Independently, both human trafficking and the illicit drug market are blazing endemics of turpitude, but together, human trafficking and illicit drugs fuel an inferno of criminality. Drugs play a facilitating role in human trafficking, as traffickers often use drugs as a way to lure in victims, barter for potential victims, or use victims to smuggle drugs illegally.  

Perpetrators target potential victims who seem indefensible, looking for victims who fall within the intersection of multiple “vulnerable” characteristics. These vulnerable characteristics can include, but are not limited to, undocumented migrants or temporary guest-workers, runaway or homeless youth, low-income individuals, and individuals who have a substance dependency. By scrutinizing the connection between the demand for human slaves and illicit drugs, it becomes apparent that these two criminal enterprises are much more closely related than implied. While the concepts of “trafficking” and “smuggling” are two different things, both nefarious concepts manifest themselves at the intersection of human trafficking, human smuggling, drug trafficking, and drug smuggling.

Exploitation of Substance Abuse:

Perpetrators often capitalize on opioid dependency to maintain continued access to victims, prolonging exploitation situations. As a society, we have become apathetic to the opioid crisis and the effect it has on millions of people, employing the term “addict” in derogatory contexts. It is important to remember that addiction and substance abuse disorders are medical and legal terms describing a person suffering from a complex condition of the brain and body, with the suffering person, the addict, enduring an internal battle that is deserving of compassion and consideration. Perpetrators capitalize on apathy towards addicted persons, using it as a tool to coerce their victims and further an immoral objective. It is estimated that 25% of trafficking survivors have an opioid addiction, so it is imperative that we analyze the link between the multi-billion dollar crime enterprises.

A two-year study conducted by the Polaris Project illustrates just how powerful addiction is as a tool for perpetrators looking to coerce, manipulate, and exploit their victims. In just two years, Polaris was able to retrieve enough details for 2,238 victims of trafficking whose situations were either drug-induced—meaning that their trafficker forced drug dependency upon them—or involved exploitation of a pre-existing dependency issue.

Traffickers frequently target persons with substance abuse disorders and use promises of support or unlimited access to narcotics as coercion methods. Traffickers are known to stake out local clinics and rehabilitation facilities for potential victims, preying on vulnerabilities. Once trafficked, victims have stated that the horrors of their trafficking situation become more bearable if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so the victim is forced to enter a cyclical battle of prolonged substance use to numb the pain of their circumstances. When the perpetrator is the only means by which the victim can access drugs, the victim becomes more dependent on their trafficker. This increasingly complicates the opportunities and processes for the victim to escape. Many times traffickers impose a threat of withdrawal, which is extremely painful and traumatic. Additionally, there is a societal stigma surrounding substance abuse which does not support a victim’s escape.

The stakeouts employed by perpetrators are manifestations of a dual motive. Knowing that individuals who visit clinics and rehabilitation centers are often fragile, perpetrators not only plan to target the person seeking the services of the treatment facilities but often that person’s family as well. Traffickers who stake out treatment facilities have been found to barter and sell drugs to addicted persons in exchange for the sale of a family member into the trafficking market.This is common of traffickers looking to traffic children, where a child of an addicted parent is sold into the trafficking market as collateral for the parent’s access to drugs.

Migrant Smuggling:

The exploitation of migrants is another common avenue traffickers employ to illegally transport drugs and individuals across borders. Trafficker-smugglers regularly target migrants who are desperate to flee their circumstances in search of a safer, better life, frequently promising migrants such safety and increased economic stability for the price of smuggling illicit drugs across borders. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime outlined the common process of migrant smuggling, which illustrates the hazardous conditions in which migrants are forced to endure and showcases the migrants’ desperate desire to flee their circumstances. Smugglers often arrange illegal entry into a country by land, air, or sea, paying off other criminals to aid in transporting migrants. Because smugglers are primarily motivated by money, they can provide fraudulent papers for migrants in exchange for a large fee. In many instances, the migrant will be unable to repay the fee and will agree to indentured servitude, a subcategory of labor trafficking. (You can read more about the commonalities of labor trafficking on Stop the Demand Project’s website) Smugglers will rape, extort, or assault migrants without fear of retribution since the migrants are unable to report such abuse to authorities.

Many rescued victims tell the same story: that they began as migrants who were coerced to agree to smuggle drugs on behalf of a third party, but are deceived, coerced, or forced into human trafficking, and the promise of a safer and better life is never fulfilled. There is a misconception that migrant smuggling and drug smuggling are different criminal enterprises exclusive of one another; in practice, both migrant and drug smuggling regularly use the same routes and methods of transportation for victims and illicit materials.

Runaway and Homeless Youth:

On average, there are between 1.6 million and 2.8 million new runaway children each year and 2.5 million new homeless children each year. These figures become much more chilling upon realizing that a child is at a higher risk of being trafficked while experiencing homelessness or running away. Traffickers do not excuse children from the depravity of human trafficking, administering the same physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect that a trafficker would to an adult victim.

In just one year, more than 300 children were apprehended by police for aiding in the smuggling of drugs and humans. The youth were found to be in possession of drugs in their vehicles, taped to their bodies, swallowed, or forcefully shoved into body cavities. Children are frequently prime targets for trafficking and smuggling as they are often overlooked by authorities as members of the criminal community. Only recently have authorities begun to realize that young children—sometimes as young as eleven— are subjected to a criminal lifestyle.

Because children have less control over their autonomy, they are more vulnerable. As aforementioned, children are sometimes recruited into trafficking by someone close to them. The threat of trafficking can be seen through extortion by an older family member, in which a family member may demand that a child perform an illegal task in order to evade retaliation in the form of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. An example of this was seen in 2020 when a teenage boy was stopped by a narcotics checkpoint in Arizona. The boy was driving his father’s vehicle, which contained over 45 pounds of meth. The boy’s father was an American working with the Mexican Drug Cartel and had recruited the boy into smuggling drugs into the United States.

Both the trafficking and smuggling markets for humans and drugs are lucrative enterprises that feed off the vulnerable in order to turn a profit. As a global community, we must be cognizant of the connection between drugs and human trafficking. The better we understand the relationship, the more equipped we will become to fight it. For a comprehensive list of resources and trainings, please visit