AMU Homeland Security Immigration Original

Illegal Immigration from Latin America: Causes and Risks

Poor living conditions and current events in Latin America are driving illegal immigration to the United States. For many would-be migrants, their poor living conditions include poverty, extortion by gangs and cartels, and crime.

Why Do Migrants Make the Trip to the US?

Through my in-country research in Latin American countries and my on-the-ground research on the southwest border, I have spoken to many migrants attempting to make the dangerous trek to the United States.

Nearly everyone I have spoken with had two factors in common:

  • Nearly all said there is a perception in Latin America that the southwest border is open for crossing.
  • They cited terrible living conditions or danger in their home country as their motivation for fleeing.

The Many Risks of Illegal Immigration to the United States

Many migrants I interviewed said they knew that the trip to the southwest border of the U.S. would be dangerous. Cartels have robbed some migrants at gunpoint.

Other migrants slept in abandoned homes alongside the skeletal remains of adults and children during their trip. Other migrants have witnessed sexual assaults and murders by smugglers.

But despite the danger, fleeing Latin America and entering the U.S. seems worth the risk for many migrants.

Extortion and Violence Are Driving Factors for Illegal Immigration

In many Latin American countries, powerful, transnational criminal organizations exert control over communities through violence. Law enforcement agencies in some Latin American countries are often inadequately staffed, and public corruption and extortion are common. Some people are kidnapped for sex trafficking, and many homicides commonly go unpunished.

Exerting power through force and coercion is consistent throughout Latin America. Gangs and transnational criminal groups use extortion as a way to pay for their drug trafficking and human trafficking operations, and their activities seem to be increasing.

For instance, Ecuador has dealt with a substantial level of internal turmoil and violence. According to a Costa Rican newspaper, The Tico Times, Ecuador has experienced a 482% increase in drug trafficking complaints, Colombia has had extortion cases quadruple between 2012 and 2023, and extortion is reported every hour in Mexico.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center has estimated that 80% of female migrants are sexually assaulted in Mexico on their trek to the United States, and 95% of crimes against women and girls go unpunished in Central America. Based on the personal accounts of the migrants I have interviewed, these statistics sound consistent.

WhatsApp and Its Use in Central American Extortion

The Tico Times also notes that WhatsApp is used to make threats to Latin America residents, such as:

  • “We know who you are. We already know what time your business opens.”
  • “We know when you go to the market. We know where your son studies.”
  • “If you don’t pay, we’ll burn down your kiosk, grab your family, sister or kids and injure or kill them.”

These threats are legitimate. Kidnappings, the burning of business buildings and murders occur when Latin American victims fail to pay criminals.

Touring the South Side of Belize City

Last year, I was invited on a tour of the south side of Belize City by the local police and a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in the area. That area of Belize City is riddled with gang violence and is known as the most dangerous place in the country.

Belize is a beautiful country, and gang violence is mostly isolated to the south side of Belize City. Some people told me that several of the gang members who formerly lived in the south side of Belize City emigrated to the U.S. to claim asylum from the very violence for which they were responsible.

How to Mitigate the Problem of Illegal Immigration

The United States cannot police other nations. It also cannot fix the poverty and corruption that exist in many Latin American countries.

To address the problem of illegal immigration, there must be proper vetting and stricter border security so that migrants have a safer path to legally come to the United States. The strategy of spending U.S. money in Latin America to improve local residents’ living conditions has had minimal effect. Instead, more money needs to be spent on training military servicemembers, police, and other government agencies to combat the influence of gangs.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and 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. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

Comments are closed.