Making Their Own Customs: Contraband and Community Border Control on the Mexico-Guatemala Border

Rebecca B. Meyers, Brown University

This paper examines the informal economy in a clandestine passageway on the Mexico-Guatemala border. While contraband is prevalent at such crossings and is often integral to legitimate economies and states, it is difficult to measure. Yet, the pathway’s communities collect tolls, enabling a quantitative approximation of these flows. Protesting abuses of authorities, the communities prohibit the entrance of state employees and have taken the collection of “customs” fees into their own hands to the benefit of community projects. They periodically close the path to demarcate and control “the border” and its flows. Through examination of toll records from 1999-2007, participant observation, and interviews with community members and state employees, this paper not only quantitatively assesses informal flows, but also comments on alternative strategies for socioeconomic development and relations between communities and the state. Finally, it challenges static, macro-oriented views of the symbolic and material functions of borders and states.

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Presented in Session 150: Methods for Locating Hard to Find Populations