The Mexico–Guatemala border has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot of illicit flows of both goods and people. Contraband Corridor seeks to understand the border from the perspective of its long-term inhabitants, including petty smugglers of corn, clothing, and coffee. Challenging assumptions regarding security, trade, and illegality, Rebecca Berke Galemba details how these residents engage in and justify extralegal practices in the context of heightened border security, restricted economic opportunities, and exclusionary trade policies. Rather than assuming that extralegal activities necessarily threaten the state and formal economy, Galemba's ethnography illustrates the complex ways that the formal, informal, legal, and illegal economies intertwine. Smuggling basic commodities across the border provides a means for borderland peasants to make a living while neoliberal economic policies decimate agricultural livelihoods. Yet smuggling also exacerbates prevailing inequalities, obstructs the possibility of more substantive political and economic change, and provides low-risk economic benefits to businesses, state agents, and other illicit actors, often at the expense of border residents.
Galemba argues that securitized neoliberalism values certain economic activities and actors while excluding and criminalizing others, even when the informal and illicit economy is increasingly one of the poor's only remaining options. Contraband Corridor contends that security, neoliberalism, and illegality are interdependent in complex ways, yet how they unfold depends on negotiations between diverse border actors.
About the author
Rebecca Berke Galemba is Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.
"Galemba has given us a rare glimpse into everyday life in the shadows along the Mexico–Guatemala border. Her grounded, 'bottom up' account draws much-needed attention to this too often overlooked border while carefully avoiding the alarmism and sensationalism found in popular depictions of cross-border smuggling."
—Peter Andreas, Brown University
"Contraband Corridor dares to humanize those involved with the trafficking of contraband. This unique ethnography offers an intimate approach to the lives of Mexico-Guatemala border inhabitants and their struggles to survive in neoliberal times. Galemba's landmark book helps readers understand a region where smuggling is conceived as free trade and borders are not walls that divide but pathways for encounters."
—R. Aída Hernández Castillo, author of Histories and Stories from Chiapas: Border Identities in Southern Mexico
"Taking a fascinating look at the middlemen, customs agents, and residents animating the shadowy world of border control, Contraband Corridor draws us into the Guatemala–Mexico frontier with riveting accounts of what matters to the inhabitants and why it matters, against a backdrop of rapidly shifting geopolitical considerations. Theoretically innovative and ethnographically rich, this powerful book shifts commonly held notions of what it means to sustain border life."
—Jennifer Burrell, University at Albany, SUNY
"Contraband Corridor is an outstanding contribution to the literature on informal economics in Latin America. Its ethnographic approach humanizes everyday smugglers, challenges the stereotype of the backward and ignorant peasant, and highlights powerful forms of local organization and governance. Taken together [Galemba's] work defies the commonly held notion of the margins as lawless, chaotic, and dangerous. Rather, borders are transgressed, commodities flow, and life goes on sometimes with the unwanted intervention of the state."
—James H. McDonald, New York Journal of Books