A new report sheds light on how vulnerable populations subjected to slave-like conditions line the pocketbooks of organized crime networks across Latin America.
The 2016 Global Slavery Index (pdf) published by Walk Free Foundation estimates that 2.2 million of the world's 45.8 million enslaved people live in the Americas.
The highest number of regional victims are found in Mexico, with 376,800, followed by Colombia with 308,200. The countries with the highest percentage of the population living in slavery are Haiti and the Dominican Republic, at nearly 1 percent.
The report highlights how trafficking networks and other criminal groups profit from exploiting marginal populations, especially women and children. By some estimates, 70 percent of all modern slavery cases in Mexico involve organized crime groups. This includes the kidnapping of mostly girls and women for forced prostitution and mostly boys and men for forced labor. The town of Tenancingo in Tlaxcala state is considered the sex trafficking capital of the world, with traffickers smuggling indigenous girls into the United States and to other parts of Mexico.
Drug cartels are believed to be involved in sex trafficking, the document says, using the same organized crime networks used to move drugs and weapons to smuggle human victims across the border into the United States.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Traffficking
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests some of Mexico's disappeared population -- which numbers in the tens of thousands -- are held in camps where prostitution, forced labor and other criminal acts are authorized by cartels.
The report found domestic and international sex trafficking is also pervasive in the Dominican Republic. Foreign tourists account for roughly 25 percent of all Dominican cases of sexual exploitation. At the international level, Dominican girls have been rescued from neighboring Haiti and found in countries across the globe, from the United States to Europe to Japan.
But sex trafficking in the Americas is most concentrated in the gold mines of Peru and Colombia, according to the report, in part due to the involvement of organized crime groups in the mining industry which operates in remote regions of those countries.
Criminal groups are not the only ones enriching themselves on the backs of slaves. The report noted that in both Mexico and the Dominican Republic authorities at the local, state and federal level are either complicit or suspected of being complicit in the human trafficking operations.
InSight Crime Analysis
The connections between Latin American organized crime and modern slavery that are laid out in the report mainly focus on human trafficking operations. But there are a myriad of ways the region's criminal networks coerce vulnerable populations and use them for their own ends.
Children are often viewed by criminal groups as low-cost, low-risk sources of labor, making them an attractive target for recruiters. In Mexico, "sicaritos," or little assassins, under the employ of drug cartels have been known to carry out vicious acts of violence. Central America's violent street gangs force children to perform odd, often dangerous jobs, such as serving as lookouts and running messages. In Honduras gangs reportedly recruit children as young as six, and those who refuse to join are at risk of being killed.
SEE ALSO: InSight Crime Special Report on Gangs in Honduras
Drug gangs operating in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are also known to conscript youths, who are valued because they face shorter prison sentences than their adult counterparts. One Rio resident told Spiegel Online in 2007 that the Third Command ("Terceiro Comando") drugged him in order to desensitize him to the gang's initiation process, which involved shooting an informant in the head at point-blank range. He was 11 years old at the time.
It's not just criminal gangs that recruit minors in Latin America; child soldiers have played an integral role in Colombia's long-running civil conflict. Fully half of all adult fighters within the ranks of rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) were initiated as minors. According to government officials, close to 12,000 children have been recruited since 1975. Many of the youths are from FARC strongholds in poor, rural areas of the country where the state's presence is either weak or non-existent.