In Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande (University of Texas Press, 2015) Professor George T. Diaz examines a subject that has received scant attention by historians, but one that is at the heart of contemporary debates over U.S.-Mexico immigration and border enforcement. Focusing on trans-border communities, like Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, Diaz details the interplay between state efforts to regulate cross-border trade and the border people that subverted state and federal laws through acts of petty smuggling and trafficking. Using folk songs (corridos), memoirs, court documents, and newspapers, Diaz uncovers the social history of a transnational contrabandista community that responded to the hardening of the U.S.-Mexico border and the enforcement of trade regulations through the formation of a moral economy. Holding nuanced views of newly erected legal and physical barriers to the mobility of people and consumer goods across the border, contrabandistas established a cultural world of smuggling that regulated trade on its own terms and frustrated state efforts to define and police notions of legality/illegality.
Foreshadowing our contemporary moment in which the Rio Grande Valley is associated with criminality, violence, and drug trafficking, Diaz argues, (1) that it was the creation and enforcement of national borders by the U.S. and Mexican states that led to smuggling by establishing a market for contraband goods; and (2) that border people were proactive agents in negotiating and obstructing state efforts to regulate and criminalize activities that were common practice and essential to life along the U.S.-Mexico border.
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