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Human Smuggling / Trafficking in Persons


Since 1991, with funding from the Department of State, OPDAT has provided expert assistance and case-based mentoring to foreign counterparts to develop justice systems that can combat transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism consistent with international and regional conventions, protocols, and standards. Many of the countries in which OPDAT works are sources, transit points, and destinations for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.  OPDAT supports anti-trafficking in persons (TIP) and anti-human smuggling (HS) efforts in these countries by deploying Resident Legal Advisor (RLA) to provide technical assistance through case mentorship, victim-centered skills development, advising counterparts on how to build institutional standards of practice, and legislative advocacy.  To do so, OPDAT draws upon criminal justice experts with related expertise.

Joint Task Force Alpha

OPDAT has supported the Attorney General’s Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), which targets transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) engaging in human smuggling to the United States, including TCOs that direct and / or facilitate HS in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  Among other priorities, the task force seeks to improve collaboration between the United States and Mexico as well as with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

OPDAT supports JTFA by providing capacity building programs, including victim-centered approaches to such cases, and case-based mentoring to anti-HS prosecutors and investigators as well as identifying cases with potential for U.S.-based prosecutions. 

OPDAT has held various case coordination meetings with JTFA and anti-HS units throughout the region resulting in several bi-national and multilateral investigations of high-priority human smuggling organizations (HSO).  While most cases remain under investigation, some cases have already shown positive results in the United States and elsewhere. 

For example, in one case, U.S.-based investigators have detained over 60 individuals related to a Guatemala-based HSO operating in Texas.  OPDAT mentored prosecutors in Guatemala have indicted 47 individuals on human smuggling charges.  In El Salvador around 162 individuals have been charged with human smuggling crimes by OPDAT mentored prosecutors. These cases have been indicted in coordination and collaboration with JTFA and OPDAT.  Authorities have also seized cash, forearms, vehicles, and houses.   To date, the work of JTFA has resulted in 74 U.S. convictions of members of human trafficking organizations and foreign governments charging more than 200 individuals.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, OPDAT focuses on providing capacity building support and case-based mentoring on complex HS and TIP-related investigations and prosecutions and coordinating these efforts throughout the region.  OPDAT RLAs work closely with anti-human smuggling units in these countries by identifying high priority human smuggling organization targets and supporting investigations and prosecutions in the region as well as in the United States.

For example, in September 2022, OPDAT hosted working group meetings to promote coordination on investigations into transnational human smuggling networks operating in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.  OPDAT also hosted a regional Western Hemisphere HS meeting in Honduras for nine countries including the United States.  The meetings focused on high priority smuggling cases involving the death or murder of Guatemalan migrants. Separately, in September 2022 in Honduras, OPDAT hosted an anti-human smuggling regional meeting for counterparts from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and the United States. 

Such coordination has shown results:  In October 2022, OPDAT-mentored prosecutors in Honduras secured convictions against 13 leaders and members of one of the largest transnational human smuggling networks operating in Central America. A 2019 regional anti-human smuggling meeting enabled the Honduran prosecutors to further their investigation.


OPDAT seeks to address the disconnect between Mexican law and international standards.  OPDAT works with counterparts to create appropriate procedures to address the needs of TIP victims, especially women and children.  Additionally, OPDAT helps to educate Mexican legislative entities about international standards regarding victim services, and the challenges involved in prosecuting TIP crimes in Mexico. One of the program’s goals is to encourage the drafting of state and / or federal protocols and legislation addressing key issues regarding victims’ rights, as well implementing legal procedures to facilitate the prosecution of TIP crimes.

OPDAT also provides technical assistance to both federal and state TIP prosecution units in Mexico on best practices in the use of evidence, case development, victim engagement, and trial practice.  In the past, work included collaborating with DOJ’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) to work with expert witnesses and prosecutors to create predicate questions for trial testimony. 

Additionally, OPDAT provides case-based mentoring on TIP investigations and prosecutions, both in purely domestic cases and in cases that have cross-border ties.  OPDAT also facilitates cooperation on bilateral TIP cases.  OPDAT also addresses the gap in the prosecution of money-laundering activity connected to TIP crimes through working groups and joint programs, as well as case mentoring in cases involving financial crimes.

OPDAT assistance has paid dividends:  OPDAT has helped TIP prosecution units at both the federal and state levels successfully bring to court and obtain convictions in several TIP cases in various Mexican states, including those involving TCOs.  Notably, an OPDAT-mentored Mexican prosecutor was recognized by the State Department as the TIP Hero in the 2021 TIP Report and her office leads the nation in the number of TIP convictions, with successful prosecutions of cases exemplifying every modality of trafficking including sex trafficking, forced begging, labor trafficking, and domestic servitude.

Other Western Hemisphere Programs

In Argentina, OPDAT seeks to strengthen the country’s justice-sector capacity to combat transnational crimes such as HS and TIP. The OPDAT RLA has been working very closely with Argentina’s TIP Special Prosecution Unit at the Attorney General’s Office in an ongoing investigation into an organization with links to the United States.

