US-bound migrants riding on a Mexican freight train

Experts say unauthorized migration generates billions of dollars for criminal groups in Latin America, earnings that are set to grow as a result of tightening US immigration policies.

Human smuggling from Latin America into the United States accounts for an estimated $7 billion in revenues for organized crime groups in the region, Felipe de la Torre, an official from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Crónica.

The figure was calculated by taking into account the migratory flows along the US border, as well as the fees charged by the so-called "coyotes" or "polleros," traffickers who help people to enter the United States without authorization.

An estimated 57 percent of undocumented Mexican migrants repatriated by US authorities had relied on traffickers to enter the United States, according to the UNODC. In the case of migrants from other Central American countries, the figure reaches a staggering 70 percent.

Yet the coyotes are only one of several actors that migrants must pay to cross the border. For instance, a report from the International Crisis Group found that some smugglers have been subjugated by local organized crime groups. Coyotes and their clients must pay up to $1,000 in protection fees to these criminal networks; those who fail to pay are kidnapped. 

In addition, a Mexican non-profit organization quoted in the study said that 20 percent of 31,000 migrants surveyed reported "crimes at the hands of authorities, including robbery, extortion, beatings and illegal detentions."

Among the pillars of his campaign, US President Donald Trump vowed to step up the fight against crime in the United States by increasing deportations of undocumented migrants, and building a wall along the border with Mexico.

During the first three months of Trump's presidency, there was an increase in immigration-related arrests and a decrease in deportations compared to the same period last year. The administration's promise to embrace a more heavy-handed approach to undocumented migration has sparked debate over the effectives of stricter border controls.

InSight Crime Analysis

The tougher immigration policies championed by the Trump administration are likely to fortify criminal networks looking to profit from the large numbers of undocumented migrants trying to enter the United States. 

To be sure, criminal groups in Mexico have kidnapped and extorted migrants trying to cross the US border for years. And the number of Central American migrants arrested and deported by Mexican authorities had been increasing before President Trump assumed office.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling

President Trump's promise to step up the fight against undocumented migrants and build a wall along the US-Mexico border is likely to exacerbate these trends, driving more migrants into the hands of organized crime groups based in Mexico, and thus generating even greater revenues for criminal networks seeking to profit from human smuggling and trafficking.

"As patrol operations along the border become tougher, smuggling routes become more dangerous, and migrants have to pay more as a result," de la Torre told Crónica, adding that the $7 billion the UNODC estimates in revenues for organized crime groups may be a conservative figure. 

Investigations

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