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Illegal Trafficking


The U.S.–Mexico border has the highest number of both legal and illegal crossings of any land border in the world except for the Canada - US border. According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States is a destination country for thousands of men, women, and children trafficked from all areas of the world. These victims are trafficked for the purposes of sexual and/or labor exploitation. Many of these victims are lured from their homes with false promises of well-paying jobs; instead, they are forced or coerced into prostitution, domestic servitude, farm or factory labor or other types of forced labor. Mexico is a large source, transit, and destination country for persons trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor, lured by false job offers. Groups considered most vulnerable to human trafficking in Mexico include women and children, indigenous persons, and undocumented migrants.

   According to the government, more than 20,000 Mexican children are victims of sex trafficking every year, especially in tourist and border areas. Additionally, the desire of cheap labor in the agriculture industry and immigrants' difficulty in entering the country legally have set the stage for people to be trafficked in illegally and exploited.

   In the last ten years, since the enactment of the federal sex trafficking criminal statute in 2000, the number of human trafficking cases brought in federal courts has dramatically increased. Although great strides have been made in combating sex trafficking, more has to be done to identifying victims of this crime. The federal laws permit the Department of Homeland Security to issue non-immigrant visas to cooperative trafficking victims, and the Department of Health and Human Services to certify them for benefits similar to those available to refugees. Human trafficking has become a top priority of not only the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the federal government as a whole, but also of many state and local governments. In fact, to date, at least 39 U.S. states have passed sex trafficking laws.

   The Mexican government took steps to implement its federal anti-trafficking law, issuing regulations in February of 2009. As of May 2009, twenty-two Mexican states and its federal district had enacted legislation to criminalize some forms of human trafficking on the local level. However, no convictions or stringent punishments against trafficking offenders were reported last year, though the federal government opened 24 criminal investigations against suspected trafficking offenders. Although there has been increased activism on the part of the Mexican authorities to address the issues of trafficking and smuggling, the Mexican legal framework remains largely untouched and hence limited in its crime-fighting scope and effectiveness. Despite the recent adoption of international protocols to fight human trafficking and increased law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Mexico, the perennial lack of economic growth in the Latin American region, coupled with historical migration patterns, have boosted an already booming industry for the illegal smuggling and trafficking of people.


In recent years, Mexico's drug cartels have waged increasingly violent battles with one another as well as with the Mexican government. Upon taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of federal troops in an aggressive crackdown on drug-related violence. Yet death tolls continue to rise. There were more than 2,500 drug-related deaths in 2007, and the yearly toll rose to more than 4,000 by the end of 2008. Murders and street gun battles are only part of a more entrenched problem that includes corrupt police forces and a lackluster judiciary. Experts say recent police and judicial reforms are a step in the right direction, but such reforms will take time to implement. Meanwhile, increased and sustained cooperation from the United States is seen as necessary to stem drug-related violence. Mexico has embarked on a series of judicial reforms that could transform its justice system, among them the transition from an inquisitorial written system to an accusatorial oral system. Although lagging behind most large Latin American countries in this reform process, this may be to Mexico's advantage as it is learning from the experience of others.

   The illegal drug market in the United States is one of the most profitable in the world. As such, it attracts the most ruthless, sophisticated, and aggressive drug traffickers. About 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is trafficked through Mexico, according to the State Department's 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Mexico's extensive cocaine trade is controlled by cartels based in border areas and along the southeast coast. Three groups--the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel--have waged an increasingly violent turf war over key trafficking routes and "plazas," or border crossing areas.

   Given its geographic location, Mexico has long been used as a staging and transshipment point for narcotics and other contraband destined for U.S. markets from Mexico, South America and elsewhere. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was the main exporter of cocaine and dealt with organized criminal networks all over the world. When enforcement efforts intensified in South Florida and the Caribbean, the Colombian organizations formed partnerships with the Mexico-based traffickers to transport cocaine through Mexico into the United States. This was easily accomplished because Mexico had long been a major source of heroin and marijuana, and drug traffickers from Mexico had already established an infrastructure that stood ready to serve the Colombia-based traffickers. By the mid-1980s, the organizations from Mexico were well established and reliable transporters of Colombian cocaine.


Firearms are not legally available for sale in Mexico, so drug cartels must smuggle them through the U.S. Many firearms are acquired in the U.S. by cartel members through straw purchases and then smuggled to Mexico a few at a time. Mexican cartels often pay U.S. citizens to purchase assault rifles or other guns at gun shops or gun shows, and then sell them to a cartel representative. This exchange is known as a straw purchase.

   An overwhelming majority of confiscated guns in Mexico (90%) that are traced originated in the United States. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has reportedly traced over 23 thousand guns smuggled into Mexico from the United States since 2005, and it showed that between 2005 and 2008, Texas, Arizona and California are the three most prolific source states, respectively, for firearms illegally trafficked to Mexico.

   The United States lacks a coordinated strategy to stem the flow of weapons smuggled across its southern border, a failure that has fueled the rise of powerful criminal cartels and violence in Mexico. A report by the congressional Government Accountability Office, the first federal assessment of the issue, offered blistering conclusions that will probably influence the debate over the role of U.S.-made weaponry as violence threatens to spill across the Mexico border. The document also cited recent U.S. intelligence indicating that most weapons were being smuggled in specifically for the syndicates -- and being used not only against the Mexican government but also to expand their drug trafficking operation in the United States.

   The House Foreign Affairs Committee has approved a bill (H.R. 6028 aka the Merida initiative) that would authorize $73.5 million to be appropriated over three years to increase ATF resources committed to disrupting the flow of illegal guns into Mexico. Lawmakers included $10 million USD in the economic stimulus package for Project Gunrunner, a federal crackdown on U.S. gun-trafficking networks.