AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Stopping Human Trafficking in Central America and the U.S.

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

Central American adults and children are highly vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking. On a daily basis, they make the decision to flee their home countries to find a better life due to the extreme poverty, extreme violence and intimidation that exists in their home countries.

Whether these migrants travel as a part of migrant caravans or through human smuggling rings, they are at risk of being kidnapped or becoming human trafficking victims. Some may even be killed due to the uncertainty and corruption that exists in the dangerous path between their homes and the United States.

Many Migrants Come from Central American Countries

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), most of these migrants come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Between January and June of 2018, 96,216 migrants from Central America, which included 24,189 women and children, were returned to their home countries from Mexico and the United States.

According to a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 85% of the Central American women who were seeking asylum in the United States reported coming from neighborhoods under the control of criminal armed groups. This way of life substantially increases the risk of these women being coerced into seeking a better life in the United States through criminal organizations that intend to use these women as victims of human trafficking.

Migrants Especially Vulnerable to Human Trafficking Perpetrators

Human trafficking involves the sex trade, domestic servitude and forced labor. Migrants from Central America are especially vulnerable to become victims of human trafficking. This is the result of migrants attempting to reach the United States and being coerced to participate in the sex trade, domestic servitude, or forced labor as the price they must pay to be smuggled into the United States.

For example, someone fleeing poverty and difficult living conditions in Central America may agree to come to the U.S. for someone who promises a better life for them and their family. Upon being smuggled to the country, however, that person and their family may find that the only way to pay off the debt for being brought to the U.S. is to engage in human trafficking activities.

Perpetuators of human trafficking often exploit vulnerabilities such as victims’ poverty. In addition, they are often the same nationality as the victim and may threaten to harm the victim’s family members back in Central America if the victim does not comply with engaging in human trafficking activities.

Only Some Central American Governments Are Trying to Stop Human Trafficking

Another problem that perpetuates human trafficking throughout Central America involves the efforts Central American governments have taken to address the problem of human trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, none of the Central American countries comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Through the TVPA, the U.S. Department of State ranks countries based on different tiers. The ranking is not necessarily based on the size of a country’s human trafficking problem, but instead focuses on a country’s governmental effort to comply with the TVPA minimum standards to stop human trafficking.

El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Panama are ranked as Tier 2. That means that they don’t meet the standards to stop human trafficking, but they have made significant efforts to comply with the TVPA to stop human trafficking.

[Related: The Need to Combat Human Trafficking Worldwide]

Guatemala and Nicaragua are on the Tier 2 Watch List. That ranking indicates that these countries also don’t meet the standards to stop human trafficking and are making significant efforts to comply with the TVPA. However, they have certain conditions, such as these countries lack evidence to show human trafficking investigations or convictions from the past year or the number of human trafficking victims in that country is significantly increasing.

Belize is a Tier 3 country. This ranking involves countries that don’t comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to comply.

DHS Working with Some Central American Countries to Stop Human Trafficking

To combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) met with government officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to develop a partnership to address the problem of human trafficking on February 20, 2019. Initiatives that are being put into place include developing a proposal to match the region’s laws regarding gangs and human trafficking; increasing communication and the sharing of information on transnational organized crime suspects; and expanding attention on the aviation, land, and maritime paths that are used by human trafficking suspects.

[Related: Fighting Human Trafficking on Its Own Cyber-Turf]

Attention and investigative resources that combat human trafficking in Central America are desperately needed, because many Central American victims of human trafficking reside in the United States. It is important that U.S. citizens and law enforcement remain vigilant and report any indicators of human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been a member of the Coast Guard since 1997. He also has local law enforcement experience in two local law enforcement agencies where he was a member of the agency’s Crime Suppression Squad and was the agency’s Officer of the Year. Currently, he serves as a Sworn Reserve Deputy at a sheriff’s office in Southwest Florida. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Coast Guard Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.


Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and narcotics trafficking trends and was the guest of INTERPOL in Colombia. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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