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US Immigration Policies are Causing Some Migrants to Become Victims of Debt Bondage

Updated: Nov 12, 2023


Merced County Sheriff states 60 migrants were forced to work in a marijuana factory. Facebook post.

Note: This article uses the term “migrants” to include all those coming to our southern border regardless of their reasons.


When Americans think about human beings who are trafficked, most think of sex trafficking. While this is a serious and growing concern in the US, law enforcement officials have neglected to inform the public that a fast-growing area of trafficking is forced illicit narcotics labor. Whether it involves carrying a backpack of marijuana across the border, delivering illicit narcotics from city to city or everyday street level dealing of illegal drugs, more migrants and even some unaccompanied undocumented children are being forced into illicit narcotics labor. Like sex trafficked victims, forced illicit narcotics labor victims and their families are often threatened with physical violence, death and the threat of turning them and their family members over to immigration enforcement.


The increase in forced narcotics labor victims is in large part due to militarization of the southern border, deterrence immigration policies, narrowing of those eligible for asylum and the disastrous Title 42 pandemic policy enacted by the Trump Administration and continued for many years under the Biden Administration that shuttered the already failing asylum system.


How deterrence policies and militarization of the southern border have caused migrants to be forced into drug trafficking.


In October of 1994, the US government began to use deterrence policies meant to discourage migrants from crossing the southern border in between the ports of entry without inspection. Since that time, the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have tripled their forces and vastly increased resources and funding for securing the border. Today’s southern border has multiple steel walls in many areas, razor wire, sensors, drones, cameras and even assistance from local and state law enforcement that did not exist prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.


In the mid 1990s and early 2000s when I was an agent, the Border Patrol estimated their apprehension rates for those crossing in between the ports of entry on the southern US/Mexican border to be about 20-25%. Back then, we estimated that it took migrants an average of three attempts to cross before they were able to escape and make it into the interior of the country. In a memorandum dated July 14, 2023, from the Congress of the United States, several of the Border Patrol’s sector chiefs announced that southern border apprehension rates are currently as high as 95% in some sectors. While apprehension rates can fluctuate for a variety of reasons, in general this number has increased from the 20-25% in the beginning of deterrence policies and militarization of the border to roughly 80% or better today.

In the years prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, deterrence and militarization policies were slowly beginning to push migrant traffic away from the large border cities and towns and into the dangerous terrains to cross like the mountains of east San Diego County, the deserts of Arizona and the deadly Rio Grande River of Texas. When I arrived at my duty station in November 1995 in the east San Diego mountains, the Clinton border wall was just getting to Campo, California. Back then, it cost Mexican migrants about $400 to hire a guide to be smuggled or guided into the US. Even after the wall (deterrence) was up and more agents and resources (militarization) arrived at Campo Station, most migrants could still come up with the increased smuggling fees of about $1,000 for Mexicans and $1,500 - $3,000 for those coming from Central and South America.


It was only those migrants coming from extreme distances and brutal countries like China who had to pay high smuggling fees of $10,000 - $40,000. Distance, level of risk, number of different countries to traverse, the different political and law enforcement systems encountered along the way and resources required by smugglers justified these high costs. People involved in the smuggling these migrants in the 1990s were most often part of international criminal organizations because the difficulties and risks in smuggling were so much greater.


These high costs required most migrants coming from places like China to go into debt with the criminal smuggling organizations. This in turn required enforcers and debt collectors from those organizations to keep track of their clientele, which in turn required a large network within the US. This relationship did not exist as much between those coming from Central and South America because being smuggled was not that expensive prior to 9/11 due to the fact that the success rate of getting into the country was much greater than it is today. See this US Justice Department report for more on smuggling of Chinese persons in the 1990s for more information.


When the cost of the smuggling is around $5,000 or more, the transaction between the smuggler and the person being smuggled is different. Migrants can no longer simply pay a few thousand dollars and then be on their way. Human smuggling on the southern border has been taken over by the drug cartels because US militarization and deterrence policies have increased the costs by at least ten times.


Other issues like climate change and instability in their home countries have also increased demand. Additionally, because the asylum system had been decimated and was shut down during the response to Covid 19 by the Trump administration and through much of the Biden administration, the demand has been growing year after year. The deterrence policies of the US and the further restricting of those who can present themselves at ports of entry have increased the demand and need for irregular crossings/being smuggled which has caused smuggling to be more organized and this increases costs.


Today’s migrants and asylum seekers can no longer save up money or borrow from families to pay the smuggling fees. Instead, those who are coming from Central and South America are forced to pay the cartels’ high fees that have been created by US policies. Many often end up having to make deals with the smuggling organizations as the Chinese did in the 1990s. They end in debt to the smuggling organizations which are drug cartels just as the Chinese migrants were forced to do in the 1990s. This is referred to as debt bondage.


Owing the cartel money or debt bondage.


· Forced labor trafficking:


In exchange for being smuggled into the US, many migrants and asylum seekers are told that they can pay off their debts by working for a business that is connected to the cartel. In some instances, the migrant may be able to pay off the debt without having to work at a cartel connected business. In others cases, the migrant is forced to work for a company connected to the cartel. This is referred to as labor trafficking and is illegal.


In general, the US judiciary and law enforcement have little sympathies for these migrants, because the migrant is aware they are required to do labor to pay off the debt. The work itself is not considered a crime, but the forcing of that labor, avoidance of taxes and hiring of an undocumented person is the crime. In some cases, migrants have been forced to work in deplorable conditions. See this link for more on labor trafficking.


· Forced sex trafficking:


In a smaller percentage of cases, this compulsory indentured servitude forces the migrants into illicit sex work. This is most often seen in women and children but does also exist with males. Most often, migrants are not told they will be doing this criminal work and are lied to. They might have been told they were going to work in a restaurant or a cabinet shop, only to discover that they will be forced into prostitution or pornography.


The victims in these cases are seen by the US judicial system, the immigration system, law enforcement, the press and even the citizenry as victims. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged with combatting trafficking, even recognizes the difference between being “trafficked” and being “smuggled.” ICE defines “trafficked” victims as being “forced or coerced.”



The Department of Homeland Security, CBP, ICE and Border Patrol all support and agree that those trafficked migrants are victims. ICE even has visas and assistance set aside to help them stay in the country and become residents after they are freed from their traffickers.


· Forced drug trafficking:


In my experience as a former Border Patrol agent, I have witnessed migrants forced into illicit drug trafficking by cartel. Sometimes the cartel offers the migrants a free smuggling trip into the US if they carry a 60-pound bag of marijuana on their backs to a car waiting on the US side. These individuals are often times forced by threats of violence. Other times the cartel will hold the migrant’s family member(s) hostage and force them to carry the drugs. In the Border Patrol, we refer to these migrants as “mules.” They are most often sent as decoys meant to distract the agents while the larger loads went through in cars.


I have witnessed migrants being forced to drive a car through Border Patrol checkpoints with a load of marijuana or cocaine. If they make it through the checkpoint, they can be set free or forced to run more loads. If they are caught and arrested, they will be charged for the smuggling of narcotics. Whether or not the migrant was forced to carry the bag or not, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies will still charge them with drug smuggling. Even though they were “forced or coerced, through fear or lies, to perform labor, services…,” cops do not treat them as victims like those trafficked for sex.


How US immigration policies are forcing migrants into narcotics once migrants are in the country.


Once in the US, migrants can also fall into being forced to sell narcotics or sex because they are unable to feed and house their families. Again, US immigration policies and laws are creating this situation. If the migrants are documented and waiting for an immigration hearing, US law states that they cannot obtain a work permit for at least six months. If they are undocumented, they likely cannot find work that will pay them enough and they cannot legally work because of their immigration status.


In US v. Gustavo Gamez-Velsquez (19CR00367-CRB), the migrant defendant had a wife and three children. He was offered a place to rent for his family, but he was not aware he would be required by the landlord to sell drugs on the street if he was short for the month. By ICE’s own account, Gustavo rarely resorted to selling drugs to make his rent. By the government’s definition of being “trafficked,” Gustavo met the requirements to be considered a victim of trafficking, yet he was not. Instead, he was banished from the US for eternity.


Some migrants have no idea they will be forced to deliver or sell drugs on the street when they agree to be smuggled into the US. Some, are forced to work in drug factories in terrible conditions as in this case from Merced County where 60 migrants were forced into illicit narcotics work. All of these migrants were promised good jobs and places to stay before they were smuggled into the US. “Once there, they were forced to process marijuana while staying in horrible living conditions to pay back the individuals that brought them across the border.” According to the sheriff, the migrants were victims and will not face charges. Whether that means they will be deported or not remains to be seen.


Law enforcement is ignoring that many defendants are being trafficked into narcotics work.


This discrepancy of treatment for what is essentially the exact same scenario that exists between those trafficked for sex and those trafficked for illicit drug trade must be further examined and explained. Today, as US immigration and asylum policies have only caused more migrants to be denied at the ports of entry and while deterrence and militarization have caused profits to skyrocket for cartel smuggling, more and more migrants are being forced into narcotics trafficking.


The federal government is well aware of this discrepancy. In 2019, the San Francisco US Attorney’s Office filed a complaint against Eduardo Alfonso Viera-Chirinos (19CR00367-CRB) and multiple other defendants for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. According to court document, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began investigating a Honduran run drug organization in October of 2017 for trafficking in heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal narcotics in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This investigation was coordinated with seventeen federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.


Court documents state that Viera-Chirinos was the head of the drug trafficking organization in the San Francisco area. Viera-Chirinos would supply the drugs to migrants and their families from Honduras that he housed in the Oakland area. The DEA referred to these housing arrangements as “redistribution houses.” Viera-Chirinos used family members to manage those being houses in the “redistribution houses.” These family members were also responsible for driving to Los Angeles to obtain the drugs from Mexican cartel and deliver them to the “redistribution houses.” Couriers were used to smuggle the cash profits from selling back to Honduras.


