Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2014

Illicit Americas: Historical Dynamics of Smuggling in U.S. Relations with Its Neighbors

Peter Andreas

September 2013

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


The proliferation of illicit cross-border flows in the Americas — ranging from unauthorized migrant workers and psychoactive substances to arms and dirty money — is often portrayed as an alarming and unprecedented challenge to borders and government authority in the region. At first glance, there is indeed much that is new and novel — most dramatized by the sheer magnitude of drug-related violence in recent years in countries such as Mexico and Honduras. Yet from a much broader historical perspective, illicit cross-border flows of various sorts have been a defining feature of U.S. commercial relations with its neighbors from the very start, suggesting that there is much more continuity with the past than conventional accounts recognize. Porous borders and weak government capacity have long defined the region, and attempts to secure borders and tighten controls have often had the perverse and unintended consequence of creating a more formidable smuggling challenge. At the same time, efforts to regulate illicit border crossings have expanded the reach of central government authority and stimulated the development of border enforcement infrastructure and capacity. Bringing this history back in to contemporary policy debates can offer fresh perspectives and lessons and provide an antidote to the often shrill and hyperbolic public discourse today about “out of control” borders.