Contraband Corridor
Making a Living at the Mexico--Guatemala Border
Rebecca Berke Galemba



A Paradise for Contraband?

In 2006, an article in El Financiero described the Mexico–Guatemala border as “a paradise for contraband . . . the problem, which is little spoken about, is that illegality dominates everything at the border.”1 Each day, ten-ton trucks, upwards of twenty years old, rumble through an unmonitored road crossing the Mexico–Guatemala border in the dry lowlands of Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, Mexico, and La Democracia, Huehuetenango, Guatemala (Figures I.1 and I.2) as they churn up a mixture of dirt and cracked pavement. Local newspapers report that at least 100 trucks transit the route each day, smuggling anything from corn to sugar, coffee, clothing, vegetables, sodas, and gasoline.2 The route is also increasingly important to the drug trade. An official border crossing, replete with the modern manifestations of the Mexican and Guatemalan states, straddles the Pan-American Highway a few miles away at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc on the Mexican side and La Mesilla on the Guatemalan side. Hundreds of unmonitored passages traverse the over 540-mile-long Mexico–Guatemala border, including paths crossing through mountains, jungles, and rivers. With just ten official entry points between Mexico and Guatemala, only eight of which are visible, the majority of crossings are informal.3 Of the forty-five informal vehicular crossings along the Chiapas–Guatemala border, this one hosts the most commercial activity.4 A recent Mexican government report detailing the security implications of the “blind spots” along the border identified this one with a giant bull’s-eye.5

Only white monuments extending up into the hillsides mark the border between Mexico and Guatemala. In daily life, these demarcations seem to matter little. Trucks drive across, children play in the small stream that forms at the border in the rainy season, and laborers and families walk across. There are no fences, officials, or other indicators that one is entering another country. A sign delineating the border was erected only in the summer of 2007 (Figure I.3).

Figure I.1. Map of Chiapas, Mexico–Guatemala border region with key cities.
SOURCE: Map Data@ 2016 Google, INEGI.
Figure I.2. Map of border communities.
SOURCE: Map made by author.
Figure I.3. Sign demarcating Mexico and Guatemala, erected in summer of 2007.
SOURCE: Author photo.

Although generally devoid of state officials, the Mexican military was periodically stationed within this route in the spring of 2007. I was told that this was in response to then recently elected President Felipe Calderón’s promise to take a hard-line approach to border security and drug violence. At first, smugglers and residents waited for the military Humvees to retreat before crossing the border, but after a few weeks they began conducting business as usual, driving right by the soldiers. Therefore, I was caught by surprise when a Mexican soldier stopped me for questioning in May 2007 when I was driving from my house on the Mexican side to visit friends on the Guatemalan side. As I got out of my car, I grew nervous. After living at the border for eight months, I was unaccustomed to encountering agents of the state, and I was not carrying my passport. “What are you doing in this illegal pathway?” the soldier inquired, implying that because the route lacked official recognition it, along with the people and activities present within it, were illegal. As we were talking, I glanced over my shoulder to see people smuggling gasoline canisters clanging in the back of pickup trucks over the rocky hills to Guatemala. I soon learned that the soldier viewed me more as a curiosity than as a suspect. As I fumbled to explain my research, I realized he was more concerned with what residents thought about the military conducting surveillance in a border route where residents resent official interference. He asked incredulously, “You live here? What do the people think of us?”6 This encounter led me to question my presumptions about security and illegality. Were security and border control a mirage? Were security and illegality more intimately intertwined rather than opposed? How do designations of illegality become mapped onto border regions and populations and to what effect?

The ease of commerce transiting this unmonitored road contrasted with the official rhetoric to prioritize border security emanating from Washington, D.C.; Mexico City; and Guatemala City. When I arrived at the border in September 2006, I introduced my research by stating that I was studying the paradoxes of a border that was increasingly open to trade through regional trade agreements but that restricted the movement of people through enhanced security measures. The most common response was incredulous laughter. Residents were perplexed at the assumption that there was more security. Each time I have returned to the border since 2006, there has been an increased presence of border policing and military units and more visible contraband. Security forces were present, but to residents they did not conjure a sense of security in terms of protection or the curtailment of illicit flows. In the context of regional official trade integration and enhanced border policing, why would residents perceive this security presence as laughable? Why would they be smuggling more goods across the border? Generally, with trade liberalization, smuggling of goods to evade tariffs decreases, concentrating on more prohibited items.7 Residents were also increasingly justifying the smuggling of basic goods as legitimate and gaining official tolerance for these activities.

Why do official policies lead to contradictory, puzzling, or even counterproductive results? This question can be answered by bringing to the fore the voices of people impacted by policies, who tend to be omitted not only from policy design but also from implementation and evaluation. In contrast to macroeconomic analyses that debate how trade integration and militarized border security affect illicit flows or that posit illicit trade as an inherent threat to state security and stability, everyday interactions among regional inhabitants, officials, and smugglers provide insight into how policies are experienced in particular places and may generate unintended consequences.