Those who sold the drugs on the street in the Tenderloin area were most often Honduran migrants who needed a place for their families to live and needed jobs. The inability to find legal work, to obtain asylum and working permits, the fact that the Honduran illegal drug organization was requiring those who they provided housing for to sell drugs, and that these Honduran migrants were steered towards this organization from those smuggling them across the border all indicates that many of these street level sellers were coerced or forced into selling drugs.


This single investigation was able to show the interior structure of how the drug cartels are using the US immigration laws and policies to coerce and force migrants into illicit drug trafficking and sales. As the investigation noted, this is just one of many groups operating in this area. In fact, law enforcement has been aware of Honduran drug trafficking organizations working the Tenderloin area for at least thirty-five years according to this recent article. Since 2022, over two hundred Honduran migrants have been charged with drug crimes in San Francisco.


The San Francisco Chronicle article went into great detail about how the Honduran drug trafficking organizations are making so much money from forcing and coercing recently arriving undocumented migrants to sell their drugs in exchange for housing that they have been able to build mansions back in Honduras. In fact, the writer’s claim that the majority of dealers are coming from one district in Honduras called the Siria Valley and that they began arriving in the San Francisco area in the early 2000s.


Part two of the San Francisco Chronicle’s in depth reporting admits that “almost all” of the dealers they spoke to had family back in Honduras who they said would be killed if they did not cooperate and work for the Honduran drug organizations. The article cites several court cases where the threats were carried out. One had both his parents murdered in Honduras after it was discovered he was a confidential informant for the DEA. Another stated he witnessed a fellow migrant beaten to death after he stated that he wanted to quit selling drugs on the street.


DHS literature shows that migrants are being forced into narcotics trafficking and selling.


Law enforcement is well aware that migrants are being forced or coerced into drug work. DHS often runs educational advertisements about the trafficking of humans.



Social media campaign by DHS.

Following the advertisement link takes you to this DHS page that gives a brief overview of what they consider as human trafficking for forced labor. Note that both undocumented and documented migrants would fall into the majority of risk factors that DHS says causes some to become either sex, labor or narcotics trafficked victims.




At the bottom of the DHS page describing trafficking and the risk factors, readers are advised to follow another link: “ILO’s website.” This website belongs to the International Labour Organization. The ILO is an international labor organization that began in 1919. There are 187 member states and the organization is recognized by the United Nations.




International Labour Organization website.

The following information, definitions and statistics used by DHS are developed by the ILO and can be found in this 2023 report, “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage.”


  • “Migrant workers face a higher risk of forced labour than other workers. The forced labour prevalence of adult migrant workers is more than three times higher than that of adult non-migrant workers.” (pg. 12)

  • ILO estimates that “32,000 adults are forced into illicit activities” which includes narcotics trade. (pg. 42)

  • “Migrant workers who are not protected by law or are unable to exercise their rights face a higher risk of forced labour than other workers.” (pg. 45)

  • “Nearly fourteen out of every one thousand adult migrant workers are in forced labour in the private economy.” (pg. 45)

  • “When the need to move is sufficiently acute, or regular migration channels are limited, individuals or families may resort to dangerous migration routes and means of travel, including irregular border crossings. Many fall into the hands of smugglers who engage in abusive practices or unscrupulous recruitment intermediaries who exact from them recruitment fees and related costs, exacerbating the cycle of debt and risk of abuse.” (pg. 46)

  • “Once they reach their destination, migrants may remain vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking due to language barriers, lack of reliable information and support networks, challenges of economic and social integration, lack of access to basic services and social security, or restrictions on their ability to change employer or organize and bargain collectively.” (pg. 46)

  • “Migrant workers who are in irregular situations (undocumented), unfairly recruited, or in contexts of poor migration governance can face coercion in the form of confiscation of their identity documents, which prevents them from leaving a job for fear of losing them. Migrants in irregular situations are also coerced through threats of being reported to authorities or deported.” (pg. 50)

  • Debt bondage results when people are coerced to work against their will to repay a debt with an employer or recruiter, or when debt is manipulated to compel people to perform work or tasks or accept work conditions that they would otherwise refuse. Such debts can last years or even generations. They can be manipulated in ways that make their settlement impossible. (pg. 52)


The extent to which migrants are being forced into the illicit narcotics trade in the US is not known. As shown, several court cases have demonstrated that some Honduran migrants selling narcotics at the street level in the San Francisco area are being forced and/or coerced. Law enforcement has also shown that they are aware of how organized and structured these groups working in the Tenderloin district have become.


This is not an unknown phenomenon, but one that the government does not seem willing to address in any meaningful way. The vast majority of arrests come from the street level dealers, some of who are being forced or coerced into dealing because of their precarious immigration status. From court documents, it appears that a few leaders like Viera-Chirinos have been arrested, but until law enforcement investigates and dismantles those organizers, Honduran migrants will continue to be forced and coerced into these drug trafficking and dealing groups.


Although law enforcement and the courts are aware that some are being forced to do this illicit work just as sex trafficked victims are, the legal system and those who run it appear unwilling to treat those trafficked into illicit drug dealing as the victims that some of them are. These victims deserve the same safety and assistance as those trafficked into sex work are afforded by government agencies.

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