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.”

Investigations

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