HomeNewsAnalysisUN Math on Human Smuggling Not Sound

UN Math on Human Smuggling Not Sound


Smuggling migrants into the United States is now more profitable than smuggling drugs, according to a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The pull of profits has attracted criminal groups, making the journey north increasingly dangerous for illegal migrants, but InSight is very skeptical of this assertion.

Antonio Mazzitelli, the head of the UNODC's operations in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, told CNN on Monday that criminal organizations earned $6.6 billion from people smuggling into the U.S. in 2010.

This figure appears to be taken from a 2010 UNODC report, The Globalization of Crime, which said that trafficking of Latin Americans into the U.S. earned criminal organizations an estimated $6.6 billion each year. This would undermine Mazzitelli's claim, as the report was released in June 2010 and so does not give the figure for total profits earned in that year.

The United Nations report arrives at the figure by putting the average amount paid per migrant at $2,000. It says there are an estimated three million individual attempts to enter the U.S. from Mexico per year, 90 percent of which involve paid handlers.

This is significantly lower than the amount cited in an interview with a smuggler in El Salvador, carried out by Southern Pulse and reprinted by InSight, which revealed the cost of being taken illegally to the U.S. from that country to be close to $7,000.

But we also need to take into account that 88 percent of the migrants caught on the U.S. border in 2008, or 792,000 to be exact, are Mexican nationals, according to the United Nations. And this trend has held steady for years.

So if close to 90 percent of those who cross are Mexican, these people can presumably make their way to the border without assistance and only have to pay for the crossing into the United States, lowering their costs significantly as well as the profit margin for the smugglers. This means that the UN figure of $2,000 a head, totalling to $6.6 billion, is plausible.

But there is another aspect that is harder to measure. Much of this human traffic is now supervised by organized criminal gangs who extort money from the migrants at different points of the journey. In a recent report (pdf), the Mexican National Commission on Human Rights said that an estimated 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in 2010. During these usually brief kidnappings, criminals force migrants to communicate with their relatives who send small sums of money into mostly U.S. bank accounts or drop points.

It's not clear if the UN figure takes into account these extra "tolls." In either case, Mazzitelli appears to be believe that these "tolls," along with the flat costs have made human smuggling more profitable than drug trafficking.

But that is also almost surely not the case. The United States government, for instance, says that drug trafficking gangs launder somewhere in the range of $18 billion to $35 billion of drug profits per year.

And the United Nations itself says that wholesale price of cocaine in the United States, which only represents a small percentage of profits, is upwards of $25,000 per kilo, a price that would give the cartels a huge profit margin in just that market far outstripping the earnings from the relatively small ransoms extracted from the migrants.

Nevertheless, human trafficking is big money and has dark implications for those trafficked. A reminder of just how dark is given by news that Salvadoran police arrested the alleged head of a ring which smuggled some of the 72 people later found dead in a pit in northern Mexico.

The bodies were discovered in August 2010 on a ranch in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. The dead were thought to have traveled up from various South and Central American countries before being kidnapped and killed under mysterious circumstances that have not been adequately explained.

The Salvadoran detainee, Carlos Ernesto Teos Parada, is not suspected of being involved in the massacre, but was allegedly part of a group which charged the individuals about $6,000 for the journey to the U.S., an assertion that corrsponds to the Southern Pulse estimate.

As well as a source of profit for trafficking organizations, the migrants also represent an easy prey. The UNODC says that most trafficked migrants are transported by trucks, and are kept in “stash houses” where smugglers hold them until they pay for the traffickers’ services.

As InSight has noted, part of the reason that human smuggling has become so profitable in recent years is due to U.S. moves to tighten border security, including the erection of 700 miles of fence along the southwest part of the frontier. This forces migrants to use less accessible routes which go through rougher terrain, meaning that they need to pay guides to take them there.

As well as the lure of profits, another reason for criminal organizations moving into human trafficking is Mexican and U.S. efforts to curb drug trafficking. Since 2006 Mexico's government has been leading a U.S.-backed crackdown on drug syndicates in the country, resulting in the capture or death of many cartel members. Human trafficking presents a lower-profile, lower-risk source of income for organized crime.

And with an endless supply of desperate individuals willing to pay thousands of dollars to enter the U.S., migrants present drug traffickers with a big opportunity to make a profit with little chance of redress for any abuse committed along the way. As Mexican·National Commission on Human Rights (Comision Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDH) report comments, "The highly vulnerable situation which migrants face is extreme.”

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content


The Jalisco Cartel New Generation, which has rapidly expanded to become Mexico's greatest criminal threat, may now be spreading its…

FEATURED / 16 MAR 2023

The Northeast Cartel has established almost complete dominance of criminal economies in Mexico's border city of Nuevo Laredo.


Between July 2021 and February 2022, the government of President Nayib Bukele released four top leaders of the MS13 in…

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Coverage Continues to be Highlighted

3 MAR 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott was the featured guest on the Americas Quarterly podcast, where he provided an expert overview of the changing dynamics…


Venezuela's Organized Crime Top 10 Attracts Attention

24 FEB 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published its ranking of Venezuela’s ten organized crime groups to accompany the launch of the Venezuela Organized Crime Observatory. Read…


InSight Crime on El País Podcast

10 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-founder, Jeremy McDermott, was among experts featured in an El País podcast on the progress of Colombia’s nascent peace process.


InSight Crime Interviewed by Associated Press

3 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime’s Co-director Jeremy McDermott was interviewed by the Associated Press on developments in Haiti as the country continues its prolonged collapse. McDermott’s words were republished around the world,…


Escaping Barrio 18

27 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an investigation charting the story of Desafío, a 28-year-old Barrio 18 gang member who is desperate to escape gang life. But there’s one problem: he’s…