It is very difficult to make any definitive statements about the relationship between drug smuggling and migration patterns. What has been observed, however, is that as border controls tightened in the 1990s, the corridors for cross-border traffic narrowed and the movement of narcotics increasingly overlapped (in a purely geographic sense) with that of human beings. As a result, and due to other changes in the Mexican criminal landscape, it became harder to draw sharp distinctions between migrant guiding, human trafficking, and drug smuggling.
There are two common narratives around criminal organizations and migration. The first is that migrants are employed as “burreros” to transport drugs in backpacks, often as a way to pay for guiding and other migration costs. While this does occur, there is a range of coercion involved, and more often than not there is a clear distinction between migrants and those transporting illegal products. Major drug trafficking organizations also are not reliant on burreros—who primarily transport marijuana—as most illegal drugs cross the border through legal ports of entry.
The second narrative is that the lucrative migrant smuggling business was taken over by violent drug smuggling cartels in the first decade of the 2000s. While local media often report ties between major drug cartels and migrant smugglers, scholars have repeatedly found that these relationships are less clear cut. Many researchers find that criminal groups impose taxes on migrant smugglers, leading to changes in the smuggling landscape and often an increase in the violence associated with migration, but that these groups do not become directly involved in moving migrants.
Author: Michael Lettieri
Managing Editor, Mexico Violence Resource Project