In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). What would become known as “Remain in Mexico” was the latest in a decades-long effort by successive Republican and Democrat administrations to curb migration by making it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter and stay in the United States.

However, as our latest policy report details, the policies have had numerous unintended consequences, including bolstering criminal organizations along the US-Mexico border. Whereas the smuggling of drugs and weapons formerly dominated the cross-border contraband trade, human smuggling has morphed into one of the most lucrative industries for crime groups. It also has made it increasingly dangerous for migrants who face more risks en route and along the US border.

*This article is the first in a three-part investigation, “Unintended Consequences: How US Immigration Policy Foments Organized Crime on the US-Mexico Border,” analyzing how prevention through deterrence policies have bolstered Mexican criminal organizations. Download the full investigation here.

This report aims to highlight the role US policy has played in this transformation, which continues to evolve today. Specifically, it analyzes the ways in which Mexican organized crime groups have become involved in human smuggling as risks rose, prices surged, and migrants began to move through less-traveled corridors. The goal is to inform policymakers who are looking to address irregular migration and combat Mexico’s criminal organizations. We also aim to provide relevant stakeholders with opportunities for positive intervention to mitigate this human suffering by targeting the most violent criminal actors.

The findings are based on two years of desktop and field research across the Mexican states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sonora, and Tamaulipas, where human smuggling is prominent. InSight Crime carried out dozens of in-person and remote interviews with migrants, asylum seekers, US and Mexican prosecutors, security experts, government officials, religious leaders, and migrant advocates, among others. In addition, we analyzed government data on human smuggling investigations and prosecutions, judicial cases, and previous studies on the topic.

Major Findings

1. The prevention through deterrence policies used by the US government have created an increasingly lucrative black market for human smuggling. Transnational criminal networks have assumed greater control over the movement of people and replaced the personalized, community-based nature of human smuggling that once existed.

2. The US government’s immigration policies have provided more opportunities for organized criminal groups to victimize migrants. The policies have, most notably, created a bottleneck along the US-Mexico border where northbound migrants are forced to congregate as they determine whether they are eligible to seek asylum and contemplate alternative ways to enter the country. As a result, they have become highly susceptible to extortion and kidnapping. Over time, restrictive immigration policies have expanded the scope of these lucrative, secondary criminal economies.

3. The US government’s immigration policies and the externalization of immigration enforcement to countries like Mexico have expanded the breadth of official corruption. As the US government has increased its reliance on third countries for enforcement and pushed migrants to remain in these countries, officials from these nations have expanded their illegal operations. These include extortion, kidnapping, and human smuggling rackets.

*Read the report in its entirety here.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...