The World of Human Smuggling

By Dialogo
July 01, 2011

Worldwide, men and women in search of better financial opportunities, or
asylum from religious or political prosecution, seek smuggling organizations to gain
illegal entry into other nations. Within latin America and the caribbean, there has
been an increase in the number of African and Asian immigrants smuggled through
colombia and Panama. in 2009 alone, colombian authorities captured more than 480
illegal immigrants from china, Somalia, Bangladesh, and other Asian and African
The lines between smuggling and trafficking are often crossed as smugglers
have increasingly sold undocumented migrants into forced labor or prostitution to
recover their costs. Smuggled migrants, vulnerable to life-threatening risks and
exploitation, can also be victimized in transit. Thousands of people have suffocated
in containers, perished in deserts or dehydrated at sea; they have lost their lives
because of the indifferent or even deliberate actions of migrant smugglers. The
massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in tamaulipas, Mexico, in August 2010,
illustrates the danger faced by migrants. Based on the sole survivor’s account, the
victims had refused to pay extortion fees so the smugglers executed
Within the region, smuggling victims are primarily of latin American or
caribbean descent, reported. however, Asian and African nationals
have added to the numbers of migrant traffic in the Americas. in the first seven
months of 2008, following Ecuador’s abolition of the requirement of visas for
chinese to enter the country, approximately 4,300 chinese were registered to have
entered Ecuador legally, but only 900 departed officially, noted robert Ellis, a
professor and subject matter expert on latin America’s growing relationship with
Asia at the center for hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, D.c. he further
explained these figures imply that a large number of chinese were using the country
as a jumping-off point for a journey that would ultimately take them to other
countries of the hemisphere, often with the help of human smuggling
The illicit flow of migrants feeds criminal enterprises. Migrants, who are
detained at transit nations, begin to congregate around border towns and can cause
undesired consequences, explained Ellis. in central America, it becomes an issue of
enabling local criminality, an augmentation of violence as local gangs prey on
migrants. “You have a surplus labor pool, which then gets caught up in drug
trafficking activities, as mules or in other narcotrafficking activity,” he
Smuggling Methods, Costs and Profits
Smugglers include all types and levels of criminals, as explained by the
United Kingdom’s Serious organised crime Agency, the lead government agency for
immigration, drugs, counterterrorism and crime. Established crime groups, loose
criminal networks, as well as low-level, small-scale criminals take part in human
smuggling schemes.
In the Americas, human smuggling rings are generally unaffiliated criminal
networks that use “shadow facilitators” such as document forgers, money launderers,
or transportation specialists, explained Anthony Placido, former assistant
administrator and chief of intelligence at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
These networks are only able to operate based on maintaining corrupt relationships
with government officials. “There is a huge effort out there to suborn, corrupt,
intimidate and in extreme cases kill off anybody that would get in their way,”
Placido told Diálogo.
Depending on the practices of the smugglers, the threats to the migrants
increase. Dealers who use document fraud to gain entry do so at a higher cost, while
lower cost methods of transporting migrants across the borders pose higher risks.
“Maritime smuggling is the deadliest form of international illegal migration,” said
Benjamin Perrin, author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human
Trafficking, to Montreal’s The Gazette newspaper. “Thousands of people die every
year attempting to cross international borders on vessels illegally.”
Freddy rivera Vélez, coordinator of investigations at the latin American
School of Social Sciences in Ecuador, cited several factors that influence human
smuggling rates. For example, the risk of route interdiction, the amount of money
used to bribe the corresponding immigration authorities, and even the season — which
in turn affects the weather for the travel conditions.

Nations at Risk
As these smuggling organizations grow in size and sophistication, their
profits and ability to erode the rule of law of transit countries increase as well.
The threat to the nations takes on various dimensions according to rivera Vélez.
“The topic of migration has turned into a problem of security,” rivera Vélez said to
Diálogo. “Strictly, it is a topic of national security, against organized crime and
under human rights.” Smuggling profits can fund organized crime within a country’s
borders; the illicit economy adds to money laundering activities and corruption of
the judicial and police systems, he explained.
The threat to destabilize entire regions is augmented as profits make way for
corruption of officials from border to border. “Many times this illicit traffic
gives way to falsification of documents, passports or sometimes visas,” said jorge
Peraza-Breedy, coordinator of the regional conference on Migration (rcM). The
conference, also known as Proceso de Puebla (Puebla Process), is a regional platform
focused on human rights, policies and development related to migration.
Due to the obscure nature of this crime, regional challenges to address it
include accuracy of data on smuggled migrants and routes, sufficient capacity at
detention centers, repatriation costs and coordination with origin countries,
Peraza-Breedy told Diálogo. he explained that rcM experts strengthen intelligence
sharing, and provide training and workshops related to migration, fraudulent
document detection, border security and policy development.
Despite the difficulties in collecting exact numbers, the research suggests
human smuggling is highly profitable, and difficult to detect and prosecute,
according to the United nations office on Drugs and crime website. As a result, the
crime is becoming increasingly attractive to criminals, and smugglers are becoming
more organized, establishing international networks. Given the transregional nature
of migrant smuggling, information exchange among countries is a key element to
ensure sovereignty of nations.

Sources: Interpol, the Associated Press, 2011 International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime,

Human trafficking vs. Smuggling

This “Trafficking VS. Smuggling” Chart is designed to illustrate general
trends that are often seen in smuggling or trafficking incidents. it does not
provide a precise legal distinction of the differences between smuggling and


Contains an element of force, fraud or coercion and can be actual,
perceived or implied
Forced labor and/or exploitation of the persons trafficked
Persons trafficked are victims
Persons are enslaved, subjected to limited movement or isolation, or have
documents confiscated
An international border does not need to be crossed


Person being smuggled is generally cooperating
Persons smuggled are complicit in the smuggling crime; they are not
necessarily victims of the crime of smuggling though they may become victims
depending on the circumstances
Person is in country illegally or attempting entry illegally
Smuggling facilitates the illegal entry of person(s) from one country into
Smuggling always crosses an international border

Source: Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center of the U.S. Department of