Contraband Corridor challenges simplistic assumptions regarding security, trade, and illegality by detailing how residents along the Mexico–Guatemala border engage in, and justify, extralegal practices in the context of heightened border security, restricted economic opportunities, and trade integration policies that exclude local inhabitants. Rather than assuming that extralegal activities necessarily undermine the state and formal economy, this book extracts this question as a topic for ethnographic investigation. At the border, informality, illegality, the formal economy, and security logics intertwine and blur in the context of what I call securitized neoliberalism, or the wedding of security policies to neoliberal economic policies and logics.8 Securitized neoliberalism works to value certain economic activities and actors and exclude and criminalize others in a context where the informal and illicit economy is increasingly one of the poor’s remaining options and informality also permeates the formal sector.9 The distinction between contraband and business privileges particular economic activities as it criminalizes the livelihood strategies of marginalized inhabitants. Although security, neoliberalism, and illegality are interdependent in complex ways, how they unfold depends on contingent negotiations among diverse border actors.

Extralegal economic activities, like smuggling commodities across the border, provide a means for borderland peasants to make a living in the context of neoliberal economic policies that decimated agricultural livelihoods. Yet smuggling also exacerbates prevailing inequalities, obstructs the possibility of more substantive political and economic change, and provides low-risk benefits to select formal businesses, state agents, and illicit actors, often at the expense of border residents. Moreover, the threat of the extralegal economy bolsters a border security agenda10 that conflates different illicit and informal activities and fosters a politics of criminalization that makes locals less secure.

Much of the scholarly literature on this region depicts northward migration as a survival outlet in the wake of economic crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.11 Borderlanders continue to migrate to the United States, but the 2008 economic recession combined with punitive immigration policies, especially in the states where border residents have migrant networks (Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia), are making this strategy less attractive. After 2008, many border residents began returning home. Fewer studies pay attention to the strategies that peasants pursue at home to earn a living in the face of the deterioration of traditional livelihoods. Many of their options straddle legal/ illegal and formal/informal lines. In the borderlands, because the border has been historically porous, commerce—legal and illegal—has long been integral to daily life.12

As the Mexico–Guatemala border has emerged in recent years as a geopolitical hot spot to contain illicit flows, Contraband Corridor seeks to understand the border from the perspective of its inhabitants. An ethnographic perspective entails not only listening to local viewpoints, but also experiencing border life with residents over time to reveal the larger landscape in which the informal and illicit economy is situated, understood, and debated. People are not only influenced by the inequities of the border but also actively shape and bend it to suit their own goals. Local inhabitants have long depended on the border, before, in the midst of, and when security is repeatedly interrupted.13 Ethnographic research involved interviews with border residents, local officials, and regional producers, as well as participant observation and engaging in daily border life for one year between September 2006 and September 2007 and follow-up visits in the summers of 2008, 2011, and 2014.

Smuggling as Business

For residents, transporting goods across the border has long been a legitimate form of making a living and accessing goods in a relatively neglected region. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state, and Huehuetenango is one of Guatemala’s poorest departments.14 Border populations have often historically shared stronger ties across the border than with their fellow nationals.15 In contrast, states label these cross-border trading practices as contraband, referring to selling goods across the border that may be prohibited, stolen, evade taxes, or avoid official inspections and procedures. As Jean Clot observes, the label of contraband obscures not only historical border interconnections but also how it is the very formalization of the border and its regulations that create the problems of informal and extralegal commerce.16 Often called comercio hormiga, border populations historically smuggled small amounts of goods, often of little monetary value, through repetitive small trips across the border.17 Yet now this is also occurring using multiple ten-ton trucks and trailers carrying more substantial amounts of goods. Although many people transport goods for personal consumption and subsistence, smuggling has also become a business relied on by border inhabitants, formal businesses, and more illicit actors.

One evening, I sat outside Tito’s18 house on the Mexican side of the border, where I had been living for the past few months. At dusk, the front room of their home became a bustling store where kids bought chips and his daughter sold beers. I met Javier, Tito’s nephew, who was home for the summer from university in northern Mexico. He explained how people began growing smuggling businesses even though they had always relied on border exchanges: “People with land or an inheritance had the resources to engage in business. Some people migrated to the U.S. and returned to build larger houses. They bought cars, trucks, and with the money began to conduct business.”

