Illegally smuggling Central American migrants into the United States is an industry that may be worth billions of dollars, according to a new study released Monday.
Human smugglers transporting migrants into the U.S. from Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — brought in an estimated $200 million to $2.3 billion in revenue in 2017, according to the study.
The study, conducted by the RAND Corporation on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), also found that criminal cartels don’t directly oversee much of the smuggling, though they do profit by charging smugglers a tax for traveling through areas under their control.
“We learned that human smuggling involves many different types of actors and that we could not credibly distinguish most criminal organizations’ activities and revenues from those of other actors, including ad hoc groups and independent operators, that engage in human smuggling,” RAND economist Victoria Greenfield, the study’s lead author, said in a release.
“Actors that engage in human smuggling range from independent operators, to ad hoc groups, to loose networks, to more-formally structured networks, such as ,” Greenfield added.
The study’s authors found that the lack of formal structure in human smuggling networks may make it harder to thwart them.
“A key finding of this report is that human smuggling involves many different types of smugglers, or ‘actors,’ with organizations that are often informal and based on relationships instead of well-established hierarchies,” the authors wrote.
The authors suggested that DHS do more to focus on tracking payments to smugglers from the U.S., noting that “many migrants only make their final payment to smugglers after they arrive in the United States.”
“DHS might consider expanding existing efforts to investigate these kinds of payments, including working more closely with formal and informal banking services, to identify suspicious payments. DHS could also consider expanding current efforts to work with foreign law enforcement partners,” the authors continued.
“As noted above, to the extent that human-smuggling networks are hierarchical, their leadership is almost always foreign-based. This means that DHS must work with foreign partners to effectively sanction the individuals involved.”
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