Sex & Modern Slavery: US-Mexico border is a human trafficking hub for sex trade and forced labor

The Southern border is a dangerous place for the sole reason that it is a smuggling and trafficking hive

Human trafficking is a pervasive problem across the world. It involves the use of force, fraud or conversion where people are forced into some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year millions of people, including children, become prey to trafficking, regardless of age, nationality or race. Traffickers lure their victims using various tactics such as the use of violence, manipulation or false promises of better economic opportunities and romantic relationships. In the US, this humanitarian crisis is rampant at the Southern border. Powerful criminal networks and individual traffickers on both sides of the border traffick or recruit people for forced labor or sexual exploitation. 

According to federal data, the violence in South American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has generated a demand for human traffickers, who with empty promises and exorbitant fees operate the flow of migrants to and fro the border. They victimize the hopeful migrants under a 'debt bondage', where migrants agree to work off the debt owed to the trafficker. However, traffickers compound the interest and other charges to the 'employment agreement' and find loopholes in immigration laws to trap their victims in a vicious exploitative circle of debt and forced labor. Many of the migrants are women, who die in transit, are sexually assaulted or end up sexually trafficked. The Southern border is a dangerous place for the sole reason that it is a smuggling and trafficking hive. The two are different but relatable crimes that in certain circumstances have a link to each other. In that, individuals smuggled across the border are trafficked in some occurrences. 

A view of the Mexican side of the border wall. On the left side, it is US territory. A US border patrol SUV can be seen guarding this side of the wall, making sure nothing illegal comes through (Getty Images)

Human trafficking is defined by the US State Department as "a crime involving the exploitation of an individual for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion." According to the federal agency, migrant smuggling "occurs when a person voluntarily enters into an agreement with a smuggler to gain illegal entry into a foreign country and is moved across an international border". No matter if it is voluntary or involuntary, they are both classified as crimes against humanity and raise human rights concerns. Human-trafficking and human smuggling from the Southern border account for less than 10 percent of the total cases in the US. This figure is derived from two sources. The Justice Department's data found that 50 percent of trafficking victims in the US are either US citizens or legal permanent residents. Statistics from the International Organization for Migration noted that 79 percent of victims born outside the US entered the country using legal ports. 

Even so, vulnerable groups of people who volunteer to be smuggled across the border are often subject to violence, whether they are trafficked or otherwise. A White House press release from February 2019 stated, "Nearly 70% of migrants traveling north to the United States are victims of violence." Mexico is the most frequent port of entry for foreign nationals. A 2018 data compiled by Polaris Project and Consejo Ciudadano, two non-profit organizations based in the US and Mexico respectively, about 40 percent of victims are trafficked for sex, while 6 percent are trafficked for both sex and labor. In the 2018 fiscal year, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) identified 308 victims of human trafficking and made 1,588 related arrests, 1,543 of which were for sex-trafficking violations, per the White House. 

(Getty Images)

Central American and Mexican cartels control and operate the billion-dollar sex trade across the US border, Fox News reported. The US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York convicted five Mexican nationals who had been residing illegally in the US, in 2018. The felons were part of the Rendon-Reyes Trafficking Organization. The group smuggled women and girls from Mexico and Central America and forced them into the sex trade. The publication also noted that women as young as 14 are coerced or kidnapped and smuggled across the border for sex trade, where they are sold off to buyers. These women did not voluntarily enter into prostitution. On the contrary, their traffickers sold them into the sex trade through means of coercion like beating, sexual assaults and threatening their families or children at home. 

Congress signed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act into law in 2000. It marked the birth of a large-scale coordinated effort by the US government to combat human trafficking. Twenty years later, however, the problem is still prevalent. According to 2017 figures from Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, Geneva, at any given time, an estimated 40.3M people across the world are modern slaves. Approximately 24.9M people out of this total estimate are in forced labor, of which 4.8M persons comprise those forced into sexual exploitation. In addition, the data also found that women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor. They account for 99 percent of the victims in the commercialized sex industry.

Central American immigrants approach the US-Mexico border fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 1, 2019, in El Paso, Texas (Getty Images)

Four executive US government agencies, along with state and local law enforcement bodies as well as designated non-profits work hand-in-hand to fight human trafficking. The Department of Homeland Security with the US Customs and Border Protection, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, is one among the four federal agencies, alongside the State Department, Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services.

One of the key reasons the president cited as the need for a physical wall to separate Mexico from the US was this interconnected nexus of human trafficking and human smuggling across the border. This sparked a nation-wide debate about whether building a wall would help thwart crime at the border, but President Donald Trump asserted it would drastically decrease illegal border crossing and in turn curb the problem of human trafficking and kidnapping at the border. However, many claimed that illegal crossing would happen anyway because smugglers already take humans and cargo over the existing US-Mexico barriers via ramps, drones and aircraft. They could also travel around the southern border by sea or under the border through a labyrinthine tunnel system.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text "HELP" to 233-733.

Sex & Modern Slavery is a campaign focused on the issues of human trafficking within the sex industry in the US. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories on the aspects of the illicit business and the role of the society in mitigating the issue.