Although as old as the border itself, smuggling intensified in the 1990s due to economic crisis on both sides of the border, the collapse of traditional livelihood options, and improvements in infrastructure and technology. Although intended to serve megadevelopment or extractive projects and facilitate regional trade integration, highway expansion in Chiapas in the 1990s also expedited extralegal commerce and communication in the region.19 Residents began to acquire both the trucks and the capital to invest in smuggling businesses as a result of rising migration to the United States in the 1990s. In this same period, the border communities gained access to telephone service soon after receiving electricity. In the early 2000s, people began purchasing cell phones; in 2013 smartphones were making inroads.

From the 1950s through the 1990s, Mexican and Guatemalan officials, including immigration agents; customs officials; state, municipal, and road police; and the military, intermittently patrolled this route to varying degrees. In the mid- to late 1990s, border residents organized to expel state agents from this route. Residents asserted their authority to control the border; monopolized positions as smugglers, truckers, and cargo loaders in various contraband trades; and erected community tollbooths to tax smugglers using the road to fund local projects. To inhabitants, these practices are not illegal but represent legitimate advancement strategies amid declining opportunities. Yet residents are also ambivalent about smuggling. It provides job opportunities where few legitimate alternatives exist but also exposes residents to risks.

Neoliberalism and Informality

The intersection of neoliberal economic policies with the intensification of security initiatives at the Mexico–Guatemala border did not create contraband, but it provides the context for understanding why residents increasingly relied on smuggling and how and why this historical livelihood strategy has become increasingly criminalized. The advent of neoliberal20 free market economic policies in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1980s, which accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, exacerbated prevailing inequities and contributed to rural dispossession, an increasing dependence on the informal economy, and rising internal and international migration.21 The effects were particularly acute for Mexico’s poorer southern states like Chiapas and in Guatemala’s western highlands.

International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), prioritized shifts from the public sector to the private and a focus on the free market to ameliorate the debt crisis of the 1980s. When oil prices were high in the 1970s, oil-producing nations invested money in multinational banks, which recycled funds into loans to Latin American countries, which were encouraged to borrow large sums of money on the path to industrialization. Given high oil prices, banks and wealthy nations had little reason to fear that loans would not be repaid. In the early 1980s rising interest rates, declining oil prices, a precipitous fall in credit availability, and a drop in commodity prices precipitated a global economic and debt crisis.22 In 1982, Mexico announced it would default on its debt. To restructure debts, Mexico accepted strict structural adjustment terms from the IMF and World Bank to open markets, liberalize trade, privatize state-owned businesses, deregulate prices and wages, reduce government spending and social supports, and focus on export potential.23

Privatization and deregulation in Mexico sped up in the 1980s when Mexico entered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986,24 but deregulation, privatization, and liberalization were intensified during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration from 1988 through 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1992 by Mexico, the United States, and Canada, went into effect on January 1, 1994. NAFTA aimed to reduce tariff barriers among the three countries to facilitate the flow of capital, goods, and services. Yet NAFTA worked to enhance prior advantages in the northern and central regions of Mexico, where agribusinesses and large estates were best able to take advantage of opportunities for agroexport due to access to credit, irrigation inputs, and technology.25 The southern states came to constitute an “agrisubsistence region” where production is largely geared toward subsistence.26 In Mexico, structural adjustment also meant abandoning its model of state-directed development, which resulted in decreased public spending and investment, a decline in the minimum wage, and rising unemployment. In particular, agricultural liberalization dealt a drastic blow to small peasants, especially in Mexico’s southern states.27 In 1992, in preparation for NAFTA, Mexico abrogated Article 27 of its Constitution, allowing for the private sale of ejido (communal lands) and enacting a moratorium on new ejido land petitions to the state. This created an uproar in states like Chiapas where land reform had been late, slow, and incomplete.28 The collapse of the International Coffee Agreements, a sharp drop in coffee prices, and the dismantling of Mexico’s National Coffee Institute (INMECAFE) in 1989, a sector on which many Chiapas farmers depend, compounded difficulties and further spiked northward migration.29

The 1980s and early 1990s are often referred to as the “lost decade” in Latin America, characterized by increasing unemployment, inequality, and poverty.30 Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased since structural adjustment policies were implemented, but poverty and wealth redistribution have remained stagnant.31 Mexico has the world’s fifteenth-largest GDP but is highly unequal with over half of the population living in poverty.32 An Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) report in 2011 identified Mexico as the OECD country with the second highest rate of inequality.33 Chiapas is the Mexican state with the highest percentage of the population living in poverty at 76.2 percent in 2014, an increase from 74.7 percent in 2012.34 Despite abundant natural resources, it consistently ranks toward the bottom of Mexican states in receipt of foreign direct investment.35 In Chiapas, the embrace of neoliberalism served to lower the prices of peasants’ products, reduce their earning power, and devalue their labor, rendering migration to the United States the most viable option for much of the peasantry.36

