Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Andreas Describes the Illicit Side of Globalization

October 31, 2011

Institute Professor Peter Andreas recently gave a talk on the illicit side of globalization to 40 university students from across Latin America, who were visiting Brown University as part of the Botín Scholars program.

In recent decades, as the global legal economy has been deregulated, the global illicit economy has been reregulated, he told the students.

“The legal economy has recently been defined by increasingly open borders, increasing liberalization of markets, and more open economies,” Andreas said.

The opposite is true for what he calls illicit globalization, with increased criminalization, increased policing, and more border controls. “This doesn’t necessarily mean it works, but there’s a lot more activity and interest in regulating and prohibiting illicit border crossings,” Andreas explained.

That said, “the border story is not a new story,” he added.

He traced the history of smuggling in the United States to the country’s founding, highlighting examples throughout American history, including trade patterns during the American Revolution, Industrial Revolution, period of Westward expansion, and Civil War. Andreas also traced concerns of illegal immigration to the late 19th century, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, before discussing drug trafficking, today’s largest sector in the illicit global economy. 

Andreas said drugs are a “relative latecomer” to the history of illicit globalization, because the United States did not criminalize most drugs until the 20th century.

“In the overall scheme of things, these are late arrivals to the overall illicit globalization story,” he said. “It’s precisely through criminalization in the United States that Mexico found a new niche in its economic relations with the United States.”

The last two decades have seen “an unprecedented escalation of US policing of the southwest border, unlike anything we have seen before in American history,” Andreas said

“Does that mean smuggling, even large-scale smuggling, across that border is new? Absolutely not,” he said.

Instead, Andreas said, an anti-immigration backlash in the United States in the 1990s sparked the border-tightening measures.

He referred to the standard populist outcry today to “regain control of the US-Mexico border,” saying “you can’t regain control of something if you never actually had control of it in the first place.”

In fact, the border is arguably more under control than it ever has been in its history, Andreas said, adding that some of the problems in the area are self-created. 

“What’s getting all the attention is the extraordinary growth in Mexican violence and the transformation of Mexican drug trafficking,” Andreas said, adding that changes in US and Mexican policies toward trafficking have “backfired dramatically.”

“It’s simple economics,” he said. “If you destabilize previously stable trafficking routes to the US-Mexico border, you create vacancies within trafficking organizations, and at certain key border entry points, there’s going to be a scramble – not surprisingly a violent one – to regain control of that turf.”

“We have a much worse situation south of the border than we did 10 years ago,” Andreas said, “and it’s precisely because of the unintended, perverse feedback effects of success in going after some of the more traditional, established veteran trafficking organizations.”

Andreas is a professor of political science and international studies and holds a joint appointment with Brown's Department of Political Science. He studies borders and smuggling, transnational crime and crime control, and the political economy of conflict and intervention. He is currently researching and writing a book on the politics of smuggling in American history, tentatively titled, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America.

The Botín Scholars are participating in a multi-week program that seeks to build a network of university students from the region who are committed to public service and reform of civic organizations. The program is led by Fundación Marcelino Botín in association with the Watson Institute and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown. 

After their week of study at Brown, the Botín Scholars traveled to Europe, where they are spending several weeks engaging in sessions with academics and policymakers.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ‘12