In Colombia, OPDAT started a HS working group with a special unit created by the Colombia Attorney General’s Office to address complex issues related to HS.  OPDAT also held the first HS regional meeting in March 2022 with the participation of counterparts from Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, as well as Homeland Security Investigations and JTFA prosecutors. A follow up regional coordination meeting will also include Peru and Chile.

OPDAT’s Judicial Studies Institute (JSI), based in Puerto Rico, built the capacity of 70 judges from Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia to adjudicate TIP cases. They learned best practices for managing TIP cases and how international treaties could be used to supplement limitations and deficiencies in the national laws and regulations to move forward in such cases. JSI designed two new special courses focused on trafficking in persons and human smuggling and judging without gender bias. The main objective of these courses is to provide judges with best practices for managing and adjudicating these complex cases.

In Paraguay, with OPDAT’s historical assistance, Paraguay created a national-level unit to combat TIP and HS.  OPDAT has provided targeted case-based mentoring to the unit.  In the Tri-Border Area, OPDAT-mentored prosecutors are probing a possible link between trafficking and the financing of terrorism. In 2023, OPDAT is planning to host a HS program for participants from the Tri-Border Area that work on these types of cases. The program will foster collaboration and the sharing of information on HS-related cases between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.


In Bangladesh, OPDAT supported the government in creating seven Anti-Human Trafficking Tribunals (TIP Tribunals) to prioritize the prosecution and adjudication of trafficking cases.  Following the establishment of the TIP Tribunals, OPDAT conducted workshops bringing together judges, investigators, and law enforcement who work on TIP cases to exchange information and experiences.  In September 2022, OPDAT conducted a program for investigators and prosecutors on victim-centered investigations and prosecutions that addressed TIP crimes.

In Maldives, OPDAT provides case-based mentoring to the prosecutors in human trafficking prosecutions. OPDAT also provides capacity-building support to the Maldives Anti-Trafficking in Persons Office. Finally, OPDAT has convened multi-disciplinary consultations with various stakeholders focused on TIP, including migrant smuggling. 

In the Philippines, in support of anti-TIP and HS capacity building efforts, OPDAT has led more than a dozen programs over the past three years and helped develop the curriculum for teaching cybercrime investigation at criminology schools.

In Indonesia, OPDAT, in conjunction with DOJ’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), and others conducted a series of programs for investigators, prosecutors, and NGOs in provinces experiencing high levels of TIP cases.  These programs focused on interviewing victims, calculating restitution for victims, and building the capacity of police and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute TIP cases.  OPDAT also facilitated a TIP regional study tour where an Indonesian delegation traveled to Thailand to discuss cross-border issues and regional solutions to address TIP in Southeast Asia.

In Nepal, the United States is pursuing a coordinated approach in addressing economic, social, cultural, law and policy, and law enforcement issues contributing to TIP.  OPDAT provides capacity building on proactive investigations and investigator-prosecutor collaboration. OPDAT also conducted workshops for Nepalese counterparts, including TIP investigators, on obtaining and using digital evidence.  OPDAT also helped draft guidelines for sentence remissions to provide Nepali law enforcement with a powerful tool to pursue trafficking organizations through suspects’ cooperation.  OPDAT will continue to advocate for their widespread adoption.


Africa suffers from a combination of factors that make it vulnerable to various types of crime, including TIP.  OPDAT’s strategies in Africa place a premium on strengthening the Rule of Law, pursuing threats to their source, and working with African partners to improve the ability of their security services to counter TIP. 

Central and Eastern Europe

In Central and Eastern Europe, OPDAT supports the strengthening of justice sector institutions and builds their capacity to effectively investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate criminal activity, including TIP, which is closely linked to TCOs.  In addition to working with justice sector practitioners; OPDAT works with non-governmental organizations (NGO)s to provide material and psychosocial support to trafficking victims; and with lawmakers to ensure domestic statutes comply with international obligations, standards, and norms. 

OPDAT has provided technical skills workshops to police, prosecutors, judges, and NGO personnel from across the Balkans on identifying trafficking victims, victim interviewing, and victim support through the investigative, judicial, and reintegration processes.  These programs include mentorship for judges on effects of trauma on adult and child victims and the teaching of best practices for the adjudication of trafficking cases. 

In addition to these regional projects, OPDAT has aided in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia on the creation and management of law enforcement task forces for combatting TIP and has provided ongoing mentorship to their leadership.  The establishment of a network of investigators and prosecutors, an OPDAT-supported initiative, was one of the key factors in BiH’s promotion from Tier 2 watchlist status to Tier 2 in the State Department’s 2021 TIP Report. 

In Albania and North Macedonia, OPDAT case-based mentoring has resulted in numerous convictions resulting from TCOs that transported people to the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries.  Recently in Serbia, because of OPDAT mentoring and advocacy for use of a task force to combat TIP, the Organized Crime Prosecutor’s Office and the Anti-Corruption Department in Belgrade, charged a police officer and several other members of an organized criminal group (OCG) with illegal border crossings and human smuggling. 

Updated August 11, 2023