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Human Trafficking and Smuggling: The Lucratively Traded Commodity Fueling Mexican and American Criminal Networks and How Washington Should Respond Accordingly?

Updated: Mar 31

By Christopher Rahimian-Smith

The arrest of Paulino Ramirez-Granados after an investigation by HSI Mexico, HSI New York, and the Mexican Federal Police in 2015   Via ICE.

The extradition of El Chapo, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, to the United States has continued to baffle legislators on how to stop their promotion of illegal drugs, human trafficking, and other organized crime rackets through the southern border. Their power has not weakened, but rather strengthened, by the “Chapitos” (children of El Chapo) who continue their father’s criminal legacy. The reality is that all Mexicans do not see the Sinaloa Cartel as criminals, but rather as a legitimate authority. Although the Sinaloa Cartel as well as the Gulf Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel procure much of their funds from drugs, human smuggling and trafficking has become a reusable, more profitable criminal endeavor.  

The National Security Forces of Mexico are continuing to extradite those linked to the Chapitos to the United States, but GOP lawmakers and the Department of Defense are still calling for special forces to conduct targeted operations. The Department of Defense lists this solution for Mexico and the United States due to Mexico’s potential fate as a terrorist state. In addition to special forces operations, Joint Task Force Alpha, housed under the Department of Homeland Security, strengthened the Justice Department's efforts to combat regional human smuggling in Central America.

When the word Cartel comes to mind, many associate it with drugs and murder. However, over the last two decades, the cartels have made sustainable profits in human smuggling and subsequently, human trafficking. United States policymakers are not shifting focus to who facilitates this trade, American citizens. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in their report on Human Trafficking Data Collection Activities 2022, the Justice Department charged 1,169 individuals with human trafficking in 2020. Of these individuals, 63% were white and 95% were United States citizens. Public perception views cartels as criminal organizations but fails to account for who fuels this business. Various actors in America, not only in Mexico, facilitate this type of trade and are equally responsible.

The United States specifically needs to prioritize Priority Action Plan 2.6 and principles 3.1, 3.2.1, 3.2.3, and 4.2.3 of the State Department’s National Action Plan. Priority Action Plan 2.6 advocates for victims of human smuggling and trafficking to have access to short- and long-term care stability. This entails having access to mental health services, increasing access to shelters and safe houses, increasing access to employment, and increasing access to post-secondary education. Logically, Priority Action Plan 3.1 should be prioritized because it advocates a broader scope of criminal enforcement and improved coordination between agencies. This encompasses building an interagency anti-trafficking coordination team, expanding US-Mexico trafficking enforcement through intelligence-driven targeting, enhancing the Model Task Force that identifies victims of human trafficking and engages in victim-centered investigations, and enforcing human trafficking prosecution to the state and local courts.

Lastly, Priority Action Plans 3.2.1, 3.2.3, and 4.2.3 should be upheld. 3.2.1 proposes that prosecutions can be strengthened by territorial law enforcement, survivors, and survivor organizations. 3.2.3 states that there should be an initiative by the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services to work with the social media industry to combat suspected human trafficking on their platforms. 4.2.3 integrates financial intelligence into the heart of what drives human trafficking and smuggling…money. This initiative is enforced by the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor to prevent the use of illicit financial schemes.

The effort to prosecute and prevent human trafficking and smuggling needs to be as much a concern with Mexico as well as with the internal dynamics of the United States. According to a Reuters report, a prostitution probe that operated in Massachusetts, Virginia, and California was busted by federal prosecutors who said clients included elected officials, lawyers, professors, military officers, and professors. These scandals even extend into the highest positions in government.

            In addition, Senior DODEA official, Stephan Hovanic, was arrested in a human trafficking sting operation by the Coweta County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia. He is accused of soliciting sex from an undercover cop. He has since resigned from his position but was never adequately prosecuted and instead freed on bond. Hovanic was charged with pandering, a crime involving a person soliciting prostitution for oneself. There needs to be a reform of human trafficking conviction and investigation law. Similarly, how the RICO laws allowed the FBI and state and federal prosecutors to severely weaken the five mafia families in New York. There needs to be greater authority given to law enforcement to adequately prosecute these criminals, often using undercover law enforcement agents.  

Conversely, it is not possible to completely eradicate this issue, but these proposed measures can greatly suppress human smuggling and trafficking into the United States along the southern border. It is likely to say that further security intervention from the US military through agencies and even NGOs are practical starting points; however, according to an Al Jazeera report, the President of Mexico, Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador states “’ [he was] not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory much less than a government's armed forces intervene.’” He further cites that this would be an embarrassment to the Mexican people and that Mexico is taking proactive measures to limit cartel activity even though their rackets are intensifying.

Mexico indirectly states that border failures are part of a wider US policy failure to integrate proper logistics and authority. At this rate, the US will have to rely on itself, strengthening the case for wider security expansion with US and Mexican security services and reforming border policies. The US is too focused on trying to blame other nations for something that could be fixed by looking inward at maximizing policy, reevaluating funds for border security, and further fostering interagency efficiency. On top of that, human smuggling presents a more profitable trade than drugs do. Reworking the discourse of human smuggling and trafficking will severely deteriorate cartels and criminal syndicates who greatly profit from this dirty business without the traditional way of sending the US military into a foreign territory to fight a war that can not be resolved based on firepower.


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Burke, Matthew  M. “Senior DODEA Administrator Takes Leave after Arrest in Human Trafficking Sting.” Stars and Stripes, 24 Nov. 2023,

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“Human Trafficking Data Collection Activities, 2022.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 27 Oct. 2022,

Kime, Patricia. “Dodea America’s Chief of Staff Arrested in Human Trafficking Sting Operation in Georgia.” Military.Com, 22 Nov. 2023,

“Lopez Obrador Denies US Claim Cartels Control Parts of Mexico.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 24 Mar. 2023,

The National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking - The White House, The White House, Dec. 2021,

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Raymond, Nate. “US Says Prostitution Ring Counted Politicians, Tech Execs, Lawyers as Clients.” Reuters.Com, Reuters, 9 Nov. 2023,

Sinha, Urja. “US Seeks Extradition of Sinaloa Cartel’s Notorious Security Head.” NewsNation, NewsNation, 27 Nov. 2023,


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