On July 30, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Mexico launched the Corazón Azul 2022 campaign, which aims to increase visibility and raise awareness of the many contexts in which human trafficking can occur in order to improve preventative measures and timely reporting.
“Our commitment as a country should not be reduced to certain types of trafficking victims; it must turn to prevention, not only of the crime, but of its structural causes,” said Félix Santana, the technical secretary of the Intersecretarial Commission against Human Trafficking within Mexico’s Interior Ministry (SEGOB).
The announcement came on the heels of newly released data from the Executive Secretariat for Public Security (SESNSP) showing Mexican authorities identified at least 494 victims of human trafficking across the country between January and June of this year.
This represented a 22% uptick from the 406 victims recorded during the first half of 2021. If the current trend holds, officials will see nearly 1,000 victims of human trafficking by the end of the year, the most since 2015, according to an InSight Crime analysis of SESNSP data.
However, the true number of victims far exceeds those reported. Civil society groups like Consejo Ciudadano estimate that just one of every 100 human trafficking cases in Mexico is reported. Victims may not speak out for a number of reasons, including a lack of available resources, to avoid being stigmatized, or because they have been manipulated not to see themselves as victims.
The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report found that, for the eighth year in a row, the Mexican government “does not fully meet the minimum standards” to combat and eliminate human trafficking but is “making significant efforts” to do so.
Those with the highest risk of being trafficked in Mexico, according to the State Department, included unaccompanied children, indigenous persons, asylum seekers and migrants, members of the LGBTQ community, and informal sector workers, among other vulnerable populations.
Rather than at the hands of Mexican organized crime groups, “the majority of trafficking cases occur among family, intimate partners, acquaintances on social media, or through employment-related traps,” the report stated.
InSight Crime analysis
Human trafficking crimes take place all across Mexico and can transcend borders, but a number of states along the U.S.-Mexico border have long served as human trafficking hotspots.
Through the first six months of 2022, the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, and Nuevo León accounted for one quarter (122) of all human trafficking victims identified and a little less than 25% (95) of the 411 investigations opened by authorities.
Over the last year and a half, these three states were also among the top 10 states where Consejo Ciudadano’s National Human Trafficking Hotline received the most calls to report human trafficking.
This data helps paint part of the picture. In Baja California and Chihuahua, the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are known hubs for sexual and labor exploitation, while the manufacturing center of Monterrey in Nuevo León is a long-time operational base for human traffickers.
Given the economic makeup and transitory nature of these cities on migratory routes traversing Mexico, internal and foreign migrants are frequently lured there and victimized. Victims are entrapped by their exploiters in a number of ways, but since the onset of COVID-19, deceptive recruitment tactics have increasingly turned to social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
Those targeted are presented with attractive job offers that pay well but lack specific details on what the job entails. Stated promises of personal and professional development act as “a mask for exploitative conditions,” according to Consejo Ciudadano. Victims may be pushed into working longer hours for less pay or forced into prostitution after accepting a job offer as a waitresses or as part of a fake modeling contract.
The most reported form of exploitation is sexual, but trafficking experts told InSight Crime that doesn’t make it the most prevalent type of trafficking. Labor exploitation in the agricultural, construction, and manufacturing industries in Mexico is also widespread, but much less reported. With a growing number of people living in poverty and other precarious conditions, there are many desperate workers vulnerable to exploitation.
Whereas predatory groups like the Zetas once operated their own prostitution rings, today human trafficking does not represent a central revenue source for Mexico’s major organized crime groups. The industry is largely dominated by independent family clans that carefully select those they prey on.