Human Trafficking in the United States and Mexico

By Oriana Delgado 

The present article summarizes the current situation of human trafficking in the U.S. and Mexico. Challenges and recent efforts to address migrant smuggling and human trafficking will be critically analysed. Finally, recommendations will be provided for a continued partnership between the U.S. and Mexico to address human trafficking along the border.

 Smuggling of migrants across the Mexico-US border

 A high number of Mexican and Latin American citizens are smuggled each year into the U.S. through the Mexico-US border with the promise of better job opportunities. In the fiscal year of 2017, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recorded 143,470 arrests of individuals in violation of the immigration laws. In the same year, 226,119 individuals were deported from the United States. The majority of such individuals were originally from Mexico (128,765), followed by Guatemala (33,570) and Honduras (22,381) (ICE, 2017).

Some individuals who enter illegally the U.S. find jobs in industries such as agriculture, food, construction and hospitality. Others, however, are coerced into forced labour or prostitution (Garza, 2011). Thus, smuggling operations can quickly turn into the crime of human trafficking.


 Distinguishing Between Smuggling and Human Trafficking

Smuggling and Human Trafficking are two concepts that need to be explained and distinguished. On one hand, smuggling of migrants is defined as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident” (UN, 2000a, p. 2). Generally, individuals who are smuggled consent to the act.

On the other hand, human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation or transfer of individuals using threat, force, fraud or other coercive measures for the purpose of sex, labour, or other forms of exploitation (UN, 2000b). Victims of trafficking either do not consent to the act of trafficking or consent is obtained through coercion, deception and fraud. Frequently, victims of human trafficking believe that they are being smuggled and have consented to that, when in fact they are being transported to be exploited (Garza, 2011).

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Protocol (UNODC, 2008) protects human trafficking victims in cases involving crossing a border illegally (i.e., transnationality). For instance, undocumented migrants who initially consented to be smuggled across the Mexico-U.S. border, but that were subsequently coerced into trafficking, should not be punished for the act of border crossing. In these cases, the illegality of the border crossing should be irrelevant (UNODC, 2008). While smuggling is a crime in which individuals consent to the illegal act of being smuggled, individuals who are trafficked do not consent to such acts. For this reason, individuals who are trafficked should be considered and treated as victims, not criminals.


 Human trafficking Legislation in the U.S. and Mexico

In the U.S., the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) forbids all forms of human trafficking. Penalties for such crimes can include up to life imprisonment. In addition, the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act (2017) states that victims of human trafficking are allowed to vacate federal convictions of crimes as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking.

In Mexico, the general anti-trafficking law of 2012 prohibits all forms of human trafficking. Penalties range from five to 30 years imprisonment (Camara de Diputados, 2014). In addition, similar to the U.S., the Mexican law has provisions to protect trafficking victims from being punished for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking.

The US- Mexico Bilateral Partnership: Challenges and Recent Efforts.

Human trafficking along the U.S. Mexico border seems to be controlled in Mexico mainly by small, independent networks who smuggle and traffic victims into the U.S. (Pope, 2012). In these cases, it is beneficial for both the U.S. and Mexican authorities to partner together during the investigation and prosecution of the members of such criminal organisations. Therefore, they can share valuable corroborating evidence and work under similar guidelines to ensure efficiency.

In 2009, the U.S. and Mexico launched the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Human Trafficking Enforcement Initiative to initiate prosecutions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.This initiative has achieved a total of 170 U.S. federal prosecutions, 30 Mexican state and federal prosecutions, and has rescued over 200 victims of trafficking (DOJ, 2017b).However, there have been multiple barriers to the collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico. According to Pope (2012), the main challenges include a lack of trusted, vetted law enforcement partners, a lack of investigative support, and differences in investigative practice between the two countries. Even so, the U.S. and Mexican law enforcements have recently applied strategies to overcome such challenges. Strategies include the utilisation of an ongoing working group to facilitate communication exchange between partners and the provision of specialized training to both the U.S. and the Mexican law enforcement.

