U.S.-Mexico Border Security: Helping or Hurting Human Smuggling Networks

Latin America and the Caribbean

As U.S. policy makers debate how much money should be spent on securing the U.S.-Mexico border to address the child migrant crisis, there is increasing evidence that criminal groups are taking advantage of already strict border controls in nefarious ways.

Analysts, journalists and scholars have noted that migrants are choosing human smuggling networks to illegally enter the United States because of strong U.S.-Mexico border controls. As one smuggler noted, “Now more than ever, most migrants need the help of a smuggler to get across the border – making them indispensable. As a result, the smugglers say they’re making more money than ever.”

In the past 10 years, the U.S. government has deployed Border Patrol agents in record numbers and spent billions on drones, ground censors and border fencing to stem the illicit drug trade and illegal migration. Between 2001 and 2011, $90 billion was spent on border security. While these efforts have made it more difficult for organized crime networks to smuggle in goods and people across the border to the United States, it has also created new business opportunities for these organized crime groups.

According to a 2010 United Nations report (pdf), human smuggling has generated $6.6 billion a year for smugglers in Latin America and recent reports have noted prices are increasing. Part of the high fees charged by the smugglers goes towards paying bribes to Mexican law enforcement at highway checkpoints, which, according to a Washington Post report, run at about $40 per person each stop.

Mexican organized criminal organizations such as the Zetas have taken particular advantage of the increased flow of migrants, charging high fees for criminal groups to use their smuggling routes and increasingly becoming involved in the act of smuggling themselves. A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013 revealed the cartels had increasingly been bribing agency employees and infiltrating U.S. law enforcement to get around the heightened border security.

In some ways, smuggling humans can be more attractive than moving drugs in border states with high foot traffic. While people can be trafficked multiple times, once a narcotics load is seized, profit is permanently lost. Criminal groups are also attacking and robbing migrants that seek to sneak into the United States themselves.

One of the most transited states for migrants is Tamaulipas, where the Zetas control the majority of human smuggling routes into the United States. Recognized as the most direct access point to the United States from Central America, Tamaulipas has seen a steady growth in migrant crossings over the past two years (see chart right). Of the 57,525 minors apprehended between October 2013 and June 2014, over 73% were caught in The Rio Grande Valley Sector in South Texas, just across from Tamaulipas.

Tamaulipas has also gained notoriety for the Zetas high profile acts of brutality against migrants. In 2010, the group murdered 72 migrants who refused to pay extortion fees after their group was hijacked during the journey north. One year later, the group massacred 193 migrants in what could be seen as a show of force aimed at the Gulf Cartel, which largely controls the region. 

The recent discovery of 165 migrants, mostly from Honduras, Cuba and El Salvador, held captive in stash houses in Tamaulipas shows the practice of hijacking is well and alive in the state. Many of those discovered migrants were abused or raped, and a couple along with their child was killed. Hijackings like these have been happening daily since the en-mass arrival of Central American minors back in April.

As U.S. lawmakers continue to debate how best to address the child migrant crisis and combat human smuggling networks, it seems important for them to factor in how strict border controls have changed market dynamics and attracted criminal groups to the business of moving people.