The drug cartel narrative is always the same. Whether the issue is the latest escape of the legendary Chapo Guzman, the decommission of tons of marijuana, or the recent discovery of the Mexican government’s collusion in the dirty business of drugs; when we hear about narco trafficking, we are hearing the same lines which have lost track of the complexity of this activity and its widening reach. In this narrative, the reality of hundreds of thousands of men and women — victims of human trafficking — become the ugly story that no one likes to hear. Unfortunately, ignoring the increasingly intertwined relation between human and drug trafficking is a privilege that the U.S and Mexico can no longer afford, not when this activity promises to rise alarmingly in the following years as drug cartels continue to gain power and impunity in Mexico.

In 2010, 1.2 million people were victims of human trafficking in Mexico, according to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is estimated that every year, approximately 70,000 people become victims of human trafficking in Mexico. In this context, it is no surprise that Mexico is the #1 destination of sex tourism in the hemisphere, and that the underdeveloped town of Tenancingo, the largest exporter of sex slaves to the U.S, has earned the title of the “sex trafficking capital of the world.” And when we add the drug trafficking factor to the equation, the prospects can be nothing but catastrophic.

Mexico’s geographically strategic location has ironically become a curse in the last decades, offering fertile soil for transnational criminal activities. Its geography, in combination with its porous rule of law and predominant institutional weakness, particularly in the northern and southern border regions, have turned Mexico into a criminality paradise. In 2014, Mexico was ranked as “highly corrupt” in the Corruption Perception Index, while its institutions were ranked as alarmingly “weak” in the latest Global Competitiveness Report. In this context, drug cartels who operate under economic and rationality principles have exploited Mexico’s institutional weaknesses with acuteness, successfully diversifying their economic activities and maximize their profits.

Human trafficking has become the natural market to absorb for drug cartels. The routes, the institutions to corrupt, the human capital and even the market, are the same for both products. Exploiting the human trafficking market is highly profitable, as the costs and risks continue to decrease. While Mexico’s and the U.S.’ attention focuses on drug trafficking and cartel violence, human trafficking is disproportionately relegated from the “War on Drugs” agenda. Both governments have failed to address human trafficking as the second largest source of revenue for these criminal organizations, and as an activity that is likely to expand dramatically in the following decades as drug cartels continue to gain control over entire municipalities and regions in Mexico and Central America. The prevention, prosecution and protection aspects of human trafficking are precarious and, most importantly, underfunded. The Anti-Trafficking Law adopted in 2007 is mostly a statement of compliance, rather than a functional framework consistent with the State’s priorities.

It is time to approach anti-trafficking policy as a priority. If Mexico fails to properly address this pressing issue now, cartels will become significantly empowered in the following decades, acquiring the capacities that could further threaten the stability of the Mexican State. First, the government must exercise convincing pressure over the local governments to modify the necessary laws in the next year in order to achieve nationwide standards for the identification and prosecution of such crimes and successfully eradicate safe havens for traffickers. Currently, only 16 of the 32 states in Mexico have adapted their local laws to criminalize all forms of trafficking. Specifically urgent is the implementation of the Anti-trafficking Law in the northern states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, and in the southern states of Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Mexico must also create a federal budget to invest in infrastructure, intelligence, specialized units, anti-corruption strategies and human capital. This budget must become regular, irrevocable and non-negotiable after established.

And the U.S needs to play a greater role. Recognized by its harsh stand against human trafficking and its proactive role in establishing transcendental partnerships all around the globe, the U.S has been too tolerant with Mexico. The Tier 2 rank given to Mexico, which notes that the “Government of does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” is mostly an undeserved compliment. The U.S currently provides aid to support anti-trafficking efforts in several Latin American countries but Mexico, due to its “not-so-bad” ranking, isn’t one of them. Therefore, Mexico must negotiate becoming a recipient of such assistance in the framework of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Technical help on fighting corruption must become a central pillar in this negotiation. Finally, The Mexican government needs to renegotiate with the U.S the terms of the Merida Initiative to include combating human trafficking as part of the strategy on the “War on Drugs” addressing it as one of the greatest sources of power for Mexican drug cartels.

Mexico needs to listen to the stories it has chosen to ignore in the last decades, those of hundreds of thousands of victims of human trafficking that lose hope in its territory. Mexico needs to not only care but prioritize human trafficking, if not as a humanitarian action, as a strategic one to combat drug cartel empowerment.

Previously published by The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ana-davila/the-human-in-the-drug-trafficking-equation_b_7888836.html


Ana Dávila is currently a Global Affairs graduate student at NYU and editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal. She has a B.A in International Relations from Monterrey’s Institute of Technology (ITESM) in Mexico. 

Written by Ana Dávila