In Guatemala, neoliberal polices began to be implemented in the 1980s in the midst of the most brutal years of its thirty-six-year civil war, further disenfranchising the rural indigenous population that was targeted for genocidal violence during the war.37 A focus on export-led development and privatization favored transnational and domestic elite, although few rural Guatemalans had the training or capital to take advantage of export opportunities.38 Meanwhile, cutbacks in state spending and social services mandated by international lending institutions aggravated poverty and vulnerability while eroding networks of support already rendered fragile by the war.39 The aftermath of genocidal war, continued repression, and political and economic co-optation left a weak and fragmented popular sector.40 Guatemala remains marked by stark inequality; according to USAID, “The largest 2.5 percent of farms occupy two-thirds of agricultural land while 90% of the farms are only on one-sixth of the agricultural land.”41

Neoliberal policies not only strained the lives of the rural poor, who could no longer earn a living growing corn and coffee, but also precipitated a rise in informal sector employment.42 Along with migration, informal work has cushioned the effects of unemployment,43 but at the border the extralegal smuggling economy was no longer just a fallback option. It was becoming a preferable and legitimate option.44

Security and Trade in the Borderlands

The Mexico–Guatemala border received heightened interest from the United States and Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s as the security and trade nexus between North and Central America. Mexico is critical to U.S. economic interests as its third-largest trading partner—second in terms of exports and third in imports.45 Mexico has periodically viewed the southern border as a potential threat to its national identity and sovereignty, but border security really began to emerge as imperative only with the Guatemalan refugee crisis of the 1980s, when thousands of refugees sought to enter Mexico.46 Prior to the 1990s, transmigration at the Mexico–Guatemala border posed few problems for Mexico. Mexico began building up its border security apparatus with the creation of the National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) in the early 1990s to deal with the repercussions of the increasing U.S. deportations of Central Americans, which directly affected Mexico.47

Mexico also had an interest in aligning with the U.S. hemispheric security agenda. The Vicente Fox administration (2000–2006) hoped collaboration would lead to improved access to the U.S. market and a path to regularize millions of Mexican migrants living in the United States.48 Mexico inaugurated Plan Sur (Southern Plan) in the summer of 2001, a few months prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to strengthen its southern border. Plan Sur began a shifting of the border-policing sphere from the United States–Mexico to the Mexico–Guatemala border with U.S support.49 Guatemala followed with a similar border enhancement program, Venceremos 2001 (We Shall Overcome).50 Because migration became a heightened U.S. security concern after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which occurred just a few months later, the U.S. security agenda failed to incorporate Mexico’s migration concerns.51 As the more powerful nation, the United States has dominated which security threats take precedence on the hemispheric agenda.52 Asymmetry in the trade relationship between the United States and Mexico gives the United States considerably more policy influence.53 In 2002, the Mexico–Guatemala High-Level Border Security Group was created in coordination with Mexico and Guatemala’s secretaries of the Interior to facilitate cooperation on migration, human rights, public security, organized crime, terrorism, and judicial issues.54 In 2005, Mexico’s INM was incorporated into the National Security System of Mexico, paralleling the U.S. securitization of migration, which similarly shifted the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.55

As the Mexico–Guatemala border converts into a security arena, it has also become integral to regional trade integration, which positions the region as the new frontier between the northern trading block and Central America.56 The United States, Mexico, and Canada entered into NAFTA in 1994, Guatemala signed onto the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA, or CAFTA) with the United States in 2006, and Guatemala, Mexico, and other Central American countries entered into the Mexico–Northern Triangle Free Trade Agreement in 2001. Through regional integration, trade and security are increasingly interconnected.57 In 2001, then Mexican President Vicente Fox unveiled plans for Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP) to create a regional development corridor encompassing Mexico’s southern states and Central American countries. The plan officially receded due to protests from civil society, indigenous, and environmental groups, but many of its projects nonetheless proceeded and have been revived (see Conclusion).58

In 2012, Alan Bersin, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, stated, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border” in the fight to curtail the northward flow of undocumented migrants, criminal networks, drugs, and other illicit flows.59 In July 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto implemented Programa Frontera Sur, the Southern Border Program, in coordination with the United States to curtail rising numbers of Central American minors crossing the U.S.–Mexico border in the summer of 2014. In the cartography of U.S. hemispheric security, the Mexico–Guatemala border, deemed comparatively less important economically than the U.S.–Mexico border, began to take on “the function of the ‘last border,’ where the geneses of problems occur, which can contaminate the northern border.”60 Symbolically, politically, and economically, the Mexico–Guatemala border is at once depicted as a region of potential opportunity and threat, mostly in line with U.S. economic and security interests.61 Recent media and policy outcries directed to Mexico’s southern border reflect an intensification of the situation but often misconstrue it as something new. The shift of U.S. border enforcement and moral panics about unruly borders to Mexico’s southern border has been underway since the 1990s and early 2000s.

