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How cracking down on human smuggling helps criminals make millions of dollars a year

A Central American migrant, with baby, trying to make it through Mexico without being targeted — by criminals or law enforcement.
A Central American migrant, with baby, trying to make it through Mexico without being targeted — by criminals or law enforcement.
John Moore/Getty

In this week's issue of the New Yorker, Sarah Stillman has a feature on the horrifyingly lucrative business of kidnapping unauthorized migrants — including children — as they make their way across the US/Mexico border. It's a compelling story on its own, and you should read it. But it's especially useful to read in light of the migrant crisis going on in the Mediterranean right now —where thousands have drowned attempting to reach Europe — because it shows how often countries' responses to human smuggling end up targeting the victims, not the perpetrators.

Part of the reason the Mediterranean has become the most dangerous border in the world is because the industry of transporting migrants (many of whom are seeking asylum) to Europe has been taken over by professionalized, organized crime. That's exactly what's happened in North America over the past 20 years.

That's not a coincidence. When countries make it harder for people to cross the border on their own, or with small-scale, ad hoc smugglers, they have no choice but to turn to more sophisticated criminal networks. And the most desperate migrants — the ones who are most likely to be fleeing violence or persecution — become the easiest targets for smugglers, traffickers, and kidnappers.

border deaths Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants

A map of border deaths from the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

Stillman's article explains that this is why drug cartels got into the business of kidnapping migrants to begin with. Even if a migrant's family couldn't pay the kind of ransom for an individual captive that a rich government official could, criminals would be able to kidnap many of them without attracting the attention of law enforcement.

"The Zetas’ strategy, it’s classic wholesale," Marta Sánchez Soler, the director of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement and the trip’s coördinator, told me. "When organized crime kidnaps somebody rich, the media and police mobilize. Then the criminals feel the heat. So they realized that, rather than doing one big, flashy kidnapping of someone rich and powerful, it would be better to do a hundred small kidnappings of migrants whom nobody pays attention to." Together, we did the arithmetic: by recent estimates, at least eighteen thousand migrants are seized in Mexico each year. If a third of their families pay a lowball ransom of four thousand dollars, that’s twenty-four million dollars, with minimal risk or labor.

Kidnappers don't just seek out the most vulnerable people when they're looking for victims. It's about how they pick the people to do their grunt work, too:

According to Michelle Barth, a lawyer who has represented smugglers in federal court, those who profit most from ransom extraction and routine smuggling are, by contrast, masters of risk mitigation. Through elaborate supply chains, they recruit their cooks, caretakers, and drivers from "the homeless, the mentally ill, and people who have drug problems," she told me. They also court local mothers who are strapped for cash. These small fish are the ones most likely to face arrest.

In the trafficking industry, some of the grunts might even be trafficking victims themselves. Once cartels figured out that Border Patrol wasn't allowed to detain Mexican teenagers, they started impressing some teenagers into service. Border Patrol agents recognized that these teenagers were involved in trafficking and got frustrated they couldn't be harsher on them, but often didn't realize they were being forced into labor.

This is exactly what makes it so difficult for countries like the US and Europe to respond to crises driven or exacerbated by smugglers and traffickers. Policymakers and the public tend to understand that people who make money off smuggling are the "bad guys." But they tend to respond by calling for more enforcement: trying to destroy boats in the Mediterranean that are used in smuggling, or busting up "stash houses" in south Texas. The logic behind these operations is that if smuggling or trafficking gets too risky to be profitable, the criminals will close up shop. But those criminals aren't the ones being targeted in the operations. All too often, their victims are.

And on some level, people tend to blame migrants themselves for being smuggled or trafficked. Perhaps they assume that if they were really trying to migrate for legitimate reasons, it would be easier for them and they wouldn't have to pay someone else off; perhaps they blame their family members for encouraging them to put their lives at risk. But it's really hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that a migrant who pays money to an organized smuggling operation might have legitimate reasons. One attorney told Stillman that even kidnapping victims are "considered willing participants" in their own extortion.

That's great news for criminals — it's pretty much a neon sign showing them who they can target for crime without worrying the victims will go to law enforcement. But it's terrible news for the migrants who end up victim-blamed.

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