A Call for Empirical Research on Human Trafficking in Latin America



Human trafficking in Latin America has become a serious problem that can no longer be ignored. According to a 2012 estimate by the International Labour Organization (ILO), Latin America and the Caribbean account for the third largest number of forced laborers, at 1,800,000 victims. This number does not include trafficking for the removal of organs or for forced marriage/adoption

Louise Shelley, a leading U.S. expert on transnational crime and terrorism, provides an explanation for this high number in her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective.  According to Shelley, the region’s sordid history of colonialism and slavery “has created a permanent underclass in many countries that is ripe for exploitation by traffickers.”  Furthermore, the region’s unstable cycles of military rule, democracy and populism has increased the vulnerability of its poor citizens.

Latin America has a notorious reputation for its high rates of inequality. While human trafficking is a very complicated international and intersectional phenomenon, one of the biggest factors behind trafficking is a lack of economic opportunities. In a region where around 167 million people live in poverty—66 million in extreme poverty—there is plenty of room for its citizens to be exploited.  

Almost as disheartening as Latin America’s human trafficking problem is the lack of empirical research to help prevent it. Why is there such a paucity of regional research on the topic, when seven of the top-10 countries of origin for documented human trafficking cases in the U.S are from Latin America and the Caribbean?More research is needed to explain this phenomenon and prevent it. During the 2013 III Latin American Congress on Trafficking in Persons, “Globalization and Access to Justice: Joint Regional Dialogues,” the lack of research on trafficking was one of participants’ biggest complaints.

The three-day regional conference at the Universidad de los Andes attracted government officials, federal judges, United Nations representatives, NGOs, researchers, universities, students, and trafficking survivors from all over the world.  Latin America’s lack of employment opportunities, armed conflict, sexual and gender discrimination, poverty, and lack of implementation and enforcement of laws were heavily discussed.

Participants agreed that although of the problem of human trafficking in the region is acknowledged, there is still a huge lack of political will to perform research. When most people hear about human trafficking, they are horrified, overwhelmed and disgusted— as they should be. It’s encouraging to see the recent attention the issue is receiving, which in turn is creating a more solid and sound foundation for policy intervention. Journalists and local NGOs are coming out with documented on-the-ground accounts and shattering a lot of misconceptions held by the public.

However, there is still quite a bit to go.

Not surprisingly, the main approach by states is centered on their own security and sovereignty. That’s not going to work with a transnational issue like human trafficking. Great efforts have been made towards eradicating sex trafficking, but in the midst of all this attention, not much has changed in other forms of trafficking. Sex trafficking has garnered so much attention—though there are differences within the movement in the Americas—and as a whole, public outrage has been a powerful and influential force.

Organizations and advocates that focus on labor trafficking have victories here or there, but have failed to achieve the same impact as the anti-sex trafficking movement. Labor trafficking deals with the sensitive and complex issues of the right to development, business’ role in human rights, capitalism, and globalization. States are hesitant to effectively address these issues, for political and diplomatic reasons.

The human trafficking movement has come a long way since its inception. The current international attention that it’s receiving can be leveraged for more on-the-ground clarity about the issue and a proper approach to prevention and intervention—focused on the victim and economic development, rather than on traditional security.

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