Human trafficking is the most pervasive illicit market in the world. In Latin America, the situation is particularly acute. Countries need to work together to respond to this growing threat.

The 2021 Global Organized Crime Index revealed disturbing findings about some of the world’s most profitable criminal economies, not least the fact that human trafficking is the most pervasive global illicit market. With a criminal score of 5.8 in the Index, this activity has surpassed the illegal cannabis trade and arms trafficking, markets, which have average global criminality scores of 5.10 and 4.92, respectively.

In recent years, the pervasiveness of the human trafficking market globally has been fuelled by factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, and the emergence of technologies that help criminals stay largely undetected. However, it is in Latin America, one of the most unequal regions in the world, where the situation is particularly daunting.

In Mexico in particular, the number of victims of human trafficking has risen sharply in recent years, with a spike in 2020. One report has documented the rise, citing information from Mexico’s Executive Secretariat for Public Security, which identified at least 550 victims of trafficking in 2020, up from 383 in 2016. The reality is that these numbers are likely to be higher, as many cases go unreported. According to the study, Mexico is a transit country for human trafficking, primarily of victims from Central America being trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labour.

The pandemic also exacerbated other phenomena that can lead to human trafficking, such as the rise in irregular migration along the corridor that runs across Mexico to the US, which is largely controlled by criminal organizations that often operate in collusion with local authorities.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on organized crime and human trafficking, has warned that the situation could deteriorate, as the number of vulnerable people attempting to cross the Mexico–US border increased exponentially in the first months of 2022 and is likely to continue to rise. The lack of attention given to this illicit economy makes it challenging to tackle, particularly compared with other criminal markets such as drug trafficking, which is more visible and tends to trigger policy responses – albeit not necessarily always effective ones. ‘Priorities and resources are not dedicated to human trafficking,’ said Correa-Cabrera. ‘There are no detailed studies about where it happens or the link between people on the move and other factors in a world in crisis. Policies at the global level are focused on other [illicit] markets.’


A transnational response

Human trafficking is an extremely challenging criminal economy to tackle in the best of circumstances. But in Latin America, and Mexico in particular, responses are even more complicated owing to the presence of some of the most powerful transnational criminal organizations in the world, high levels of corruption and lack of efficient resilience tools. Combined with a rising number of people who are vulnerable to exploitation and nearly non-existent conviction rates for those accused of people trafficking, this creates an environment that enables abuses to flourish.

To investigate and prosecute human trafficking effectively, countries need to equip their investigative units with sophisticated tools and techniques; implement mechanisms to prevent and punish rampant corruption; and improve coordination efforts with other countries in terms of investigations and prosecutions. As a transnational crime, human trafficking must be met with a transnational response. Latin American countries do not address this criminal economy beyond their own borders, and this contributes to the problem.

Public debate and shared insight on the organizations driving this market, issues and populations affected, and information about how to safely report these crimes when they happen are essential if governments in the region are serious about prevention and ensuring justice for victims. In addition, civil society actors are often those with the greatest understanding of these issues and challenges, and they therefore need to be included in the development of actionable policy solutions to tackle this market. Countries should work more closely with civil society organizations to formulate better responses.

The absence of public attention and debate around human trafficking leads to a lack of effective and comprehensive strategies to prevent this phenomenon and help survivors, which enables criminal organizations to operate. In a challenging post-pandemic world, particularly as the number of people migrating along dangerous routes increases, governments must rise to the challenge and join efforts to tackle this criminal market. Understanding how the organizations driving this market operate; improving legislation so it can be effective across borders; and implementing policies to ensure vulnerable people do not become victims are three important first steps.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.