Guest post by Yvette Servin, Rosemary Giron, Diane Martinez, Yareli Pineda (students and graduates of California State University at Los Angeles), and Katie Dingeman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the same university. Her research examines mass detention, deportation, and the criminalization of migrants.

Review of Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border, by Rebecca Berke Galemba (Stanford University Press, 2017).

How do border residents navigate a neoliberal context offering few options for legal means of survival? How do longstanding borderland practices simultaneously resist and reify border securitization? In Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border, Rebecca Galemba paints an intimate portrait of how inhabitants define and navigate the complex legal, economic, and cultural terrain along an unmonitored segment of the Mexico-Guatemala border. Drawing on fieldwork carried out between 2005 to 2016, Galemba focuses on the perspectives of border residents whose longstanding cross-border activities, like the trade of corn, clothing, and coffee, are converted into extralegal activities in which many feel they have no other recourse but to engage and defend. As the region transforms into a geopolitical hotspot, their livelihoods become entangled in webs of formal and informal activities that both challenge and reproduce the transnational neoliberal order undermining their livelihoods.

Galemba roots her border ethnography in the 'contested and unfinished process by which the borderlands and Mexican and Guatemalan nations took shape.' Communities on both sides of the border have distinct histories, demographics, and dynamics, but remain linked through a shared history of colonization and nationalization through the erasure of indigeneity, cycles of migration and re/settlement, and the suppression of economic, cultural, and political autonomy. Though established in 1895, the Mexico-Guatemala border has long remained indeterminate and porous. People move across with relative ease as residents in both countries formed cross-national families, lives, and networks of trade. Such fluidity has produced a unique borderland culture that hinges on shared kinship, land, and language. It has been sustained in recent decades by a mutual interest in survival via transnational commerce.

Neoliberal interventions via free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA-DR brought about disastrous economic effects to the already impoverished region. Yet, 'border populations find creative ways to bend the border and its unequal relationships to their benefit' (p. 86). Galemba draws on the example of corn, a staple food in Mexico and Guatemala that bears significance in both native and mestizo cultures. Though trading corn became illegal in the context of transnational trade agreements, residents defend their right to freely trade it. Inspired by the need to survive and somewhat by Zapatista anti-imperialist ideology, locals proudly declare that 'corn is food, not contraband' (p. 125). In the 1990s, many of Mexico’s Southern border communities, which included many persons of indigenous descent, drove [albeit symbolically] the Mexican state out of their territory. Cognizant of the possibility of civilian unrest if their primary means of survival was expropriated, the government conceded to locals the extralegal commerce. Today communities vigilantly maintain their right to 'free trade,' although through increasingly costly bribes to authorities who simultaneously fear retaliation if they were to enforce federal law.

A vibrant informal market openly and visibly exists along the Mexico-Guatemala border, providing locals varying ways to participate in extralegal trade of goods. Merchants, brokers, and cargo loaders are organized into labour associations that occupy specific territorial zones and operate under protectionist principles. Most border residents are aware how informal commerce operates in the region, and typically express approval. From the point of view of most peasants, NAFTA and CAFTA-DR serve multinational corporations who operate in more manipulative, clandestine, and lucrative ways than subsistence smugglers. Though shunned in the eyes of the state, merchants in the trade of goods made illicit are often highly esteemed in the region. (One merchant named 'Tito' became so well known for his work ethic and benevolence that people referred to him as 'Don Tito' on both sides of the border, for example).  The system also creates and reinforces existing socioeconomic hierarchies that can undermine its benefits. Like the formal market, the informal economy prompts jealousy, distrust, and violence among residents differentially situated in the system. The much more contentious trade of drugs, weapons, and people along the border (which Galemba did not directly examine but about which she heard rumours) raises suspicions by some wary residents who witness certain merchants fare remarkably well without apparent justification. Corrupt officials are also woven into and benefit from the system in ways that erode trust within and across communities and labour associations.

Galemba ultimately challenges the idea that there is a strict boundary between formal and informal economies. That legitimate businesses buy and sell unlawfully traded goods further demonstrates the line between formal, informal, and illicit economies is not only blurry: such economies are interdependent. Galemba further argues that 'the legal and illegal are not necessarily opposed, both rather coexist within the domain of state power' (p. 161). Extralegal activities may resist state power in particular ways, but they do not necessarily threaten the state and formal economy. 'The ability of the state to declare an exception for the extralegal flow of corn enhances its power to establish the rules, withhold them at will, and to manipulate the uncertainty of its decisions' (p. 161). Extralegal trade thus does not upend the root causes of economic exclusion. The omnipresent risk of state surveillance, criminalization, and abuse have only escalated in recent years, as epitomized by the 2014 U.S.-backed Southern Border Program, which, funded in part by the US government, was implemented to stymie Central American migration under the claim of improving human rights along the migratory route.

Overall, Contraband Corridor provides an ethnographically rich glimpse into how border communities navigate transnational power dynamics. Galemba successfully links first person accounts into a critical historical, legal, and economic analysis of the borderland region. She shows how communities negotiate a present but distant government and band together to circumvent multiple interlocking forms of exclusion. Border residents redefined 'free trade' and created their own systems of exchange and security at the margins of official approval. Their relative territorial autonomy is partial, risky, and conditioned on communities’ continued symbiosis with the state. Nevertheless, residents and their families found in extralegal trade a mechanism to survive and occasionally thrive in otherwise impossible economic conditions.

According to Galemba, extralegal trade along the Mexico-Guatemala border is visible, permitted, and defended under the logics of the state and formal economy. A critical reevaluation of who wins and loses from pervasive policies of neoliberalism, illegalization, and securitization can lead us to a more humane and sustainable path forward. We recommend Contraband Corridor as insightful reading for scholars, students, and advocates interested in trade, labour, informal and illicit economies, border securitization, and the broader impact of state violence on marginalized communities in the global economy.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Servin, Y, Giron, R., Martinez, D., Pineda, Y. and Dingeman, K. (2018) Book Review: Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border. Available at: (Accessed [date]).