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Human Trafficking and the Children of Central America

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, faculty member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Children from Central America are highly vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking. This vulnerability is due to the poverty that exists in this region and the lengths that families will go through to seek a better life for their children in the United States.

For example, tens of thousands of migrant children travel either alone or with family members from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in an attempt to reach the United States through Mexico. This journey often involves coordination with criminal smuggling groups that exploit these children and their families.

This past year, I traveled to Central America and spoke with immigration officials and border defense officers in regard to front-line problems that they experience associated with human trafficking. I also spoke with migrant families that had fled El Salvador to seek refuge in Belize from the crime and gang violence that makes them susceptible to human trafficking.

The Salvadoran migrants explained that they moved to an area of Belize that was granted to them by the Belizean government and they were asylum seekers due to the dangers that they had fled from. In speaking with immigration and law enforcement officers in Central America, I also learned that the drug trafficking problem and violence within Central America consumes the majority of police resources. As a result, investigating powerful human trafficking networks is challenging.

Some Central American Countries Making Strides in Combating Human Trafficking

Law enforcement in Central America operates on a very limited budget with limited resources, while human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. But several Central American countries are making strides to combat human trafficking.

For example, Belize was upgraded in 2019 from a Tier 3 nation to a Tier 2 watch list in the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report. That improvement was due to improvements in victim services and the development of a counter-human trafficking police unit.

Tier 2 countries don’t fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but they are making significant improvements to bring themselves into compliance. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are also Tier 2 countries in Central America.

What Is the Difference between Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking?

There is a definite difference between human smuggling and human trafficking. Human smuggling is transportation based where a smuggler is paid thousands of dollars to guide children – who may or may not be accompanied by family members from Central America to the United States via the Mexico-United States border. However, many families with migrant children do not have thousands of dollars to spend on the trip, which often creates a gateway to human trafficking.

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of migrant families and their children who are unable to pay the costs of being smuggled to the United States. They may be susceptible to the three cornerstones of human trafficking, which are the sex trade, forced labor, or domestic servitude to pay off their debt for being smuggled to the United States.

Children and Women Are Especially at Risk

Children account for three in every five victims of human trafficking from Central America. There are unspeakable vulnerabilities for migrant children who are forced by armed human traffickers to pay off their debts. Researchers from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime discovered that smugglers work with human traffickers as part of a mutually profitable business that encourages smugglers to bring children directly to human trafficking networks.

Another problem for families involves deportation if they are caught attempting to reach the United States illegally. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), around 24,200 women and children were deported last year, mostly from Mexico to their home Central American countries.

Women and children are at a great risk when they return to their home countries. From my experience in speaking with Central American law enforcement and migrant families who have attempted to flee from these countries, resources and training are very limited to protect those who are susceptible to human trafficking.

Human traffickers in Central America target public squares and migrant shelters. They exploit the vulnerabilities of victims by either promising false work opportunities or use physical force that compels victims to go along with traffickers out of fear that either they or their families will be harmed if they don’t cooperate.

Often, human traffickers make threats to harm family members. Those threats compel adult and child victims to remain in the sex trade or other facets of human trafficking.

Also, human traffickers target the areas where migrants have been deported. They know that victims often have lost their money on failed smuggling attempts to the United States and are especially defenseless.

Since many of the locations to which migrants return are plagued with poverty and violence, there are little resources to help protect these potential victims, especially children. Human traffickers typically use coercion and exploitation to compel their victims.

More Improvements to Come in the Fight against Human Trafficking

Fortunately, a great deal of attention is now being focused on human trafficking throughout the Central American region and in the United States. By gaining a deeper understanding of human trafficking, law enforcement and citizens can be more aware of situations that they encounter that may be associated with human trafficking.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides human trafficking victims with the right to seek justice and assistance, regardless of whether they are a United States citizen. As a result, Central American victims are able to seek out protection under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and may contact the Polaris Project Human Trafficking Hotline to initiate this process in the United States at 1-888-373-7888.

There is also a partner hotline in Mexico, which is operated by Consejo Cuidadano at 01-800-5533-000. The Polaris Project has received over 4,300 reports of sex trafficking victims with a connection to Central America or Mexico since 2007.

central americaAbout the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski will be speaking at the International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on the topic of human trafficking in September 2019 and will be sharing some of his research on human trafficking in Central America. Dr. Sadulski will also be speaking at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in September of 2019 and will be traveling to Central and South America to further his research in the fall. In addition to domestic speaking engagements, Dr. Sadulski has spoken in Europe and Central America on topics associated with human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, and police responses to domestic terrorism. Dr. Sadulski has over twenty years of experience in the field of homeland security and law enforcement. He has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2011.

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Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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