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Book Review


George T. Díaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 255 pp. Bibliography and Index. $45 (hard cover).


     Díaz's Border Contraband is a gem. His clear and concise writing that brings in theory without all the theoretical jargon will make this an excellent option for upper-division undergraduate courses and graduate courses in both world history and borderlands studies. For world history it provides a microhistory of sorts that can be used to examine bigger issues. For borderlands studies it adds to the historiography by exploring the moral economies of smuggling and how they changed over time through the lens of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, sister cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Furthermore, unlike many treatments of the U.S.-Mexico border, Díaz's is truly transnational, drawing on a range of local, regional, and national archives in both the United States and Mexico, local press accounts in both English and Spanish, and local popular culture in the form of corridos, popular Mexican ballads.

     Border Contraband builds upon the already existing theoretical work on borders, state-building, and licit and illicit flows. He is especially good at undermining the sharp lines often drawn between the licit and the illicit flow of goods, noting that for locals, what outsiders and central governments often viewed as illicit, was perfectly acceptable . . . even if it was illegal. Furthermore, it was not just what was being smuggled across borders that mattered. It also mattered who was doing the smuggling and how much they were smuggling. Was it a local entrepreneur who was smuggling for use by the local community? Or was it an outsider who moving large amounts of illicit goods through the local community in a manner that put the local community itself at danger of increased policing or militarization? These things mattered.

     Díaz also does a good job of building on Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron's seminal article "From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples in Between in North American History" by correctly arguing that the hardening of borders not only made smuggling more lucrative, it also resulted in the carving out of new "fugitive landscapes."1 In other words, the transition from borderlands to bordered lands did not slow the flow of illicit goods, but rather rearranged the relationships that state agents, the law, and communities had with each other, that is, when state agents were not part and parcel of the very same communities.

     Another strength of the book is that it does not focus on glamorous smuggling and smugglers (and their capture) but rather on the full range of smuggling from the everyday mundane smuggling of minor legal items, such as clothing and dry goods for personal use, to that of alcohol (during Prohibition), drugs, and guns. Smuggling of goods across the border is commonplace and is the norm rather than the exception.

     The time period under study provides a new, nuanced understanding of borderlands flows. Part I, which examines 1848 to 1910, covers the time period in which customs agents were really tax agents (in the absence of national income taxes). At the time, state agents had few resources, and when customs agents did apply the law, it was viewed by locals as arbitrary and unfair. Part II, which examines 1910 to 1945, explores the transition of customs officials away from taxation to a focus on national security and defense. That this transition began long before 9/11 (and at the behest of another war; i.e., World War II) is worthy of note. Hence, current debates over the need for greater security against international threats have a long history. Yet, as Díaz notes in the book's epilogue, some things have also changed drastically since 1945. The increasing levels of violence in borderlands communities – at least on the Mexican side; many U.S. borderlands communities are among the safest such cities of comparable size in the United States – are a sign of the failure of smuggling and the costs of an increasingly militarized response to borderlands security issues. Good smugglers try to avoid detection, and smart policies deescalate conflict and violence. One can only hope that future borderlands policies take as seriously the input of borderlanders themselves as Díaz does in this book.

Andrae Marak is the Chair of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at Governors State University and a Professor of History and Political Science. He can be reached at



1 Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, "From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples in Between in North American History," American Historical Review 104, No. 3 (June 1999): 814-841; Samuel Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).



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