Drug Trafficking Organizations and Undocumented Migration through Mexico

Boundary marker of US-Mexico border




Assistant Professor of Political Science

Project Summary

Does border enforcement increase the profitability of migrant smuggling and thereby enrich the very organized crime groups it is meant to undermine? In my thesis, I took a step toward answering this question by providing the first systematic estimate of the revenues that Mexican organized crime groups receive from exploiting undocumented migrants.


My project makes use a combination of original interviews conducted in Mexico, a review of press reports, and prior academic literature, and data from the Mexican Migration Project to construct my database. While previous work has estimated the size of the migrant smuggling business overall, this is the first study to focus on revenues accruing to organized crime groups specifically (as opposed to independent smugglers). Moreover, I consider the business of exploiting migrants as a whole: fees charged to migrants within Mexico along the train routes, “taxes” or cuota paid by independent polleros (migrant smugglers), kidnapping ransoms, and other sources of revenues.


I found that organized crime groups in Mexico obtain revenues of between $1.45 billion and $5 billion per year from exploiting undocumented migrants. The upper bound of the range rivals the $6–7 billion in revenues that these organizations earn from drug trafficking, while the lower bound is equivalent to their estimated revenue from marijuana sales. While it was beyond the scope of my project to estimate the effect of enforcement on revenue, my findings emphasize the importance of considering this effect when evaluating border enforcement policies.


Undertaking this research contributed significantly by pushing me to improve my fluency in Spanish and allowing me to work with international professors who are experts in migration. I was also able to engage directly with migrants and hear their stories, allowing me to paint a fuller picture of the business of undocumented migration.