The second season of Showtime’s The Trade comes out March 6, and this time around the award-winning documentary series is doing a deep-dive into the criminal activities surrounding Central American migration to the United States.
The four-part series jumps around to various families facing the different challenges that occur at each step of the migration process, whether that be escaping the violence of the Northern Triangle, walking thousands of miles through Mexico or making a new life in the US.
“I hope people understand a little more about what migrants have to go through,” producer Monica Villamizar told InSight Crime. “There are all these people showing up to the US border and you ask, ‘Why?’ 'What’s going on?’ This will really tell you in a way that’s never been done before.”
At first, some of the footage might feel similar to the many other migration documentaries and news stories that have come out over the years. The first episode opens on the US-Mexico border wall in dramatic light. Later there’s the out-of-breath border agents chasing down migrants, the tattooed MS13 gang members in handcuffs, and of course, the wide-angle shots of people atop “the beast” train as it pushes through dangerous parts of Mexico.
However, the series quickly pivots to more unique subject matter, placing all of these experiences in the context of organized crime—and with access most documentaries would salivate at.
One of the central figures of this season is Magda. For years, her husband worked as a “trigger man” for MS13 in San Pedro Sula, the murder capital of Honduras. When her husband decided to leave the gang and straighten out his life, they killed him and issued near-constant threats against Magda.
“Justice?” She asks, in reference to her husband’s killer, who everyone in the community knows. “That doesn’t exist here.”
The show follows her on the long, arduous journey to the United States, showing some of the smaller, moment-to-moment challenges that it entails. What roads will best avoid Mexican drug cartels? Where is there access to a doctor? Can the other migrants traveling nearby be trusted?
Much of the series takes place in McAllen, Texas, a popular crossing-point for Central American migrants. Ramirez, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, is looking into a small-scale smuggling operation. He stakes out a “stash house” near the border, where migrants hide out until smugglers can move them to their next destination.
While searching the premises, Ramirez finds condom wrappers strewn about the floor, suggesting that the stash house is being used for sex trafficking. He tracks down the caretaker of the house, and then after some investigation, Gerardo Naranjo-Chavez, alias "Express," the leader.
But Express is not the only one investigated for human trafficking in this series. Almost every episode makes a point of showing how the vulnerability of migrants can put them at risk of sex work and other forms of exploitation.
Later in the series, a woman named Sochil discusses her childhood experience with Luz del Mundo, a Mexican megachurch whose leaders molested and raped her.
“My aunt made it seem like it was normal,” Sochil says, “that it was a blessing, because they instill it in your brain. They engrave it in your brain.”
The storyline feels a bit extraneous considering that it has little to do with migration, but that can be forgiven considering the gravity of the topic. Luz del Mundo has millions of followers despite the leaders’ numerous charges of extortion, forcible rape of a minor, production of child pornography and human trafficking.
At the very least, the storyline shows how easily vulnerable demographics of Latin America can be coerced into situations of exploitation, many of which go unchecked because the culprits hold positions of power.
InSight Crime Analysis
The series does an excellent job of explaining the various criminal activities that both fuel, and develop out of, the wave of migrants heading toward the United States from Central America.
Its footage of gang violence in Honduras accurately depicts how a lack of economic opportunity in the country continues to drive young men to join gangs like MS13.
“The gang gives them three meals a day,” one pastor in Honduras says. “They provide them love and respect. But once they are inside they realize this is not what they signed up for.”
Magda’s story, the constant fear in which she lived following her husband’s death, may provide some viewers with a deeper understanding of how a person can arrive at the decision to leave home and embark on such a perilous journey.
That journey, the series shows, is much more complex than making it safely from point A to point B. Coyotes charge thousands of dollars so they can bribe law enforcement and cartels, as well as pay truck drivers who in one episode receive $1,000 for every migrant they transport in their trailers. For viewers who only understand migration through annual statistics and hot-button political talking points, these kinds of details may prove revelatory.
The show’s focus on human trafficking specifically, however, may leave the most lasting impact. There are nearly 25 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, many of them migrants who will never receive justice, and “The Trade” makes the rare effort of showing just how many different forms the crime can take.
In every storyline, the series highlights the ineffectiveness and, in some cases, unfairness built into the legal systems fighting all of these criminal activities. Whether waiting for the return of a nephew’s body caught in bureaucratic limbo, a man facing deportation due to a tree he cut down in his yard, or officials rescinding police protection for a trafficking victim, the series offers more than enough to leave viewers feeling as frustrated about the situation as they are distraught.