The Rand Corporation has issued a report produced under contract for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Operational Analysis Center, "Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues: What Do or Can We Know About Routes from Central America to the United States?".
As a preliminary, let me express a certain dismay that DHS — the federal cabinet department responsible for immigration matters, in which is supposed to reside a vast repository of institutional knowledge, expertise, and intelligence — finds itself obliged to farm out something like this. It says something about the state of affairs since dismemberment of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which, with a tiny percentage of the human, technical, and capital resources available to DHS, routinely churned out excellent intelligence reporting on smuggling trends, paths, and revenue.
The report is marginally useful, but not what one might hope for, and certainly not a meaningful guide to improving operational anti-smuggling efforts.
It seems to me that the report falls short in a couple of key areas: First, because it posits ranges of profit figures that are too broad to have meaning in assessing the volume of illicit revenue that people-smuggling generates; and, second, because I think it also miscomprehends the fundamental structure and modes of operation of criminal organizations, in this case, of the transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) involved in the smuggling of humans across international borders and into the United States. Let me address them briefly in reverse order.
Involvement of TCOs in Cross-Border Smuggling. The report speaks in some detail about the authors' conclusion that "human smuggling involves many different types of actors and that most TCOs' activities and revenues cannot be separated credibly from those of ad hoc groups, independent operators, and others who engage in human smuggling," as noted in the report summary.
Historically, criminal organizations, no matter where one finds them, will take advantage of "associates" who are not in fact members of the gang. But neither are they freelancers. The Mafia in Sicily (and its spinoff child in the United States) — in some ways, the mother of "modern" criminal organizations — functions this way, as does the Japanese Yakuza and various Chinese and East European organized crime groups. Associates are often wannabes who can work their way up to becoming soldiers of the organization after proving themselves willing to perform the chores assigned them, however illegal or distasteful, or alternatively, they can remain associates while respecting the organization by obtaining permission and (literally) paying for the privilege of operating their criminal schemes under its wing.
What is true for the classic criminal organization is also true of more upstart criminal organizations as well, including entities as varied as street gangs, MS-13, and Mexican border cartels. Consider, by way of example, the individual who stakes out a street corner of a major metropolitan area anywhere in the world to sell drugs. He is there on sufferance of the controlling gang. If he were to try to obtain his product from some other gang, there would be trouble, as there would be also if he didn't "tithe" a portion of his profit revenues back to the gang; likewise, if he tried to sell from the wrong street corner, he would be disciplined or removed; conversely, though, if someone tries to muscle in on his street corner, he can rely on the organization to take action.
TCOs involved in the cross-border contrabandista trade — whether humans, drugs, guns, or money — operate similarly to other criminal organizations around the world regardless of focus, because doing so makes good business sense. Thus, to suggest that cartels and other gangs functioning across borders, whose primary profit may be in the drug trade, are not actively overseeing and in control of alien smuggling operations defies logic. Such organizations can ill afford to permit any independent actor or actors to infringe on their territorial prerogatives without substantial jeopardy to their long-term operations as those actors gain money, power, and prestige. A freelancer who believes that he can long operate without paying for the privilege and owing obeisance to the controlling TCO is at risk of his life and wellbeing.
TCO Smuggling Revenues. Returning to the question of how much money is being made on the unlawful smuggling of aliens from Central America through Mexico and into the United States: As mentioned, the ranges described in the report are too wide to be of much operational use, although at the higher ranges, the amounts suggested are staggering:
[The authors] developed a preliminary estimate of revenues from human smuggling flowing to all types of smugglers, not just TCOs — ranging from about $200 million to $2.3 billion in 2017 — with uncertainty stemming largely from analytical challenges related to data limitations and time constraints. Separately, they also produced a preliminary estimate of the taxes, or pisos, that migrants pay to drug-trafficking TCOs to pass through their territories, ranging from about $30 million to $180 million.
It's understandable, given the shadowy, amorphous nature of the human smuggling trade, that arriving at hard figures is a difficult proposition, and that a prestigious think tank such as Rand might blanch at putting forward insubstantial, unverifiable numbers. But the flip side of the coin has me reverting to the question: What good did it do for DHS to spend contract funds on a report that offers a revenue stream so broad? After all, the higher end, $2.3 billion, is a factor of 11.5 times higher than the lower end projection. Nearly anyone could have arrived at equally reasonable figures simply by multiplying the number of Central American apprehensions for fiscal year 2017, which was in the range of 200,000, add in an additional number based on the Border Patrol's estimates of its "catch rate" vs. "gottaways", and then multiply that subtotal by averaging the most recent calculations of what it costs Central Americans to be smuggled along the route.
But note also that there is operational peril in relying on one-time reports of any kind (vs. reiterative reports that follow trends, such as the intelligence reports of the defunct INS that I mentioned earlier) to tailor one's long-term enforcement efforts. For example, there were nearly 100,000 apprehensions in March of this fiscal year, the vast majority of them being Central Americans — meaning that in a single month, the equivalent of nearly half of all of FY 2017's total of Central Americans were apprehended crossing the southern border.
Despite my concerns about the limitations of the report, I do find value in some of its recommendations. One, particularly, stands out: "[C]onsider expanding existing efforts to investigate payments made to human smugglers, especially in the United States, and working more closely with formal and informal banking services to identify suspicious payments." Not enough has been done to detect and seize the fiscal assets and real property of human smugglers, and this is a lesson that DHS agents should understand, since it has been a successful strategy in combating all manner of other illicit smuggling activities, including, of course, narcotics. But as I have discussed on a number of other occasions, a part of the problem is that DHS agents — specifically, those within the Homeland Security Investigations division of ICE, whose job it is to conduct anti-smuggling operations — are simply not invested in conducting any kind of immigration work.
This same recommendation by Rand, though, goes on to suggest: "Also, consider expanding current efforts to work with foreign law enforcement partners to disrupt smuggling operations." This is a good-in-theory recommendation that is hard to put into practice because of endemic corruption, inadequate training, and poor operational practices within many foreign law enforcement, border, and military agencies. The United States does, in fact, have a vetting-and-partnering program, one of the many prongs of the Merida Initiative, but expansion has been understandably slow given the ground realities of the state of enforcement organizations throughout Central America and Mexico.
The initiative itself, ambitious in scope, has been a mixed bag and many observers have understandably questioned the return on value for taxpayer dollars spent. This is significant because it reflects the complexities of trying to operate in the region to curb the illicit northward flow of drugs and humans, and stemming the horrific violence that emanates from associated crimes as TCOs struggle for preeminence against each other, as well as against governments when they cannot suborn them.
DHS would be better served by looking inward at its operational and intelligence practices in crafting an adequate response to the present intolerable state of affairs. Contracting out can never be an adequate substitute for internal organizational inadequacies, no matter how prestigious the contracting entity.