Smuggling is a form of livelihood on the Mexico-Guatemala border, where economic opportunities are scarce.
Tito was born on the Mexican side of an unmonitored road crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border to a poor family with little farmland. He grew up crossing the border to visit family and exchange goods. Now, Tito has two houses: an old cement block one and a new, two-story house with pillars, tiled porches and floors, and an indoor bathroom with a hot-water shower. Tito sees himself first as a farmer and second as a businessman.
At the Mexico-Guatemala border, Tito makes a living by transporting goods like corn and coffee across the border. In this region, smuggling basic goods has flourished as a form of legitimate livelihood as alternative economic options have evaporated. The border’s recent integration into a hemispheric security and trade agenda has disrupted and displaced the traditional means of livelihood for many border residents. That agenda, which emerged in the 1990s and 2000s in coordination with the United States, focuses on curtailing unauthorized flows of goods, capital, and people. As the security and trade nexus between North and Central America, policies governing the border were increasingly positioned in line with geopolitical security interests emanating from the United States. In effect, Mexico has been a partner in the extension of the U.S. southern border to the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Those living near the boundary have felt the consequences, as residents there have historically traded, married, and migrated across the Mexico-Guatemala border. Even in the face of tightening controls, residents remain savvy in using border knowledge and networks to navigate politics, social dynamics, and currency and trade differentials to make a living where there are few opportunities.
“Free trade is just for the academics and the corporations. The people will become poorer.”
Tito, like many young men in Chiapas, migrated seasonally to work on coffee plantations in the Soconusco region of Chiapas. He saved to purchase pack animals, which he later sold to acquire one of the first cars at the border in the mid-1970s, to transport corn to Guatemala. He began in the corn business, selling Mexican corn to Guatemalans, since as a farmer he knew corn well. Gradually, he became familiar with more products and entered more profitable and diverse enterprises. Both the Mexican and Guatemalan states consider his businesses illegal contraband since he hisuses an unmonitored road to sell goods over the border, rather than official crossings and procedures.
To Tito, and many border residents, however, such practices constitute legitimate business in a region where, despite official Free Trade policies, it is difficult for peasants to participate in cross-border commerce. Residents recount Tito’s story as a successful one. From a meager upbringing, he struggled to provide a good life for his family in a region where there are few alternatives. Most border residents on the Mexican side are primarily corn farmers. They previously relied on state-supported systems to provide them with inputs and a guaranteed price and buyer for their harvests. When this system collapsed upon agricultural liberalization, the wider adoption of neoliberal structural adjustment policies in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s, and especially the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, border residents were left without an outlet to sell their harvests or means to earn a living. Many residents increased their involvement in cross-border smuggling as trade policies made it difficult for them to earn a living as farmers and enter formal market opportunities. Official free trade avenues privileged multinational corporations and large businesses. Residents found their own petty, historical cross-border commercial activities increasingly restricted and criminalized. As one resident commented, “Free trade is just for the academics and the corporations. The people will become poorer.”
Yet like many border middlemen and transporters, Tito is more of an intermediary than a businessman. By smuggling coffee from warehouses in Guatemala to formal sector companies in Mexico, he is responsible for the risks and negotiations with state officials. These companies then repackage, sell, and often export this coffee abroad as Mexican coffee with little associated risk. Through such arrangements, I learned how the informal, illegal, and formal economy become intertwined as profits are insulated and risks externalized.
Border residents embody the risks. They must evade or pay off state agents and personally risk robbery, accidents, and arrest.
Cross-border intermediaries, smugglers, and residents more tangentially involved in these enterprises struggle to earn a living and justify their choices in a local economy where contraband is a major facet of everyday life. State officials simultaneously deride contraband and tolerate it because of its contributions to the regional economy: some formal businesses supplement their inventories with smuggled goods while smugglers’ bribes line the pockets of colluding state agents. In this way, the contraband economy is not quite a form of resistance to economic exclusion nor does it necessarily threaten business as usual. Border residents strategize creative ways to earn a living and bypass official trade regulations, but their activities are more likely to benefit select formal businesses, regional politicians, more powerful illicit traders, and corrupt law enforcement officials. Border residents embody the risks. They must evade or pay off state agents and personally risk robbery, accidents, and arrest. Even when smuggling may benefit the larger regional economy, petty smugglers are increasingly stigmatized in an official landscape that mistakenly lumps together rural peasants, youth, terrorists, delinquents, criminals, and migrants as potential threats to public and national security.
While it is a mistake to group corn smugglers with drug cartels and human smugglers, the logics of criminalization often paint them with a wide brushstroke in the fight against illicit activity. Given smugglers’ exclusion from formal trade opportunities and the dismantling of traditional forms of livelihood primarily in corn and coffee cultivation, the distinction drawn between contraband and business serves to privilege particular economic activities while at the same time criminalizing the livelihood strategies of marginalized inhabitants. Categories of licit and illicit, and even the term contraband itself, are revealed as politically laden as they also fail to explain the complex, unfolding social and economic reality. Instead of looking at how elite actors benefit from current arrangements and revising underlying structural inequalities and free market policies that destabilize work more broadly, informality and criminality become red herrings that are symptoms of the very dynamics they are charged with destabilizing.
In this context, it’s crucial that we challenge simplistic assumptions regarding security, trade, and illegality. As the Mexico-Guatemala border emerges as a geopolitical lynchpin to contain the northward flow of undocumented migrants, narcotics, weapons, and illicit commerce, everyday smuggling practices are increasingly viewed through a security lens, even while cross-border commerce has long been a means of livelihood for local residents, connecting inhabitants across borders. Maintaining a tough official stance against contraband not only fuels the expansion of the border security apparatus and the exclusion and criminalization of marginal border inhabitants, but it also obscures the ways in which contraband is embedded in formal economic relations. Contraband and unmonitored crossings must be understood not as the underside of trade or as deviations, but as integral parts of the global economy. Contraband’s symbiosis with the formal economy and state policing agencies can help contextualize how law enforcement, politics, and illicit actors often merge in the borderlands.