A group of Chinese citizens smuggled into Uruguay

At least 50 Chinese people have been smuggled through Uruguay in the last two years, perhaps signalling the country's growing importance as a human trafficking hub to move people in neighboring Argentina.

A report by Uruguayan national newspaper El Pais said human smuggling of Chinese and Dominican citizens is becoming more common in Uruguay as local "coyotes" -- criminals who facilitate illegal migration -- build up routes across the country into Argentina, which has become a regional human trafficking center.

The Chinese migrants travel by plane to Brazil, where they are not required to have an entry visa. There, coyotes meet the migrants and transport them in trucks to the scarcely-monitored Uruguayan border. From there, the migrants are passed to other coyotes who smuggle them into Argentina via the River Uruguay. Coyotes may use false paperwork and contacts with corrupt government employees to move the migrants "officially" across the border.

Once in Argentina, migrants are usually taken to Buenos Aires, often ending up in situations of forced labor or sexual exploitation.

The same logistics are used to transport Dominicans who arrive in Uruguay from Santo Domingo with false documents or tourist visas, according to El Pais. Most are women under the age of 25, who wait in hotels or apartments in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo for the opportunity to cross into Argentina. Uruguayan police have been investigating cases in which Dominican women have been forced to work as prostitutes during this waiting period. 

InSight Crime Analysis

That human smuggling is increasing in Uruguay is no surprise, given the profits available across the border in Argentina, where sex and labor trafficking have become a serious problem. More than 700 people were rescued from human trafficking networks during the first half of 2012, according to figures from Argentina's Ministry of Justice, with more than half of the victims from outside the country. Argentina's relative affluence, compared to most of its neighbors, make it an attractive prospect for human traffickers, who capitalize on income disparity to find both victims and clients for their trade.

As the El Pais report highlights, cases of human smuggling -- in which migrants pay to be willingly smuggled into another country -- can easily morph into human trafficking cases, in which victims are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. One of the challenges facing the Southern Cone nations is how to fully dismantle these smuggling networks, given that the migrants being transported through Uruguay often do not become victims of trafficking until they are forced into situations of exploitation in Argentina.

Argentina has made some moves towards confronting the problem, passing the country's first anti-trafficking legislation in April 2008. Since the law's passage, more than 3,465 trafficking victims have been rescued. But with Uruguay serving as a transit nation for potential human trafficking victims bound for Argentina, the problem is a transnational one.