Cracking crime with Twitter in Spain

By Aida Prados
BBC Mundo

image captionSpanish police celebrate their 500,000th follower on Twitter with a cake

With Twitter reaching ever further into all aspects of life, police forces are investigating how they can use it to help fight crime. Spain is at the forefront of this revolution.

Officials are now frequently posting attention-grabbing messages to alert citizens to serious crimes and also to track down suspects.

The information gathered helped them carry out at least 300 arrests on drug charges last year.

The Spanish-language account @policia has the second-biggest following for a police force in the world, after the FBI.

It does not just help gather clues to crimes - it also helps spread information.

"Drugs = poo, even a child can understand that," goes one tweet. "Get hooked and you are on a downer for life. Try to deal and you'll regret it forever."

So popular have the messages proved, that they can easily gather 5,000 retweets.

Officials cannot believe their own popularity.

"It has been incredible for us but credit goes to the people who generously give us their trust and support," says Carlos Fernandez Guerra, from the digital strategy team of the Spanish National Police.

'Tweet raids'

With the use of the information gathered on Twitter, in the past year the Spanish police have been able to warn people against new viruses and online fraud, continue the hunt for some of the most-wanted fugitives and arrest people accused of spreading child pornography on the internet.

Input from Spanish users of Twitter is proving a vital part of the strategy.

In the battle against drug-trafficking, Spanish police have made what they call "tweet raids" - attempts to use Twitter to solicit potential leads from tweeters.

The Spanish police first launch an online campaign to spread the word on Twitter, and provide internet users with a specific email account that guarantees confidentiality to facilitate online collaboration.

image captionThe force plans "tweet patrols"

According to official figures, tweet raids led to the arrest of 300 individuals in Spain last year.

"We received about 11,500 emails containing valuable information thanks to one of our tweet raids," says Mr Fernandez Guerra.

"Such information was filtered by the drugs department and was later conveyed to the respective local police forces, which incorporated the data into their own investigations."

One of the biggest coups for the Spanish police was a tweet raid last year that led to the seizure of 277kg (610lb) of cocaine, hidden in cowhide which arrived in Spain from the Dominican Republic.

The Spanish police received the tip-off by email and this allowed them to identify and capture a drug-trafficking ring distributing cocaine in Spain.

According to Spanish police, they are just trying to use the online tools available to become what they call "police 3.0", and a model for other police forces worldwide.

Model for others

This month, @policia reached half a million followers on Twitter.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Twitter and the FBI were among those who sent messages to congratulate the institution.

"@policia congrats on your half million followers," the FBI wrote. "The greatest weapon against crime is the co-operation of the citizens we serve."

One notable recent success was an arrest in a high-profile rape case, relating to an attack on a 15-year-old girl at a party in a park in Seville.

Several people who were in the vicinity took photographs of the young woman and her aggressor which later circulated across the social networks.

After locating the author of an image posted on Twitter, who had apparently witnessed the episode, police made contact with him and obtained enough information to be able to arrest the main suspect.

Spain's success with Twitter is already resonating in other countries.

In police forces in Colombia, Ecuador and Chile, there is also a growing use of information from social networks to track down criminal activities.

"We are constantly sharing information with these three countries in order to improve our investigations with the use of social networks," says Mr Fernandez Guerra.

The next step for Spanish police will be the creation of "tweet patrols".

The aim is to live-tweet from a police patrol during a night shift to allow users to experience live policing.

As Mr Fernandez Guerra says, it is all crucial to keep the people on board.

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