Drugged, raped, and sold for sex. This was the life of Maria (not her real name), a 16-year-old Mexican girl who was kidnapped by a local gang and lured into the sex trade.

She was a lucky one, rescued from the criminal gang.

Many others were not so lucky. Several of Maria’s friends were stolen from their homes, abused, and then sold into the U.S. or brutally killed. Annually, close to 100,000 young boys and girls from Latin America are trafficked by gangs, smugglers, and members of transnational criminal organizations.

U.S. efforts to combat trafficking have raised awareness on the issue but in many cases are unable to address the roots of the problem: a lackadaisical enforcement of immigration laws and an ad hoc border security strategy.

Drug traffickers increasingly prey upon vulnerable immigrants making the treacherous trek across the U.S. border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar noted the ties between drug smuggling, illegal immigration, and human trafficking:

All the violence that occurs, against illegal aliens…occur at the hands of smugglers…The smugglers are working in coordination with the drug cartels and the drug trafficking organizations.

Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent transnational criminal organizations, has even started its own prostitution ring. One U.S. official noted, “They’re starting to change their business model and branching out into things like sex trafficking…They realize it is a lucrative way to generate revenue, and it is low-risk.”

For the cartels and other trafficking organizations, human trafficking has the allure of astounding profits. Globally, the human trafficking industry has profits as high as $32 billion annually, and immigrants illegally crossing the southern border are easy targets. Since there are currently few negative consequences for trafficking, the promise of increased revenue drives many transnational criminal organizations to expand their operations to include drug and human trafficking.

The smugglers make promises of a better life and a more profitable job. This tactic has worked countless times, luring person after person, immigrant after immigrant, into forced labor or sex trafficking. Such promises are enticing to many Latin Americans, who desperately need a job that pays sufficient wages.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement worker Delbert Richburg, smugglers “sell big lies…The traffickers seek out teenagers in remote towns in Latin America with the promise of getting jobs in restaurants or caring for children. On arriving here, they keep them captive and isolated.”

Annually, 27 million people are trafficked, and they are in need of help. Strategies that recognize the root of the problem—a crime-ridden border—will help to provide a solution. Amnesty is not the answer.

Victims of human trafficking are trapped in a cycle of abuse, and those who attempt to escape are often met with death. Maria told the story of a friend who tried to escape—she recalls the gang members pouring gasoline over her friend, lighting her on fire, and continuing to beat the young girl even as she burned to death.

Justice must be served. And those like Maria and the 27 million others who are in bondage to modern slavery must be set free.

Washington and the Obama Administration cannot turn a blind eye to the daily tragedy of millions.

Olivia Snow is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm