Journal Summary: Peaceful Borders and Illicit Transnational Flows in the Americas

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“BaptisteGrandGrand” for Borderland Beat

Note to readers: This is a journal summary written by BaptisteGrandGrande, a French researcher that covers Mexico’s drug war. The journal in question was published by the Latin American Research Review (LARR) in December 2020. It is hyperlinked here and available for free.

‘Peaceful Borders and Illicit Transnational Flows in the Americas’ by authors Arie M. Kacowicz, Exequiel Lacovsky, Daniel F. Wajner (source: LARR)

Arie M. Kacowicz, Exequiel Lacovsky, and Daniel F. Wajner examine the link between the open borders and the presence of illicit transnational flows between neighboring states, as evidenced across the Americas. They also analyze under what conditions might peaceful states indirectly enable illicit transnational flows across their borders.

These security threats originating from illegal flows revolve around the following points: the strength, level of governance, and institutional solidity of border states and the socio-economic situations of these states.

The assumption is that when a border is open, both legal and illegal actors can cross it, especially since the latter oftentimes use means adopted by legal actors to pursue their misdeeds.

The authors go on to explain that states are generally very reluctant to prosecute criminal actors on the territory of neighboring countries, as this constitutes a violation of international law.

As a result, this contributes to the creation of a situation where crime becomes localized (they cite the example of the Colombian attack on a FARC camp across the border in neighboring Ecuador in 2008).

As stated above, one of the issues examined by the authors as key to the development of this cross-border crime is the degree of governance and the strength of states.

The authors explained that there are three axes to be taken into account: jurisdictional arbitration (the fact that neighboring countries do not always have the same judicial capacity, and that this allows criminal actors to get away with it); forces of disorder may sometimes play positive functions in governance by providing basic services or enforcing policies when the government is too weak or inept; and that it is difficult to differentiate between criminalized state actors and other private non-state actors engaged in illicit transnational flows.

The authors then raise the possibility that the relationship between peaceful borders and the proliferation of illicit flows may depend on the willingness and ability of national governments to exercise effective governance in their border areas, bearing in mind that a country could be highly contrasted (i.e. major governance differences between cities away from the border region).

The other point examined is the state of the socio-economic situations of the countries involved. The authors begin by pointing out that some states have deliberately abandoned strict border control for economic reasons.

Moreover, they indicate that the presence and incursion of criminal non-state actors in border regions occurs simply because of the economic incentives and socio-economic disparities between border states, while taking advantage of jurisdictional arbitration.

They thus point out that criminal flows are a function not only of supply and demand, but also of exchange rates and price differentials between bordering countries. Differences in terms of prices are therefore decisive.

They also recall that the poor economic situation in fragile states can logically create an ideal environment for the development of transnational crime and that these disparities could lead to illegal flows linked to illegal immigration and human smuggling, as people seek to cross borders at any cost without taking into consideration the regulations in force.

The authors conclude that peaceful border regions characterized by high levels of development and with a favorable economic situation could provide a less conducive environment for the proliferation of illicit transnational flows.

The authors make four hypotheses:

1.  If both states are strong across borders, peaceful borders may not allow for the proliferation of illicit transnational actors.

2.  If at least one of the two border states is weak, peaceful borders might allow the proliferation of illicit transnational flows.

3.  Poor economic conditions and/or disparate socio-economic conditions across peaceful borders could allow for the proliferation of illicit transnational flows involving criminal actors.

4. Sustainable and developed socio-economic conditions in all border states, and particularly in peaceful border areas, could prevent the proliferation of illicit transnational flows involving violent non-state actors, if economic incentives in terms of supply and demand on both sides of the border are not sufficient.

Approaches to the hypothesis:

1.  The authors find a significant link between strong and functioning states and the relative absence of illicit transnational flows (e.g.: Canada and the United States). However, they point to an exception, the border between Costa Rica and Panama, as there is a significant presence of drug trafficking and human trafficking.

2.  The authors write that in the case of the border between the United States and Mexico, the United States is considered as a strong and functional state and Mexico as a dysfunctional state. Further south, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all fragile states, preventing them from cooperating against crime. The same is true of the countries bordering Colombia, almost all of which are heavily affected by corruption and drug trafficking.

3. There seems to be a correlation between weak states and poor economic conditions and underdevelopment. All country pairs involving underdeveloped countries have seen a proliferation of illicit transnational flows (e.g.: Guatemala and Honduras, or Guyana and Suriname).

4.  This hypothesis is valid in some cases, particularly between Canada and the United States (two developed economies with little cross-border crime in this region). But it is not valid in other areas, such as on the Brazilian-Colombian border (two economically strong countries on the South American continent, but with local economic disparities), or in the Tri-border region (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay). 

Source: LARR (full text)


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