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Gang Involvement in Human Trafficking in Central America

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

The Northern Triangle of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — is known for its violence, poverty, corruption and significant gang activity. It is currently “one of the most dangerous places on Earth.”

[Related: Narcotics and the Human Trafficking Problem in Belize]

As a result, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans have arrived in the United States in recent years seeking refuge from gang violence. Ineffective government, poverty, and significant gang activities in the region have resulted in many of these gangs engaging in human trafficking. Law enforcement is unable to adequately protect citizens in the region, which accounts for the fact that 95 percent of crimes go unpunished.

To put into perspective how powerful gangs are in the Northern Triangle, Salvadorans pay an estimated $390 million in annual extortion fees and Hondurans pay about $200 million in an attempt to get the gangs to leave them alone. Gangs use bombings and violence against citizens to compel payments. These are astonishing numbers considering that both nations are so impoverished.

The violent MS-13 and M-18, the largest gangs in the Northern Triangle, are estimated to have 85,000 members. Their presence in the region has been growing since the 1990s, when the United States stepped up deportations of undocumented foreign nationals with criminal records. Those deportations only exacerbated the gang problem.

MS-13 a Main Perpetrator of Violence against Girls and Women in the Northern Triangle

Women are an especially susceptible target for human trafficking gangs in the Northern Triangle. MS-13 is one of the main perpetrators of violence against girls and women in the Northern Triangle.

[Related: Human Trafficking and the Children of Central America]

According to Human Trafficking Search, in Guatemala, on average two women are murdered each day and only two percent of these murders are ever prosecuted. In Honduras, 95 percent of violent crimes against women go unpunished. In El Salvador, 77 percent of violent crimes against women go unpunished.

As a result, women and even unaccompanied minors are left with little choice but to flee the region in hopes of a better life in the United States. However, often the only means of leaving is to become involved in human trafficking run by the region’s gangs.

Either by force or by agreement with human smugglers, victims fleeing the region often find themselves trapped in deployable conditions. Gangs use violence, threats of bodily harm against family members, and other methods of coercion to force their victims into activities that profit the gangs.

It is not uncommon for victims to pay everything they have to a smuggler who promises them a better life in the U.S. However, these women and girls are handed over to gangs who force them into the sex trade or into forced labor to pay off their debts for their journey north.

Gangs Often Recruit Girls from Schools to Become Victims of Sexual Violence

A study by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley found that the average ages of Central American gangs’ new recruits is nine to 15 years old. They are often recruited from schools and communities where they become victims of sexual violence. Gang leaders force them into sexual servitude. “In Guatemala alone, there are an estimated 15,000 children who are victims of child sex trafficking networks,” according to the human rights Borgen Project.

Children are also victims of forced labor, such as selling drugs for the gangs throughout the Northern Triangle. Despite the significant presence of gang involvement and the size of the human trafficking problem in the region, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have not been successful in prosecuting many of these cases.

What is needed to address gang involvement in human trafficking in the Northern Triangle is much greater international support that targets the gangs that perpetuate human trafficking. For example, increased cooperation among law enforcement agencies from throughout the region is needed, and those agencies should work together to share intelligence of gang operations and form a united front against this form of organized crime. Multi-national law enforcement task forces should be devoted to focusing on Central American gang operations and should work together to dismantle the gangs.

gangAbout 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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