The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that human trafficking and forced labor generate $150 billion in profits each year [PDF]. These crimes occur around the world, with an estimated 27.6 million people affected at any given time, including between 14,500 and 17,500 who are trafficked annually into the United States. Despite a commitment by United Nations member states—as part of the Sustainable Development Goals—to eradicate modern slavery, trafficking, forced labor, and the worst forms of child labor by 2030, and to end child labor by 2025, these crimes have proven profoundly challenging to address.
In Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the challenge is made more intractable by rampant corruption and weak or non-existent democratic institutions. These shortcomings make people vulnerable to trafficking, forced labor, and other crimes like sextortion and forced criminality in their home countries and compel people to flee their homes and migrate, where they often become even more vulnerable. A greater understanding of the linkages between these issues can facilitate stronger democratic institutions and governance and strengthen efforts to root out the pervasive corruption that makes these crimes so prevalent.
Corruption and Weak Institutions a Significant Problem
Human trafficking and forced labor have received significant attention from governments and international institutions, especially since the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons and Especially Women and Children was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 and signed in 2003. But despite this increased attention, efforts are falling short. Too often, policymakers address human trafficking and root causes like corruption and weak democratic institutions in silos, even though these issues are inextricably linked. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said that organized trafficking could not exist without corruption.
Corruption is endemic in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), released by Transparency International, these countries have some of the highest corruption rates in the world. For instance, in 2022, El Salvador ranked 116 out of 180 countries on the corruption index; Mexico was 126; Guatemala was 150; and Honduras came in last at 157.
This corruption is a significant enabler for human trafficking and forced labor, creating an environment where criminal actors can operate with impunity, subverting the rule of law and escaping accountability. Police and border officials accept bribes and tip off traffickers, cooperating with organized crime networks and others, while ignoring the plight of victims. In addition to lower-level officials, this corruption stretches to the top levels of government. The current Attorney General of Guatemala, Maria Porras, is currently sanctioned by the United States for “significant corruption.” And in 2022, Mexico’s top public safety official, Genaro Garcia Luna, was convicted in U.S. federal court for accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel.
Ordinary people understand this reality. Today, many citizens in Northern Triangle countries and throughout Latin America worry that leaders are authoritarian, lack faith in their justice systems, and believe that adequate support structures for victims of crime are feckless or non-existent.
A 2022 study conducted by the World Justice Project and supported by the U.S. Department of State found that less than half of victims surveyed in nearly all Central American countries believe that victims of crime receive adequate support and protection; the rate was higher than 50 percent only in El Salvador, where 65 percent said they believed their rights were guaranteed in criminal justice proceedings. Furthermore, most (65%) Salvadoran respondents who were victims of a crime did not report the crime to an authority, with many indicating that they were too afraid or embarrassed to report the crime (36%). This is particularly problematic for victims of human trafficking, especially those who may have been subjected to sexual exploitation or forced to engage in illicit activities.
Corruption Making Migrants and Asylum Seekers Extremely Vulnerable to Exploitation
In addition to compounding vulnerabilities for people within the borders of these countries, these issues are driving the mass migration that often creates even more severe vulnerabilities. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people make the dangerous journey from and through the Northern Triangle and Mexico toward the U.S. southern border. In fiscal year 2022 (FY2022) alone, U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered more than 541,000 people from Northern Triangle countries at the southern border. Many are fleeing violence, poverty, and a lack of economic opportunity. These push factors for migration are exacerbated by corruption. Ricardo Zuniga, until recently the U.S. State Department’s Envoy for the Northern Triangle, identifies corruption as “one of the most important root causes” of migration.
These populations must be seen as among the most vulnerable people in the world. Migrants who cannot pay debts to smugglers can be forced to work in brothels or compelled to engage in forced labor or criminality. Experts like Dr. Melissa Torres, formerly of Yale University, have warned that migrants are coming to expect this abuse. For instance, there is a belief that women are often exploited for sex or men for labor purposes. Some may not understand that they have been trafficked because they are occasionally paid insignificant amounts of money, even though they may not be paid for weeks at a time. Corruption enables this grim circumstance to endure unabated.
The Path Forward
The Biden Administration has rightly prioritized this issue through the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, but more work needs to be done. Corruption helps create the environment that allows human trafficking to flourish. Across the region, the web of corruption and human trafficking fuels a vicious circle of exploitation and impunity. While we are bombarded with images from our southern border, too often we fail to see or understand the abuses that people suffer on their way.
Given the shortcomings of government, support for civil society should be prioritized to ensure that there is collaboration between policymakers, advocates, and service providers working against corruption, trafficking, and forced labor. The goal should be reversing a dynamic in which migrants often expect abuse, with men exploited for labor and women for sex work as part of their journey. Institutionalized corruption must be dislodged to lift a climate of fear in which victims are silenced so that traffickers cannot be brought to justice. Crackdowns on the press must be opposed so that stories of corruption do not go unreported.
According to Melissa Torres, U.S. government officials and humanitarian organizations also need to adopt a more human-rights centered approach to migration, including by being more nuanced in their questioning of potential trafficking victims because many of them may not even understand that they may have been trafficked.
The fight against human trafficking in the Northern Triangle and Mexico requires a comprehensive approach that acknowledges the profound impact of corruption and weak or non-existent democratic institutions. While it is important to rescue victims, it will be difficult to bring down trafficking rings and shed light on their tactics if victims are unwilling or too terrified to provide information about what took place. Therefore, the U.S. should focus on building and supporting functioning justice systems. Efforts must also be made to raise awareness in a culturally appropriate way so that potential victims know what to look out for and where to seek help if they do fall victim to traffickers. The United States and other donor countries and institutions must continue to creatively find ways to exert leverage over these governments and provide resources to strengthen institutions and governance whenever possible.
As Delilah Ferreira Rubio, the Chair of Transparency International, has said, “...The only way forward is for leaders to prioritize decisive action against corruption to uproot its hold and enable governments to fulfill their first mandate: protecting the people.”