As Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries experience rampant violence and corruption, hundreds of thousands of their people seek to leave the region to come to the United States. Most disturbingly, these populations are immediately vulnerable to human traffickers and related criminal organizations that currently operate with too little risk of punishment.
The Mexican government has been chronically unable to effectively address the violence the country faces. Last year, the first year of President López Obrador’s administration and his “hugs, not bullets” strategy, was the most violent year on record in Mexican history, with 34,582 murders — surpassing the previous record from the year before.
At the end of 2019 alone, the Sinaloa Cartel handily defeated the Mexican military and secured the release of the sons of El Chapo, the notorious drug lord, from Mexican federal custody. In addition, nine American citizens who lived in a religious community in northern Mexico were brutally murdered by the cartels. These levels of violence seriously thwart human trafficking investigations in the country, as victims are afraid to identify themselves or testify against their traffickers for fear of retribution.
Violence is also a problem in the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While homicide rates have significantly decreased in the last few years, these countries are still some of the most dangerous in the hemisphere as gangs use violence to extort money from citizens and businesses that reside and operate in areas where they exercise de facto control. Women and children are frequent targets — which helps explain the massive number of families and unaccompanied alien children (UACs) making their way to the U.S. border.
Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), including Mexican cartels and Central American gangs, have turned to human trafficking as a major source of income. MS-13 is a prime example of this trend. While MS-13 gangs have not been able to significantly extend the practice of extortion in the U.S., as they do in Central America, they do engage in sex trafficking both to sustain themselves and send money back to their leadership. Between 2009 and 2015, social workers and police officers in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., detected at least nine child prostitution rings run by MS-13.
Corruption, impunity, and political suppression are also significant challenges that Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries face. Transparency International ranked the four countries among the most corrupt nations in the Western hemisphere, and the 2017 Global Impunity Index indicated that Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador are among the countries with the highest levels of impunity (avoidance of punishment) in the world.
Making things worse is the fact that cartels in Mexico and gangs in the Northern Triangle demonstrate tremendous political influence. They make up substantial electoral blocks and have the resources to pay off public officials, and territorial control gives them the ability to manipulate political processes in their region. Politicians who oppose these criminal organizations and journalists who report on corruption and crime put their lives in danger.
These conditions hamper U.S. efforts to help these countries address these issues and combat human trafficking. The U.S. State Department has indicated that law enforcement and judicial officials in Mexico and the Northern Triangle do not have the necessary training, resources, or personnel to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases properly. Training programs provided by the U.S. are limited in their usefulness, as the constant turnover of both law enforcement and judicial personnel limits their effectiveness, and low wages make these officials easy targets for bribes and working with criminal organizations.
In fact, many smuggling and trafficking networks rely on corruption to operate. Corrupt government, law enforcement, and military officials in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries have facilitated the operations of human traffickers, and at times have even been directly involved with trafficking networks. It is therefore no surprise that while the number of trafficking victims identified in the region has increased, the region’s governments are not proportionately convicting as many traffickers.
In sum, there is a self-reinforcing cycle of criminal activity that profits from transnational human trafficking. Migrants are terrorized in their home countries by criminal organizations, so they pay other criminal organizations to take them to the United States. On the way, they have to pay off even more criminal organizations and/or corrupt government officials to be allowed passage. Then they are exploited once in the U.S. by forced labor or prostitution (many times because of debt bondage to pay for the smugglers’ service), and, finally, the funds gathered by the illicit activities that they are forced to engage in are sent back to their home countries to criminal organizations to restart the process.
Igor C. Magalhaes is an Immigration Legislative Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.