Some scholars have questioned whether the mandate to secure the border would imperil NAFTA and impede trade relations.62 Yet trade liberalization and demands for border security do not represent a paradox; rather, “Bilateral and North American security was an inevitable result of NAFTA, and the evolution of this agreement . . . link[s] commerce with trade and security.”63 Border security can slow down commerce and pose additional costs, but prior phases of border militarization, such as the 1990s intensification of the U.S.–Mexico border to contain drugs and undocumented immigrants, balanced security with the needs of businesses that depended on trade.64 Although past and current border buildups often failed to contain illicit flows, they did succeed in demonstrating a visible image of a border that is “under control” by concentrating enforcement in select visible locations as smuggling was diverted to more remote areas.65 Security directives did not impede cross-border transactions; trade between the United States and Mexico has grown 600 percent since 1990.66 Rather than a contradiction, Joseph Nevins points to how trade and security integration complement one another because border enforcement is critical to creating an atmosphere conducive to capital accumulation.67 Further securing the U.S.–Mexico border in the 1990s alongside NAFTA served the goal of containing the “anticipated increase in authorized migration” from Mexico that accompanied the liberalization of the Mexican economy and regional trade integration.68 Rather than deter unauthorized migrants, securitization rendered them illegal and therefore more exploitable for employers demanding cheap labor.69

At the Mexico–Guatemala border, local inhabitants and migrants encounter border enforcement most palpably in terms of the expansion of mobile checkpoints along Chiapas’s highways. In accordance with the Southern Border Program, Mexico modernized existing points of entry but also instituted over 100 mobile highway inspection points.70 Officials interviewed by a Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) team at Mexico’s southern border pointed to how bolstered security also contributed to providing “security for development” and “development for security,” in line with President Peña Nieto’s larger plans for regional development, including resource extraction and Special Economic Zones.71 A few rumors were circulating when I arrived at the border in September 2006. One was that the municipality of Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, would be bulldozed to construct a hydroelectric dam. Another was that then U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to purchase Chiapas for its oil. As one border resident told me, “Mexico is already sold. The U.S. wants the resources without the people. But we will not sell it.” Although neither of these rumors was true, residents grasped the climate of dispossession. As of 2015, there are ninety-nine mining concessions in Chiapas, which were awarded by the Mexican government to primarily Canadian and Chinese companies and constitute over 14 percent of Chiapas’s territory.72 Licenses will last until 2050 and 2060; activists argue more concessions are underway in addition to plans for five hydroelectric dams along Chiapas’s Usumacinta River.73 According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), Chiapas provides 44.5 percent of Mexico’s hydroelectric power, 7.5 percent of its electrical production, 1.8 percent of its crude oil, and 3.1 percent of its natural gas.74 Although coverage has improved, Chiapas ranks toward the bottom of Mexican states with regards to the percentage of households possessing electricity.75 In the context of securitized neoliberalism, a heightened security and military presence in Chiapas creates a climate conducive to securing investment, resource extraction, and road construction that serves megadevelopment projects while silencing and criminalizing opposition and controlling mobility.76 In 2015 Mexico passed the Federal Law to Prevent and Punish Crimes in the Field of Hydrocarbons, which criminalized social protest and limited transparency around resource extraction projects further facilitated by the 2013 Energy Reform.77

Mexico and Guatemala are also integrated into the U.S. security agenda to address the drug trade and criminal violence. In 2006, then Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drug cartels and drug-related violence. Mexico entered into the Mérida Initiative in 2008, a security agreement with the United States to combat drug trafficking and transnational crime and to secure Mexico’s borders. From 2008 through 2016, the U.S. Congress appropriated over $2.5 billion to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative and disbursed over $1.6 billion in “training, equipment, and technical assistance” as of 2016.78 The northern border originally took priority, but in the past few years the southern border began to attract more attention. In addition to Mérida support, since 2011 the Department of Defense has provided assistance under the Mexico–Guatemala–Belize Border Region Program.79 Although it was previously a more marginal component of the Mérida Initiative, in 2014 more attention and resources were directed to Pillar 3, or “creating a twenty-first-century border” and securing Mexico’s borders, including the southern border.80 Military and police aid, including the militarization of policing, dominate funding despite the second phase of the initiative’s focus on building institutions and the poor human rights records and corruption of the Mexican police and military.81 As a result of Mexico’s militarized approach to the drug war, since 2006 over 150,000 have died, more than 42,000 have disappeared, and systemic corruption and rising human rights abuses remain unaddressed with fewer than 5 percent of crimes investigated.82

The Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which split off from the Mérida Initiative in 2010 and has received $979 million in civilian security assistance from the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) from 2008 to 2017, articulates a similar militarized strategy to combating drug trafficking and insecurity in Guatemala and other Central American nations.83 Rather than improving security, critics like the Mesoamerican Working Group (MAWG) argue that “a militarized approach to security has not led to a decrease in criminal activity or violence. Instead, it has led to increased repression, human rights violations, and debilitated Guatemala’s transitional justice process” in a postwar context where close connections between criminal organizations and the military are well documented.84 The Guatemalan state’s paramilitary units and death squads were not rehabilitated and reintegrated after its thirty-six-year civil war from 1960 to 1996 but now form the ranks of drug cartels, criminal gangs, and private security forces.85 Criminal elements infuse almost every level of governance, creating a postwar blurring between extralegal actors and the state.86 A reintroduction of the military into public security through CARSI imperils postwar reforms in Guatemala that sought to limit the power of the military.87

Nearly every Mexican security brief, transborder initiative, and even WikiLeaks cables target unmonitored border routes as hotbeds for drug trafficking and criminality with little additional context. Official accounts assume that informal activities, and official tolerance of them, generate a larger climate of insecurity and lawlessness conducive to organized crime without parsing out the differences between different actors, practices, and underlying conditions. Local newspapers and state officials depict border residents as criminals or stubborn peasants ready to blockade the road with machetes. Official sources posit the remedy to be the regularization of informal crossings. According to recent estimates, only 125 immigration agents patrol the entire Mexico–Guatemala border.88 Unregulated commerce also occurs though, and within plain view of, official crossings, such as across the Suchiate River in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, and Tecún Umán, Guatemala. Moral panics over informal and illicit commerce fail to grasp how informal commerce has provided a livelihood for generations and how it is integrated into the wider economy. Furthermore, placing the responsibility for security in the hands of official units often linked to corruption and the very criminal groups they are charged with combating only serves to augment the climate of violence and insecurity.

Informality, Illegality, and Illicitness at Borders

As I witnessed truckers smuggle goods across the border in broad daylight, I struggled with my expectations regarding informality, illegality, and illicitness. This commerce did not look very different from what occurs at official points of entry or even from commerce within a country’s borders. Most of these goods were considered illegal only because they used the unmonitored route to enter and exit either country; otherwise they were mundane items such as corn, coffee, and clothing. Many residents could distinguish legal commerce from contraband, but others could not. If this commerce were illegal, they reasoned, it would not be allowed to occur so openly. One woman explained, “For us, this is free trade because it [commerce] passes through every day. If it were contraband, this would not be allowed. It is purely business.”

In the 1970s, the term informal economy, drawing from the work of Keith Hart, came into fashion to describe the self-employed and small-scale capitalist work practices that exist outside of formal protections and regulations.89 Yet this route also hosts the smuggling of what states determine to be more illicit activities, such as the trafficking of narcotics, weapons, and undocumented migrants. Miguel Angel Centeno and Alejandro Portes differentiate informal from illegal by arguing that illegal enterprises involve producing and commercializing goods that societies consider to be illicit, whereas informal enterprises tend to center on producing and commercializing licit commodities outside of state regulation.90 They contend that the difference between formality and informality has to do with the process by which goods are transferred and not the product itself.91 Yet these distinctions do not fully capture how and why border residents’ informal smuggling practices of licit goods, which evade official regulations, inspections, and taxes, become increasingly viewed as illicit commerce in a securitized border climate. Instead of accepting illegality as static and from a state-centered standpoint, it is necessary to interrogate how and under what conditions certain activities or people are deemed informal, illegal, or illicit. Rather than distinct realms, informal, formal, legal, and illegal commerce merge together, and are mutually constituted, in the flow of global commerce across borders.92

Smuggling goods across the border appears to interrupt both the Mexican and Guatemalan states’ abilities to control their borders. Although contraband economies may threaten to undermine this authority, “Paradoxically, these activities reaffirm the very borders which they seek to subvert, for without borders these activities would simply cease to exist.”93 As residents reminded me, without the border, the sale of corn, coffee, and clothing across the border would be regular commerce. At the same time, the intermittently policed border and different prices, regulations, and taxes in each country are what make this commerce lucrative. It is why Guatemalan border residents, like Francisca, purchase goods in Mexico to sell in their Guatemalan stores. The relation between the state and illegal practices is rarely marked by strict opposition but instead vacillates along a continuum encompassing cooperation, antagonism, and interdependency.94 It is the state’s regulations, and the gap between these regulations and the state’s willingness and ability to enforce them, that shape informality and illegality in the first place.95

