The number of human trafficking victims in Mexico is growing, as traffickers target vulnerable people hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mexican authorities identified at least 550 victims of human trafficking in 2020, a 43 percent increase from the 383 victims recorded in 2016, according to data from the Executive Secretariat for Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SESNSP) and cited in a report by Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), a non-governmental group working in Latin America and the Caribbean. HIP publishes its report on human trafficking every four years.
One of the main forms of trafficking described was the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Men and boys, meanwhile, were forced to labor in the mining and construction sectors, while females were also pressed into domestic service. Children between the ages of five and 12 were victims of sexual abuse and pornography, as well as being forced to beg on behalf of others.
The people most vulnerable to trafficking included members of the LGBTQ community, young girls, the disabled, single women with children, Indigenous people and migrants, including those displaced internally or transiting the region, according to the report.
Mexico has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world. Between 2015 and 2021, more than 2,800 people were reported to be victims. And if the cases recorded through the first four months of this year continue apace, Mexico will log more than 650 victims in 2021, more than any of the last six years, according to the report.
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The figures are almost certainly an undercount. Many cases go unreported for a variety of reasons, including a lack of confidence in authorities and fear of being killed for speaking out. Violence against women in Mexico has increased substantially alongside human trafficking in recent years, with a record 977 women killed in 2020.
Mexico’s central region was the most affected by human trafficking, according to the report, but the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca were also among those with the highest trafficking rates. The report also highlighted the Puebla-Tlaxcala corridor, Mexico City and the Gulf state of Veracruz as being human trafficking hotspots.
Last year, victims of human trafficking were recorded in 126 municipalities and in 25 of Mexico’s 31 states, up from 18 states in 2017.
“Human trafficking has become even more complex with the current health crisis,” the report's authors concluded. The authors also noted that the growing presence of organized crime groups, ties between officials and criminal actors, rampant impunity and a lack of government attention have all created “greater conditions for human trafficking to increase.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Crime groups involved in human trafficking are taking advantage of pandemic conditions in Mexico in two ways.
First, the pandemic, which has pushed millions across Mexico into poverty, has “exacerbated many individuals' existing vulnerabilities to trafficking” and “increased the number of individuals vulnerable to exploitation,” according to the US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
Second, Mexico has foundered in targeting traffickers.
“During COVID-19, there’s been a decline in interest and attention to human trafficking, which has allowed human trafficking groups to reorganize and operate with more freedom and less scrutiny from law enforcement,” Guadalupe Correa-Correa, an expert on human trafficking and organized crime in Mexico, told InSight Crime.
Migrant women and children traversing Mexico to reach the United States are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
Mexicans, meanwhile, fall prey to traffickers close to home. A 2019 analysis of human trafficking by the country’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos - CNDH) found that between 2012 and 2017, 84 percent of human trafficking victims were Mexican nationals, and more than half were trafficked in the same state they lived in.
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To compound the issue, the Mexican government has – since 2014 – repeatedly “failed to fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," according to US officials.
The HIP report added that there “does not appear to be a meeting point for treating the problem,” as human trafficking receives little attention on the national agenda. The absence of public policies only further generates confusion for civil society groups and others working to confront the problem, the report concluded.
“When you have a comprehensive strategy, you’re coordinating with different ministries, prosecutors and investigators, as well as with non-governmental organizations,” said Correa-Correa. “But in Mexico, there is no coordination because there’s no government strategy or victim-centered approach to combatting the issue.”
What's more, government officials have colluded with the leaders of trafficking groups or even taken part in trafficking crimes themselves. Corrupt immigration officials have falsified documents for criminal networks and accepted bribes to facilitate the trafficking of victims into Mexico, according to the CNDH report.
The State Department found that the Mexican government “did not prosecute or convict any officials for complicity in trafficking crimes” in 2020.
Even when trafficking rings are targeted, the leaders at the top of these networks often go untouched, while low-level members – who may also be trafficking victims themselves – frequently end up in prison, Correa-Correa said.