade rocket launchers.
Drug-dealing organizations can intercept satellite feeds, including images broadcast by intelligence agency drones. They run money-laundering networks that handle an estimated $25 billion a year in drug profits.
"It's a technological arms race, and at this moment they're winning," said Marc Goodman, founder of Future Crimes, who studies the nexus of technology and transnational crime.
Google's ideas include creating a network so citizens can safely report cartel activity without fear of retribution. It wants to make sharing real-time intelligence easier among police in different regions. It can identify how individuals are connected to each other, to bank accounts and even to corrupt government officials. It can create community Web platforms for citizens to share information and name and shame criminals.
The talk also addressed human and arms trafficking, exploitation of child soldiers, and airport and seaport security.
Nancy Roberts, a defense analysis professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., noted that in Mexico, police officials can tap phones, use tracking devices and tap into computer networks. But that does little good unless someone can sort through the evidence.
"Our jobs are making sense of all the data so law enforcement knows how, when and where to strike," she said.
Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City-based security consultant, wasn't optimistic that technology alone can disrupt narcotraffickers.
"You should never underestimate the power of these guys," Guerrero said. "They're probably even aware of what's going on here and will figure out a way to use it to their advantage."