If you don’t think the ongoing border crisis is benefitting criminal smuggling networks and Mexican drug cartels, you’re not paying attention. A new report from the RAND Corporation found that smugglers and cartels earned as much as $2.3 billion from Central American migrants in 2017.
The report, conducted by the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), which is operated by RAND, analyzed the black market for human smuggling in Central America, Mexico, and along the southern U.S. border in hopes of understanding how it works and how much money is going to drug cartels—or, in government parlance, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).
That’s obviously not easy to ascertain, since human smuggling is illegal and intentionally obscure. But it has become obvious that a substantial share of migrants’ expenditures on their journeys north are going to these TCOs, as well as a diverse array of smugglers and operators along the route.
Migrants generally pay smugglers and smuggling networks anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 per person to get to America. A portion of that money ends up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels—TCOs—even though the cartels don’t directly participate in the smuggling. As the report explains:
Human smugglers and drug traffickers conduct similar activities — providing illicit transportation services across international borders — and do so along common smuggling corridors, suggesting opportunities for overlapping business. However, the researchers found little evidence that drug-trafficking TCOs engage directly in human smuggling.
Drug-trafficking TCOs do control primary smuggling corridors into the United States and charge migrants a ‘tax,’ known as a piso, to pass through their territories. In addition, drug-trafficking TCOs may also coordinate some unlawful migrants’ border crossings to divert attention from other illicit activities, and recruit or coerce some to carry drugs.
This last point has been well-attested by Border Patrol agents, whose time is increasingly spent processing and transporting large groups of migrants families that have turned themselves in while cartels move drugs across the border just a few miles away. Because these groups of families and unaccompanied minors often number in the hundreds, Border Patrol resources are almost completely diverted from law enforcement duties, giving cartels an ideal opening to conduct their cross-border business without interference from U.S. authorities.
That is, the asylum crisis is directly related to drug smuggling. It’s all one big black market, controlled at the border by people willing to enforce the rules of the market by violence. Given the number of people now making the journey north, which could exceed a million this fiscal year, the size of this black market is considerable.
As a testament to the clandestine nature of the human smuggling industry, the RAND report gives a wide range of total revenues from all types of smuggling, from $200 million to $2.3 billion in 2017. The revenue from the taxes, or piso, that migrants must pay cartels to pass through their territory and cross the border is thought to be anywhere from about $30 million to $180 million in 2017. (Keep in mind, 2017 was the lowest year for apprehensions in decades, so these amounts, whatever they are, are significantly larger than they were two years ago.)
A Mass Exodus from Central America
Meanwhile, entire communities in Central America are emptying out, especially in rural Guatemala, the leading country of origin among families and unaccompanied minors claiming asylum at the U.S. border. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that while the fertility rate in Guatemala remains high, “the population in rural areas is growing at a far slower pace because of migration.” The Journal’s reporter writes of a bustling Saturday market in the western town of Colotenango, where “most vendors are women, children or older men. Teenagers and men in their 20s are hard to spot.”
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 132,000 Guatemalans were apprehended on the southern border from October to March, far more than from any other country. The total number of family units from Guatemala apprehended as of March exceeded 90,000, compared to about 50,000 last year and fewer than 25,000 in 2017 and 2016.
Part of what’s driving this exodus from rural Guatemala is severe drought. Mainstream media outlets have begun to take notice of this trend, with headlines like “How Climate Change Is Fuelling the U.S. Border Crisis” in The New Yorker and “Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate” in National Geographic. All these reports note that, unlike Honduras and El Salvador, where most of the population is concentrated in cities, rural areas account for about half of Guatemala’s population. Drought in these parts of the country, where families rely on the annual harvest for both income and food, can be the deciding factor in choosing to sell everything they have and head for the United States.
But it often doesn’t go well for these families, even those who manage to make it to the United States without being exploited or abused by cartels and smugglers. One Guatemalan man, a farmer named Joaquin who was recently interviewed by the Dallas Morning News, sold all he had—“a small family plot of land, the three cows and four chickens”—and paid a smuggler to take him and his 10-year-old son to America. Because he was still short of the smuggler’s fee by a couple thousand dollars, he took out a loan to cover the cost, with a friend and cousin near Dallas co-signing his agreement with the smuggler.
Joaquin and his son eventually made it across the border, but it wasn’t like he was told it would be. Disillusioned with life in America and wanting to return to his wife and other children back in Guatemala, Joaquin is now saddled with ballooning debt and can’t afford to leave. “Had I known what I know now, I never would have made the decision,” he said. “Never.”
Joaquin just one among hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who are selling all they have and going into debt to finance illegal immigration to the United States. As the crisis drags on, we should be clear-eyed about who is benefiting from it.