Local inhabitants largely view smuggling commodities as legitimate business, whereas state officials deride this as illegal contraband.96 Residents define themselves as negociantes (businessmen), fleteros (truckers who provide rides), or comisionistas (people who work on commission) rather than as smugglers. I use the terms businessmen and middlemen (those who act as intermediaries in border exchanges) because business tends to be dominated by, and associated with, men. Yet women also play important roles in these enterprises. Itty Abraham and Willem Van Schendel distinguish between illegality and illicitness by drawing attention to how illegality, a political determination of acceptability determined by states, and licitness, a social distinction of legitimacy, may clash; ideas about what is considered to be legitimate or illegitimate by states may not be shared by those engaging in these activities.97 They emphasize how borderlands complicate the assessment of activities that cross between different social and political spheres of regulation.98 Border inhabitants may carry legacies of exclusion by the state, experience state violence directed at asserting sovereignty at the margins, encounter different legal systems in close proximity, and continue cross-border social, kinship, ethnic, and economic ties.99 The imposition and enforcement, or lack thereof, of national borders may create or interrupt cross-border ties, whereas border enforcement facilitates some interactions as it criminalizes others that could otherwise be viewed as petty commerce.100 Differentiating between licitness and legality, however, also fails to account for the complexity of contingent views of legality and licitness.101 Social perceptions often shift situationally and in relation to one’s particular position in relation to the smuggling economy.

Taking local ethical evaluations seriously challenges dominant state-determined assumptions of illegality by drawing attention to illegalization as the social and political process by which people, places, or objects become designated as illegal and therefore the target of sanction, moral outrage, and violent containment, prohibition, and enforcement.102 By illuminating illegalization as a social and political process rather than as a natural and normative state of affairs, I call attention to illegality fetishism, drawing loosely from Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism.103 Illegality surfaces as a thing in and of itself with an associated inherent negative value. It functions to validate, and leave unquestioned, a host of disciplinary measures, which become divorced from the political, economic, and social processes that produce, designate, and naturalize illegality.104 Illegality as process highlights how these perceptions and their salience shift over time and space. Illegalization, as immigration scholars have argued, is often invoked as a rationale to justify differential treatment while denying the ways the extralegal economy may subsidize the formal economy and preserve prevailing arrangements of economic, racial, and political privilege.105 At the border, viewing the route and its inhabitants as illegal at once justifies state neglect as well as surveillance and discipline. In practice, however, everyday dealings between state agents and border residents vary, ranging among neglect, opposition, suppression, collusion, and even mutual benefit.106 It is through such daily maneuvers that the relationship among security, illegality, and trade takes shape in the borderlands.


1. El Financiero. September 7, 2006.

2. I do not reference these articles because doing so would reveal the identities of the border communities.

3. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 7, 10. Seven are located on the Chiapas–Guatemala border (Basail Rodríguez 2016b: 5).

4. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 10 and Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana 2015. The number of vehicular crossings varies across sources.

5. I do not cite this report, so as to preserve the anonymity of the crossing.

6. See description of incident in Galemba 2013.

7. See Andreas 1999.

8. See Goldstein 2010, 2012; Zilberg 2011; Jusionyte 2015; Aguiar 2014; and Arroyo 2006.

9. Also see Zilberg 2011: 6, 4; and Goldstein 2012: 17.

10. See Andreas 1999: 96, 2010, and 2011.

11. See Villafuerte Solís 2009.

12. Gúzman Mérida 2004: 138, translation mine.

13. Just as security discourses are repeatedly interrupted, Goodale and Postero (2013: 1–2) point to the contested and interrupted nature of neoliberalism in Latin America to demonstrate how new possibilities emerge even alongside the continued dominance of neoliberalism.

14. IFAD 2012

15. Vázquez Olivera 2010 and Clot 2013.

16. Clot 2013: 16 and Andreas 1999.

17. Clot 2013: 8; Mathews and Vega 2012; Gauthier 2007; and Basail Rodríguez 2016b.

18. All names are pseudonyms unless specified to protect identities. Some individual traits are also altered, or I created composite characters to protect informants.

19. Highway expansion in the 1990s has also been linked to surveillance against the Zapatistas (Hernández Castillo 2001 and Nash 2001: 93).

20. In its most basic facets, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of political and economic practices guided by a belief that individual and societal well-being can be best guaranteed by advancing the free market (Harvey 2005: 2).

21. Thomas, O’Neill, and Offit 2011: 9 and Burrell 2013.

22. Grindle 1996: 1.

23. Kelly 2008: 11.

24. De Ita 1997.

25. Fox and Haight 2010: 11 and Wise 2011.

26. Morales 1999: 990 and McCune et al. 2012.

27. Kelly 2008: 12.

28. Nash 2001.

29. Hernández Castillo 2001 and Kelly 2008.

30. Nash 2001.

31. Villafuerte Solís 2005: 479.

32. CONEVAL 2015 and World Bank Data 2014.

33. Bradford 2011.

34. CONEVAL 2015 and Villafuerte Solís 2015.

35. Villafuerte Solís 2005, 2009 and Secretaría de Economía 2016: 24.

36. Paláez-Herreros 2012: 207; Villafuerte Solís and García Aguilar 2006; and Villafuerte Solís 2005. Also see Fábregas Puig and Ponciano 2014.

