Human Smuggling and Trafficking

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The concepts of human smuggling and human trafficking are often used synonymously, however, there are a number of distinctions that differentiate the two complex crimes ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”). Human smuggling is an illegal commercial transaction which comprises the assistance, transit, attempted transit or unauthorized entry of an individual over an international border in contravention to the laws of a country or multiple countries, through covert actions or fraud, for example through the use of deceptive identification or documentation. Conversely, human trafficking is the targeted victimization of an individual for the purpose of criminal exploitation ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”). The United Nations indicates that the pair, human smuggling and trafficking are among the quickest growing of international crimes. 

In the case of human smuggling, the migrant agrees to the assistance of the smuggler, who is paid to provide safe transport to a destination country of which the emigrant is not a citizen ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”). The alien usually pays large sums of money to the smuggler or the smuggling organization. The amount paid by the migrant varies by country of origin and by method of transport ("Human Smuggling Fees"). An illegal immigrant coming from Mexico can pay $4,000 if he crosses the border on foot, but $9,000 if he crossed the border by boat. An unauthorized alien from Central America can pay anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000. Chinese unauthorized emigrants must pay $75,000. Often these exorbitant fees do not include the cost to obtain the fraudulent documentation needed to secure safe passage. There are times when the smuggler is not seeking financial gain. In this case, the smuggler is usually related to the migrant and is hoping to reunite their family who are separated due to immigration laws. Human smuggling is an international crime which is larger in its population than those victimized by human trafficking ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”).

In the case of human trafficking, the victim is a non-cooperative, forced individual who is specifically selected for the exploitative purposes of the smuggler and for their financial gain ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”). In the case of the human smuggling, the transaction usually ends once the unauthorized emigrant is transported to their destination. In the case of human trafficking, the individual is enslaved and the relationship can last for an undetermined amount of time, subject only to the desires and decisions of the smuggler. In the case of human trafficking:

It involves the exploitation of people through force, coercion, threat, and deception and includes human rights abuses such as debt bondage, deprivation of liberty, and lack of control over freedom and labor. Trafficking can be for purposes of sexual exploitation or labor exploitation ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”).

It is estimated that approximately 6 to 800,000 persons fall victim to human trafficking on a worldwide basis annually ("Fact Sheet: Distinctions”). In the United States, the figure is approximately 14-17,000. The trafficked population is primarily comprised of women and children, who are often subjected to emotional and physical abuse and threats. While trafficking victims are often the subject of international concern, the crime is not limited to outside the subject country’s borders. Sometimes trafficking occurs within the subject country’s borders where victims can be transported from state to state or region to region. Although human smuggling and human trafficking are distinct transgressions, they arise as a result of the same circumstances - economic underprivilege, political upheaval, depressed opportunity levels or civil discord.  

The Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC) is the interagency point of contact to address terrorism travel, human smuggling and human trafficking concerns ("Human Smuggling and Trafficking"). The HSTC serves as a clearinghouse for information on illicit border travel, and to insure cooperation and collaboration between agencies responsible for policy, intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic measures, and to establish strategy, intelligence and tactical actions to fight such actions ("Establishment of the Human”). Participating agencies are not restricted and include any agency that has need or information to provide, but is primarily staffed by Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence ("Participating Agencies").

The U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a division of the U. S. Department Homeland Security, and is the lead agency focusing on the dismantling of human smuggling organizations ("Human Smuggling"). The agency pursues major smuggling organizations, especially rings that represent national security risks, are involved in large-scale violence, threaten people’s lives, abuse them, take them hostage or commit extortion. In conjunction with the U. S. Customers and Border Protection agency the ICE requires zealous examination and prosecution of border smuggling cases. Also, the agency seeks to divest components of the smuggling chain, like illegal document creators, spotters, transporters, recruiters, organizers, and those who benefit from the smuggling process inside the U. S. borders. The ICE is also a major player in ensuring penalty and enforcement legislation is sponsored. 

Cheng Chui Ping, or affectionately known by some as Sister Ping, was one of the most notorious human smugglers in the history of the United States (Kilgannon and Singer). Ping accumulated more than $40 million over the course of two decades, illegally transporting poor, impoverished and desperate emigrants from China to the United States in boats that were unseaworthy, dilapidated and had poor plumbing. The transported were undernourished and often underventilated. Many of those smuggled never made it to the states because they drowned or died because of the conditions in transit. For those who successfully arrived in the United States, but were unable to pay their debt, Ping sent her thugs, members of a vicious Chinese gang called the Fuk Ching, to beat or torture the aliens until their family paid their bill. In 1993, one of Ping’s decrepit freighters ran aground off the coast of Rockaway beach. The vessel, called the Golden Venture, had over 300 starving passengers stuffed in tight, filthy quarters onboard. Ten emigrants died that day as they tried to swim to shore. The migrants had been aboard the ship for months as it made its way to the U. S. It was intentionally run aground because the offloader, the boat scheduled to pick the aliens up and bring them into shore, never arrived (Kilgannon and Singer). 

