The World of Human Smuggling

Illicit traffic around the globe is not limited to drugs and counterfeit merchandise; these illegal transactions also involve human beings
WRITER-ID | 1 July 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 countries.

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 them.

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 networks.

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 added.

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 trafficking.


  • 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 another
  • Smuggling always crosses an international border

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

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