Contraband Corridor

Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border, by Rebecca Berke Galemba (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Reviewed by Jorge Choy-Gómez, The University of Texas at Austin

The Mexico-Guatemala border has attracted world attention for several years, largely due to the migration of Central American people through Mexico to reach the United States. In Contraband Corridor, Rebecca Berke Galemba focuses on a subject relegated to the shadows despite all the attention lavished on this border: the everyday life of border residents who smuggle basic commodities such as corn, coffee, or simply clothing across the border on an unmonitored road. Galemba analyzes residents’ involvement in wide-spread, normalized, and variously-legitimated extralegal economic activities; these residents pursue this cross-border trade to make a living, and as they do so they coexist and negotiate with a range of other cross-border actors, such as government agents and private companies.

The book’s central argument is that residents of the border towns of Frontera Comalapa (Mexico) and Huehuetenango (Guatemala) engage in extralegal activities in a context of economic exclusion, increased border security, and criminalization. This book interrogates the myth that illegality is inherently opposed to the rule of law and legal commercial practices within the framework of neoliberalism, carefully detailing how “informal, formal, legal, and illegal commerce merge together, and are mutually constituted, in the flow of global commerce across borders” (p. 16). Throughout the book, Galemba addresses various spheres of life for border residents who engage in these extralegal and officially illicit activities.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction describes the larger scope of the book and establishes Galemba’s theoretical lens, introducing “securitized neoliberalism” as a central concept. Galemba explains that this form of neoliberalism “works to value certain economic activities and actors and exclude and criminalize others in a context where the informal and the illicit economy is increasingly one of the poor’s remaining options” (p. 5). In the first chapter, Galemba contextualizes and historicizes this border region and its residents, locating them geopolitically on the peripheries of two states. This location, paradoxically, also places them at the center of state border-regimes, setting up recurrent contradictions that Galemba explores throughout the book.

The second chapter describes the use of multiple identity documents as one of the strategies that border residents employ to navigate the contradiction between state exclusion and national identification. Galemba uses the concepts of illegibility (the unreadability of rules and regulations), phantom state (state laws that exist but seldom materialize or are enforced), and border citizenship (living along the border route and asserting a right to work in the contraband economy) to explain how the inhabitants of this region maneuver between their multiple ethnic and national identities. She also explores how they justify their often only quasi-legal ways of acquiring identity documents, and legitimize a way of life that results from the exclusionary documentary practices of their states and their current trade policies. The next five chapters describe and analyze community forms of government, the tight weave of cross-border political and kinship relations, and the paradoxically illegal but legitimate condition of contraband trade in these communities. Chapter 5 stands out for its analysis of the illegal-legal relationship and how this formal distinction intersects with trade that has tangible impacts on people’s lives. Finally, the conclusion touches on a subject intentionally excluded from the rest of the book: trafficking of migrants, drugs, and arms. Galemba here strengthens her central thesis about the social construction of illegality by asking why border residents themselves consider migrants, drugs, and arms illegal, while corn, coffee, and sugar are not so categorized. In this section, she again points to the contradictory and conflicting condition of a region in which its residents are economically marginalized by the states but socially and politically engaged in macro-structures due to their involvement cross-border trade at the local level.

Despite Galemba’s analytical achievements in this book, some aspects of her argument remain underdeveloped. The concept of “border citizenship,” for instance, is not as rigorously defined as it could be. While Galemba argues that the concept explains “how those living along this border route assert that the right to work in the local contraband economy and levy tolls on smugglers is based on border residence” (p. 61), she does not expand its scope and limits beyond this emic framing.

Overall, Contraband Corridor is a rich and thoughtful analysis of community dynamics on a part of the Mexico-Guatemala border that has been characterized, often unfairly, as unruly, chaotic, and underdeveloped. Galemba debunks these myths by carefully describing the mutually-constitutive relationship of illegality and legality in the framework of neoliberalism. Furthermore, the book accomplishes its stated goal of showing border-lives through the words of the region’s inhabitants. Galemba provides a thorough analysis of border relations through precise and careful attention to the kinds of details easily dismissed by the non-ethnographer. For example, she explores the distinction border residents make between negocio or business, used to characterize their economic activities, and contraband, the designation used by state agents and institutions. Galemba has written an excellent ethnography, rich in detail and content, historically contextualizing each of her arguments. Especially notable is the analysis she offers of the political and cultural construction of the Mexico-Guatemala border, and how current forms of trade and cross-border negocio are shaped by this history and vice versa.

Contraband Corridor is an excellent addition to anthropological studies of borders, as well as studies of smuggling, micro-economics, and Latin American studies in general. The book examines timely and pertinent concerns about non-state conceptions of security, the limits of the state, and local and community forms of organization in increasingly restrictive times, especially in the Global South.