Why you should care
Because if we really want to outsmart the next generation of criminals, we have to start thinking outside the box.
Two men sit in a restaurant eating lunch. It might look like an innocent scene to most, but Eduardo Salcedo sees a crime.
“Most criminal activity goes unnoticed because it’s not violent,” he says.
“What if the lunch is a meeting to discuss a bribe that will deprive a hospital of funding and cause the death of 10 patients?”
Sound paranoid? Not when that is exactly what happened in Colombia several years ago and is precisely what Salcedo investigates. Like a modern Sherlock Holmes, he uses unconventional techniques to unravel the mysteries of corruption, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
I am a very pragmatic person who thinks scientists have a moral obligation to aim their research at helping others.
— Eduardo Salcedo
His methods — a mix of neuroscience, artificial intelligence and social network analysis — may be controversial, but they are trusted by institutions like Transparency International, Global Integrity and Colombia’s government. The latter assigned him to a task force in 2004 to help tackle the country’s endemic corruption problem.
Salcedo relied on his deductive skills and multidisciplinary mindset to connect the dots between hundreds of apparently unrelated incidents and come up with an extensive list of suspected dirty politicians and narco-paramilitary members.
He uncovered rampant corruption at even the highest levels of Colombia’s intelligence agency. “It was fascinating from a scientific perspective but terrifying from a human one,” he says, adding that it was incredibly frustrating to then confront a judicial system — equally riddled with corruption — that took its time in putting many of those names behind bars.
In 2006, authorities finally confiscated the laptop of the powerful paramilitary general Rodrigo Tovar Pupo and other evidence corroborating Salcedo’s theories — including details on more than 500 murders and dozens of signed agreements with congressmen and other public officials.
Salcedo began to experiment with artificial intelligence, designing software and writing algorithms capable of mirroring his thought processes.
Salcedo’s interest in crime began at an early age. As a native of Bogotà, Colombia, he grew up playing “to the sound of bombs,” explaining that the “violence was very present, and I always thought I needed to do something about it.”
Instead of studying criminology, however, Salcedo chose philosophy, a discipline he loved but quickly realized was not a practical path for him. “I am a very pragmatic person who thinks scientists have a moral obligation to aim their research at helping others,” he says.
And so he refocused his efforts on investigating crime, an issue in Colombia that is as socially relevant as it is dangerous. While he prefers not to think about it, Salcedo admits that on several occasions, a person who had agreed to share information with him was murdered before they could meet.
But conducting secret interviews is only a small part of his detective work. Early in his career, Salcedo spent most of his time sifting through hundreds of documents, entering numbers into seemingly infinite spreadsheets and trying to identify criminal patterns. But in 2005, while serving as a consultant for the Colombian presidency and security agencies, he concluded that there had to be a more efficient approach to research.
So Salcedo began to experiment with artificial intelligence, designing software and writing algorithms capable of mirroring his thought processes and identifying interactions between individuals.
“This software now allows us to go through data much faster and to represent the networks graphically,” he explains. His representations have already proven useful on multiple occasions, including the high-profile corruption trial in Colombia, where Salcedo’s graphic network representations helped the judge reach a verdict.
He used algorithms to organize thousands of pieces of data and generate the visual model that allowed the magistrate to see how more than 2,000 assassinations and hundreds of family displacements had all been ordered by a single army commander through an extensive net of contacts.
Not belonging to any particular discipline is what allows me to have a fresh perspective.
— Eduardo Salcedo
While many applaud Salcedo’s efforts, not everyone is a fan of his extravagant methods. His use of social network analysis has attracted skepticism from academics who, like David Liben-Nowell from MIT, point out there are significant risks when “one constructs a network and then tries to infer additional links that, while not directly visible, are likely to exist.” In other words, just because two people happen to be in the same place at the same time or have a friend in common doesn’t necessarily prove they are conspiring together.
And there are those who are not comfortable with Salcedo’s use of nontraditional categories, such as “dark agents” or “friends,” while a peer reviewer once labeled his recommendations on drug trafficking and corruption as “absurdly Utopian.”
In general, philosophers say he’s too practical while scientists say he’s too abstract, and both agree their disciplines should not be mixed. But Salcedo is happy hovering over the blurred lines. “Not belonging to any particular discipline is what allows me to have a fresh perspective. Because I don’t have anything to defend,” he contends.
He does defend his innovative and interdisciplinary approach, however, and has co-founded the transnational research group Vortex.
Being a corporate consultant or a think tank analyst would be more lucrative, but Salcedo, not unlike Sherlock Holmes, refuses to compromise. “When you start worrying about the money or who gets published first, you are not free anymore. I need to be free to tell people what they don’t want to hear,” he explains.
I know nothing. I’m just a philosopher.
— Eduardo Salcedo
And what people don’t want to hear is that crime is everywhere and their views on it are probably wrong. “We tend to think about crime in terms of black and white,” says Salcedo, who believes such a limited position inevitably dismisses the middle of the spectrum where most crime actually occurs.
To study this “gray area,” he says, one must avoid moralizing and “observe without judgment” — an approach that frees him to move beyond conventional assumptions and spot new criminal trends. In fact, he believes that updating our perception is crucial if we want to outsmart a new generation of criminals. For example, according to Salcedo, cartels are no longer pyramid organizations, and criminals are becoming increasingly internationalized. So his next challenge is finding ways to map these trends.
Keeping up with Afghan heroin in Bulgaria or South American cartels in Senegal is extremely complicated, but the scientist-turned-detective hopes to use social network analysis to build a global database of criminal activity updated in real time.
If Salcedo succeeds with such an ambitious project, it could be the worst nightmare of every corrupt official and drug dealer in the world. And it’s here that Salcedo distinguishes himself from Holmes by remaining modestly unassuming.
He sees no reason to boast. “After all,” he says, “I know nothing. I’m just a philosopher.”
Perhaps his fresh thinking and humble altruism are exactly what the crime-fighting world needs.