Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Inclusive Economies

Building better borders in Latin America


Illegal trading and the violence that can accompany it is a scourge along Latin America’s borders, but researchers from across the region are working together to find ways to combat the problem


Posted by Brian Owens on October 18, 2016

A man peers through a hole in a wall that separates Tijuana, Mexico, from the United States. Throughout Latin America, border cities such as Tijuana are often dangerous places where illegal activity, such as drug trafficking and the violence that can accompany it, creates havoc for residents. (Photo: Alfonso Caraveo/Archivo Colef)

Throughout much of Latin America, borders can be dangerous places. Smuggling, drug running and human trafficking are lucrative businesses — the United Nations estimates that the illegal drug trade in the region is worth $450 billion a year — and those that control it are not afraid to use violence to protect their investment.

It’s the people who live near borders that have to deal with the consequences of this violence, says Fernando Carrión, a researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito, Ecuador. “Border towns suffer from murder, robbery and insecurity, which hinders local development and integration between countries,” he says.

Carrión is interested in what makes these illegal economies work, and how countries can work together to dismantle them. Supported by the International Development Research Centre, he is leading a project to map and study the underlying political economy of illegal trading and violence in Latin American border regions, and come up with ways to combat and prevent it.

“We want to not only study violence and national security issues, but also to think deeper and learn what the underlying causes are,” says Markus Gottsbacher, the IDRC staffer handling the project, adding that what reporting is done on the topic is “rather superficial.”

Carrión and his colleagues felt it would be too dangerous and expensive to do their research directly in the border regions, so they study newspaper and magazine reports, journal articles and national crime statistics from the past 10 years, looking for patterns that they can develop into a comprehensive picture of the illegal economies of the border regions. But that doesn’t mean their work is without risk. “When you’re studying illegal markets, regardless of where one is, you face risks,” says Carrión. “It involves revealing the ways the smugglers operate, which can affect their interests. So our research requires us to have security when we do travel to those areas.”

Using public media sources such as newspapers helps the researchers develop a fuller picture of the situation than if they relied solely on government data, adds Carrión, because reporters will often look beyond the local level when chasing a story. “Usually the information on these issues is handled by the respective countries,” he says. “The journalistic sources allow us to discover the logic of events, through the behaviour of the various actors.”

Carrión has found that the development of the illicit economy in border regions comes from the lack of integration between countries, creating what he calls “complementary asymmetries” in economic and legal policies. “Two countries with different economic policies generate, via smuggling, illegal economies,” he says.

But the problem is rarely confined to a single border between two nations. The issue is global, as what is being smuggled — drugs, guns, people, to name but a few — are fed into international illegal economies. “The whole system is connected to global matters,” says Gottsbacher. To try and develop an understanding of the international dimensions of the problem, Carrión’s project involves researchers and policymakers from eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.

The goal is not just to unravel what is happening at the borders, but also to design projects to help improve the situation. To help fight the violence associated with illegal border economies, Carrión and his colleagues are helping to strengthen international ties and cooperation in the region. “It’s very difficult for a single country to take on all of these problems,” he says.

They are working with Ecuador’s attorney general to create a South American International Criminal Court, fostering the development of the Latin American Organisation of Border Cities and creating a network of institutions and researchers in the region who can share ideas and solutions. “You need good allies at the national and regional level to deal with these issues,” says Gottsbacher.

All of their projects are focused on what Carrión calls the “positive agenda” — looking for ways to improve cooperation, integration and understanding between people across borders, rather than a heavy-handed law and order approach. “This project tries to improve border governance with less focus on national security issues,” says Gottsbacher, “and more on how to collaborate in positive terms.”

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.