The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hundreds of women disappear in Ciudad Juárez each year. A smartphone app could help.

The engine fueling the disappearance of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is hard to pin down — gang violence, serial killers, drug cartels, or a cultural indifference to women have all been highlighted as contributing factors. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
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Just across the Rio Grande, pink crosses mark streets and desert hillsides surrounding Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — a grim reminder of the hundreds of Mexican women who have disappeared or been killed in the border town since the early 1990s.

The possible engine behind the grim statistics is hard to pin down — gang violence, serial killers, drug cartels, or a cultural indifference to women have all been highlighted as contributing factors. Violent crimes against women are such a problem in the region one United Nations official declared in 2015 “femicides are a pandemic in Mexico.”

But now the local government and activists are hoping to leverage smartphone tech against the violence. Last week, the city released an app designed to help women in danger. The program, called “No Estoy Sola” (“I am not alone,” in English) essentially gives the women of Juarez a quick-trigger distress call in the event of an attack or attempted kidnapping.

“We are not doing this to alarm the community,” Juarez’s Mayor Armando Cabada, said at a news conference last week, according to the El Paso Times. “We just want to give young girls the tools so that when they feel in danger, they can give us information that will help us locate them immediately in case of a dangerous situation.”

The app allows users to pre-load five contact numbers into the program. By simply shaking the phone or punching a button, the app will immediately send a text message to the selected contacts with the user’s location. Veronica Corchado, the director of the city’s institute for women, told the El Paso Times the alerts do not go directly to police because many residents do not trust Juarez’s law enforcement.

The app, which is free, is just one piece of a larger citywide push to increase public safety, particularly in the city’s downtown area. “No Estoy Sola” was originally set to be released later this year, but the uptick in local violence forced an early rollout.

Last April, a Mexico-based think tank — the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice — placed Juarez at 37th on its list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world. A year earlier, the city had actually fallen off the ranking — a considerable achievement after 2010, when Juarez topped the nonprofit’s list. But in 2016, the city’s murder rate doubled from the previous year — 43.63 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the El Paso Times.

“No Estoy Sola” is currently only available on Android phones. The city says it will soon be available for Apple’s iPhone.

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