37. Thomas, O’Neill, and Offit 2011: 8.

38. Thomas, O’Neill, and Offit 2011: 8; Fischer and Benson 2006; Little 2013; Goldín 2011; and Thomas 2011.

39. Benson, Thomas, and Fischer 2011.

40. Schneider 2012: 179.

41. USAID 2010: 1.

42. Kelly 2008: 64.

43. Economist David Lozano, cited in Conn 2014; and Villafuerte Solís 2005.

44. See Centeno and Portes 2006 on the role of the informal economy.

45. U.S. Census Bureau 2017; also see Paley 2014.

46. Cruz Burguete 1998.

47. Casillas 2008: 144.

48. Hristoulas 2003: 40 and Andreas 2003: 13.

49. Pickard 2005. See Gilberto Rosas (2006: 344) on thickening the border, which can also be applied to the expansion of U.S. border policing to the Mexico–Guatemala border.

50. Birson 2010 and Jaramillo 2001.

51. Hristoulas 2003: 41 and Hufbauer and Vega-Cánovas 2003: 128.

52. Benitez-Manaut 2004: 14 and Sandoval Palacios 2006.

53. Andreas 2003: 12.

54. Villafuerte Solís 2014: 127–128. This later became the Mexico–Guatemala High-Level Security Group.

55. Johnson 2008; also see Nevins 2014.

56. Ogren 2007: 210; Sandoval Palacios 2006; and Villafuerte Solís and Leyva Solano 2006.

57. Benítez-Manaut 2004 50 and Villafuerte Solís and Leyva Solano 2006.

58. Tenuto-Sánchez 2014 and Pickard 2003.

59. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 5.

60. Villafuerte Solís 2004: 67, translation mine.

61. See Sandoval Palacios 2006.

62. For example, see Hufbauer and Vega-Cánovas 2003: 128.

63. Benítez-Manaut 2004: 50.

64. Andreas 2003: 4.

65. Ibid.: 5–6; also see 2002, 2000.

66. Andreas 2003: 6 and Figueroa, Lee, and Schoik 2011.

67. Nevins 2002: 138.

68. Ibid.

69. Gomberg-Muñoz 2011: 34, 303.

70. Seelke 2016.

71. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 21.

72. Castro Soto 2015.

73. Henríquez 2016.

74. INEGI 2011.

75. Ibid.

76. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 31 and Paley 2014.

77. Alianza Mexicana contra el Fracking 2015.

78. Seelke and Finklea 2017: 1

79. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014.

80. Seelke and Finklea 2017 and Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014: 5.

81. CIP Americas Program in MAWG 2013: 18.

82. Paley 2014: 25–26, 35. See Conclusion for updates on impunity in Mexico.

83. U.S. Department of State 2017; MAWG 2013; and Abrego 2014.

84. MAWG 2013: 3 and Paley 2014.

85. Grann 2011.

86. Paley 2014.

87. MAWG 2013.

88. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales 2014, citing a 2010 State Department cable.

89. Hart 1973; see Goldstein 2016: 19–20; Castells and Portes 1989; and Centeno and Portes 2006: 25–26.

90. Centeno and Portes 2006: 26. They draw from Castells and Portes 1989.

91. Ibid., drawing from Castells and Portes 1989.

92. See Goldstein (2016: 21, 23), drawing from Gandolfo (2009) on fluidity between formality and informality.

93. Donnan and Wilson 1999: 105.

94. Aguiar 2014; Heyman and Smart 1999; Smart 1999; Galemba 2013; Davis 2012; and Goldstein 2016.

95. Andreas 2011: 7; Friman 2009a; and Heyman and Smart 1999.

96. Also see Basail Rodríguez 2016b: 13.

97. Abraham and Van Schendel 2005: 4, 25; Martínez 1994; Clot 2013; Grimson 2002; and Jusionyte 2015.

98. Abraham and Van Schendel 2005.

99. See Donnan and Wilson 1999 and Martínez 1994.

100. Donnan and Wilson 1999; Abraham and Van Schendel 2005; Wilson and Donnan 1998; and Galemba 2013: 276.

101. See Karibo 2011: 85.

102. See Thomas and Galemba 2013; Heyman 2013; and Jusionyte 2015.

103. Marx 1990 [1867].

104. See Comaroff and Comaroff (2006) on the fetishization of the law in the postcolony where calls for the “rule of law” or more law are often used to justify corruption, violence, and illegality. Also see Penglase 2011.

105. For example, Bacon 2008 and Gomberg-Muñoz 2011.

106. Heyman and Smart 1999; and also see Martínez (1994: 10) on the “borderlands milieu.”