Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues

What Do or Can We Know About Routes from Central America to the United States?

by Victoria A. Greenfield, Blas Nunez-Neto, Ian Mitch, Joseph C. Chang, Etienne Rosas


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Research Questions

  1. What are transnational criminal organizations' (TCOs') revenues from smuggling migrants from the Northern Triangle region of Central America — consisting of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — to the United States?
  2. What is known or knowable about the structure, operations, and financing of TCOs that engage in human smuggling along those routes and the markets in which they operate?

Unlawful migrants from Central America apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border each year often hire smugglers for assistance or pay others for rights of way at some point during their journey north. Policymakers face concerns that a substantial share of migrants' expenditures on smuggling services could be flowing to transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), entities that represent a potential threat to homeland security.

In response to these concerns, the authors of this report conducted a scoping study to develop a preliminary estimate of TCOs' revenues from smuggling migrants from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) to the United States and to characterize the TCOs' structure, operations, and financing. They conducted interviews with subject-matter experts, a review of literature, and an analysis of governmental and nongovernmental data on migration and human smuggling and found 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. They 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.

Key Findings

Characteristics of actors that engage in human smuggling

  • Actors that engage in human smuggling range from independent operators, to ad hoc groups, to loose networks, to more-formally structured networks, such as TCOs.
  • Many of these actors are subcontractors that offer their services to different networks or groups or other independent operators at the same time.
  • Many of the actors engaged in human smuggling do not appear to meet the statutory definition of a TCO.

Relationship between human smuggling and drug trafficking

  • There is little evidence that drug-trafficking TCOs engage directly in human smuggling, but they maintain control of primary smuggling corridors into the United States and charge migrants a "tax," known as a piso, to pass through their territories.
  • Drug-trafficking TCOs might also coordinate unlawful migrants' border crossings to divert attention from other illicit activities and recruit or coerce migrants to carry drugs.

Preliminary findings on revenue estimation

  • Estimating revenues from human smuggling requires data on (1) the number of unlawful migrants, (2) the percentage hiring smugglers, and (3) typical payments. A lack of reliable information on each point contributes to uncertainty in revenue estimates.
  • The authors' preliminary estimate of revenues to all types of smugglers from smuggling migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, combined, ranged from a total of about $200 million to a total of about $2.3 billion in 2017.
  • The authors' preliminary estimate of taxes paid to drug-trafficking TCOs by migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who passed through those TCOs' territories ranged from $30 million to $180 million in 2017.


  • Target vulnerabilities of human smugglers. For example, consider 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. Also, consider expanding current efforts to work with foreign law enforcement partners to disrupt smuggling operations.
  • Use information about the value of the smuggling market to inform decisions about efforts to allocate resources to market disruption.
  • Consider standardizing and expanding the range of questions that border officials ask migrants during interviews to seek more consistent and detailed information from migrants about different types of smugglers, routes, and payments.
  • Use shared portal for data entry that can screen for errors and use a randomized survey process to reduce the administrative burden of data collection on frontline personnel and increase the likelihood of successful data entry.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The Characteristics of Human Smuggling

  • Chapter Three

    Preliminary Findings on Revenue Estimation

  • Chapter Four

    Concluding Remarks

  • Appendix A

    Guidance for Literature Review

  • Appendix B

    Discussion Points and Questions for Subject-Matter Experts

  • Appendix C

    Guidance for Data Ana

  • Appendix D

    DHS and EMIF Sur Data on Smuggling Fees

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate and conducted within the Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by the RAND Corporation under contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.