Mexican_army_and_Aguascalientes_state_police blue.jpg

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) continued partnering with their Mexican counterparts. One of the greatest accomplishments of the partnership was the arrest and prosecution of several members of the Rendon-Reyes Trafficking Organization, a criminal group which operated a sex-trafficking network across Mexico and New York. For over a decade, members of the organisation smuggled young women from Mexico and Latin America into the U.S., and subsequently coerced them into prostitution. The perpetrators were arrested simultaneously in the U.S. and Mexico (DOJ, 2017a).

 Victims of Human Trafficking: Protection and Prevention in the U.S. and Mexico

United States

Victims of human trafficking who enter the U.S. illegally are at increased risk of being criminalised and deported by law enforcement. In addition, they are at high risk of facing retaliation from the criminal groups in case they collaborate with law enforcement in investigations and prosecutions. Therefore, the U.S. applied two main strategies to increase victim protection in 2016, as reported in the Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. Department of State (DOS, 2017). First, the U.S. government granted “T” non-immigrant status to 750 victims compared to 610 in 2015. The T non-immigrant visa allows victims to remain and work in the U.S. for at least four years. Victims are then entitled to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. Second, federal funding for victim assistance increased from $13.8 million in 2015 to $19.7 million in 2016. Victim assistance includes services such as medical and mental health, legal assistance and employment. Nonetheless, even with these efforts to increase victim protection and despite the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act (2017), which exonerates trafficking victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, there are reports of local and state authorities arresting and prosecuting trafficking victims. Additionally, reports reveal that some victims feel pressure to testify against their traffickers to obtain access to services.

According to DOS (2017), the U.S. also applied a number of strategies to improve human trafficking prevention. First, the U.S. Health & Human Services (HHS) continued to fund The National Human Trafficking Hotline, an anti-trafficking hotline which serves victims and survivors of human trafficking. In 2016, the hotline received 51,167 calls from across the United States. Second, the government updated the “Know Your Rights” pamphlet which provides information for victims and survivors on topics such as temporary work and exchange visitor visas. Third, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continued its nationwide human trafficking awareness Blue Campaign. DHS and DOJ collaborated with the departments of Transportation (DOT), Agriculture (USDA), Education (ED) and Labour (DOL) to create awareness in such industries and provide training on identifying and responding to potential victims of trafficking. Fourth, the government continued its efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex by prosecuting individuals who pay or attempt to pay for commercial sex.



 The U.S. Department of State’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report also reviewed Mexico’s performance in terms of victim protection in the year 2016. As opposed to the U.S., the Mexican government decreased protection efforts in a number of areas. First, the government recognised fewer victims, as it identified 740 trafficking victims in 2016- 707 for sex trafficking, 15 for forced labour, 14 for forced criminality, two for slave-like conditions, one for slavery, and one for forced begging- compared with a total of 1,814 trafficking victims in 2015. Second, the government offered limited specialized services for identified trafficking victims. In 2016, the Executive Commission for Victims’ Assistance (CEAV) did not report the budget designated to victim assistance, in contrast to 47 million pesos ($2.3 million) spent in 2015. Third, victim services were insufficient compared to the number of trafficking victims identified by officials and NGOs. For instance, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Violence Against Women and Trafficking in Persons (FEVIMTRA), which operates a high-security shelter in Mexico City for female victims of violence, received 71.6 million pesos ($3.5 million) in 2016, compared with 93.4 million pesos ($4.5 million) in 2015. Although the State of Mexico and the City of Mexico opened trafficking-specific shelters in 2016, NGOs with foreign donor or private funding provided the majority of specialized assistance during the year. Fourth, case management and victim support were weak. A high number of victims were afraid to identify themselves as trafficking victims and only few assisted in investigations and prosecutions due to fear of retribution from traffickers, lack of specialized victim services, and distrust of authorities. Even though the Mexican law allows trafficking victims to vacate federal convictions of crimes as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, NGOs reported that in practice some officials unlawfully detained or punished victims.