In addition to her smuggling operation, Ping started a money transmission operation, similar to the Western Union concept, to collect money from relatives, in addition to ransom money for other smugglers. Bank of China offered a similar money service, but Ping’s service cost less and the money transferred faster than the bank’s service. Ping earned her title of “mother of all snakeheads,” by authorities who were in hot pursuit (Kilgannon and Singer). The term snakehead evolved from the Chinese terminology for human smuggler. Ping was almost singlehandedly responsible for the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Fujianese, from the Fujian Province in China. The U.S. Department of Justice described Sister Ping as one of the most successful human smugglers of all time. Part of the problem was that the 5th Precinct, located in Chinatown, in New York was staffed with non-Chinese officers and detectives. They were not familiar with the culture, the customs or the language. They were basically a police precinct in a foreign land. They found it difficult to keep up with what was going on in this bustling Chinese metropolis. It was easy for people to hide what they were doing and never get caught.

Ping, though, was finally discovered and was indicted in 1994 when she immediately fled the country to China ("Sister Ping”). Since China does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, they could not bring her back, but once she entered Hong Kong in 2000, authorities were able to arrest her at the airport and extradite her to the U. S. (Duncombe). During the trial in 2005, Ah Kay, leader of the Fuk Ching gang testified against her in exchange for a reduced sentence. He was able to provide details about the process that was used to smuggle the migrants into Chinatown and how what happened in the event they were unable to pay. Ping was sentenced to 35 years for her smuggling operation, while Kay was only given 25 years, and only served 12. Ping died in a federal prison in Texas in 2014 (Duncombe). Many in Chinatown mourned her death (Kilgannon). Ping was perceived by those who she either smuggled or who knew of those she smuggled as a good person who did not have bad intentions. She was viewed as a reliable smuggler, despite the things she did to many. Some say they would have never made it to the United States, but for Ping. 

“Rafael” a pseudonym used for his protection, has been a Mexican smuggler for over ten years (Bergman). He started his first smuggling job at 18, when he noticed that a friend, 16, always had lots of money. He asked why he had so much money, the teenager declined at first, but then told him about what he did. The teen offered to introduce him to the people who had hired him. Their base of operations is the border town of Tijuana, which looks like any other town by day. Yet at night, it is considered one of the most dangerous places in Mexico because of drugs, smuggling and human trafficking. Rafael says that since 9/11 security has tightened, but the coyotes simply make adjustments. They get better at creating inventive hiding spaces and establishing fraudulent documents. Since things have tightened up, the need for a smuggler is even greater than before, so they can charge higher prices (Bergman). 

Erection of border fences and surveillance cameras has made travel by way of the desert increasingly risky, so smugglers have become creative and are moving illegal aliens through the regular Ports of Entry (Bergman). The San Ysidro Port of Entry, located between the Mexican town of Tijuana and San Diego, California, is a bustling border crossing, the busiest in the world. Guards must use their senses to determine who to review and who to let pass. For the smugglers and the migrants, it is worth the possible risks because the repercussions are nominal. Another way to get across the border is through bribery. Some inspectors are dishonest and can easily be paid off to allow aliens to cross the border on their watch. The unscrupulous guards receive payment as high as $100,000 to allow smugglers to get though with their load. Sometimes female smugglers even offer sex in exchange for cooperation. The FBI acknowledges that the issue of corrupt border guards is an ever increasing problem. In fact, there are over two hundred open investigations on border crossing guards right now.

Rafael says that it does not matter how high the fences are built, or how many guards are placed at the Ports of Entry, as long as there is poverty and despair, the human smuggling business will flourish.

Works Cited

Bergman, Lowell. "Mexico: Crimes at the Border." PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation.


Duncombe, Laura, Sook. "Sister Ping: The Pirate Whose Treasure Was the American Dream." Pictorial. 30 June 2015. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Establishment of the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center." U. S. Department of State. 16 June 2005. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Fact Sheet: Distinctions Between Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking 2006." U. S. Department of State. 1 January 2006. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Human Smuggling." U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. n. d. Web. 6 July 2016. 


"Human Smuggling and Trafficking." U. S. Department of State. 1 January 2006. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Human Smuggling Fees." Open Borders. n. d. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

Kilgannon, Corey and Singer, Jeffrey, E. "A Smuggler of Immigrants Dies in Prison, but Is Praised in Chinatown." The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 27 April 2014. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Participating Agencies." U. S. Department of State. n. d. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.

"Sister Ping to be extradited to U.S." CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 13 June 2001. Web. 6 July 2016. <>.