On the other hand, DOS (2017) reported that the Mexican government increased prevention efforts in 2016. First, the Mexico City government provided funding to an NGO-run anti-trafficking hotline. The hotline received 646 calls in 2016, resulting in the identification of 71 individual trafficking victims and 21 groups. Second, the National Human Rights Commission initiated a national awareness campaign in airports and bus terminals and provided anti-trafficking training sessions for a range of audiences. Third, the Secretary of Labour and Social Welfare issued an inspection protocol for use in federal job centres within the agricultural sector. The protocol provides information to identify victims of forced labour and to report such crimes to law enforcement officials. Fourth, in order to improve data collection and reports on human trafficking victims, the inter-secretarial anti-trafficking commission continued to develop a national information system. Such a system could track the number of victims identified, referred, and assisted across Mexico.

Next Steps

 The U.S. Department of State (DOS, 2017) classifies the countries in three Tiers based on their level of engagement to address human trafficking: Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3. Tier 1 comprises countries which fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA, 2000) minimum standards for the eradication of trafficking. Tier 2 includes countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to improve. In Tier 3 are countries which do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not demonstrating substantial efforts to do so.

According to DOS (2017), the United States fully met the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, positioning the country in Tier 1. During 2016, the government significantly increased the number of identified trafficking victims as well as the number of traffickers convicted. In addition, the government provided services to a greater number of trafficking victims, including immigration relief for foreign national victims. Nonetheless, the government of the U.S. should increase efforts to implement victim-centred anti-trafficking laws and policies, and to improve the investigation and prosecution of labour trafficking cases.

In contrast, DOS (2017) reported that the Government of Mexico does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, positioning the country in Tier 2. Even so, the government demonstrated increasing efforts by convicting more traffickers and implementing new anti-trafficking prevention strategies in the travel and tourism sector. Still, complicity by officials and limited data reporting continued to be a serious issue. The government identified fewer victims and victim services were limited, leaving many identified victims vulnerable to retrafficking. Finally, in order to increase victim protection, anti-trafficking committees and units should verify that victims are not coerced into testifying against traffickers or criminalised.

 Moreover, the U.S. and Mexico should sustain a partnership to address human trafficking along the border. Both countries should continue exchanging intelligence to strengthen investigations and prosecutions, protect and restore victims, and dismantle trafficking networks. Additionally, the U.S. and Mexican law enforcement should regularly engage in exchange of expertise and specialized training on victim-centred enforcement strategies.

Operation Copper Cactus


A high number of foreign-born human trafficking victims identified in the United States are originally from Mexico. Generally, these victims are smuggled into the U.S. with the promise of better job opportunities and then coerced into forced labour or prostitution. Therefore, the line between lawbreaker and victim is often blurred in cases of international human trafficking. The U.S. and Mexico are currently implementing strategies to increase the prosecution of traffickers and to improve the protection and prevention of human trafficking victims. However, there is still a pressing need for improving victim-centred anti-trafficking policies.

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For a closer look at the dangerous travel of migrants through Mexico


Cámara de Diputados (2014). Ley general para prevenir, sancionar y erradicar los delitos en materia de trata de personas y para la protección y asistencia a las víctimas de estos delitos. Retrieved from

Garza, R. (2011). Addressing human trafficking along the United States-Mexico Border: The need for a bilateral partnership. Cardozo J. Int’l & Comp. L.19, 413.

Pope, A. (2012). Partnering with Mexico: What Human Trafficking Cases Can Teach Us Moving Forward. Crim. Just., 27, 18.

The United Nations [UN] (2000a). Protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea and air, supplementing the United Nations convention against transnational organized crime. Retrieved from

The United Nations [UN] (2000b). Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the
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United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] (2008). Toolkit to combat trafficking in persons 2. Retrieved from

 U.S. Congress (2017). Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2017. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of State [DOS] (2017). 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of State [DOS] (2000). Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 [TVPA].  Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ] (2017a). Eight Members Of Mexican Sex Trafficking Enterprise Plead Guilty To Racketeering, Sex Trafficking, And Related Crimes. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice (2017b). Special Initiatives. Retrieved from

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] (2017). Fiscal Year 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report. Retrieved from


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