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Smuggling—the movement of goods in violation of prohibition regimes, commercial quotas, or tariff schedules—depends on states for its existence. States define borders and regulate trade, and the incomplete enforcement of restrictions makes smuggling possible. States regulate commerce, claim sovereignty over delimited territories, and implement enforcement strategies. Smuggling will continue as long as frontiers and trade limits exist. Likewise, so long as there is smuggling, there will be efforts to stop it, limit its impact, and guard against it. Smuggling and measures to counter it exist in a relationship of mutual dependence.

Global smuggling since 1450 has been given shape by three principal systems of political authority and trade regulation: mercantilism, the international order of nation-states, and global prohibition regimes. First, European imperial powers worked to impose mercantilist trade monopolies on their colonial systems. These initially took shape in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when the Iberian monarchies undertook expansion in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Other European states followed, and mercantilist commercial policy shaped trade within European imperial systems through the eighteenth century. Challenges to these monopoly tendencies came in two forms: internal attempts to circumvent restrictions and external challenges to exclusive commercial prerogative. The second and third systems emerged during the nineteenth century, both challenging mercantilism and recasting the parameters for legal trade and smuggling. The rise of nation-states shifted much of commercial policy to individual nations and made smuggling a national problem. Nonetheless, the collaboration of nation-states in establishing a mutually agreeable political and economic order extended the regulation of trade to a transnational setting. This led to the third system of global prohibition regimes. The earliest regimes of the nineteenth century targeted the trafficking of humans and piracy, and over the course of the twentieth century these were joined by bans against trafficking in arms, endangered species, counterfeit and laundered currency, and psychoactive drugs.

Historically, smuggling has flourished when there has been strong demand for a commodity, ready supplies, and commercial restrictions that either set unattractively high trade tariffs or prohibitive regimes that ban the commodity itself or, in the case of mercantile capitalism, bar outsiders from trading with regulated markets. Smuggling boomed when states sought to impose restrictive commercial regimes in spite of consumer demand and competition to satisfy it.

The demand for American silver drove the efforts by European powers to challenge Spain's hegemony in the New World. Spain's European rivals shifted their strategies in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries away from the violent capture of New World goods and towards more peaceful penetration of Spanish American markets. First the Dutch, then the English and to a lesser extent the French found smuggling more profitable than piracy. The Dutch made Curaçao and St. Eustatius into entrepôts, and the English followed suit with Jamaica. These centers, originally oriented toward supplying Spanish America with African slaves and European finished goods, developed during the eighteenth century into smuggling centers for the colonial Americas. They served as hubs for a growing regional economy that joined British North America, Spain's mainland colonies, and Caribbean islands in a network that snubbed metropolitan directives.

Spanish American silver helped spur a price revolution in seventeenth-century Europe and provided European traders the specie necessary for penetrating East Asian spice markets in the 1600s and 1700s. It also leaked westward to China. The Spanish colony of the Philippines joined the Mexican mining economy with China's fine textiles and porcelain industries, and the Chinese merchants who established themselves in Manila became the key social players in this clandestine trade.

The exchange with the Americas was one of two furtive circuits in which Chinese trade circumvented the restrictions of European mercantilist capitalism. The second involved the exchange of Chinese tea for Indian opium, a trade that developed during the eighteenth century and challenged British monopoly demands in the nineteenth century. The Chinese state struggled to limit local opium production, while Britain in turn pushed Indian opium on the Chinese market. Although Britain's victory in the Opium War (1839–1842) forced China to accept unlimited Indian imports, neither state could prevent the smuggling of products from Indian or from Southeast Asia, where production had expanded in response to Chinese demand.

Tea smuggling caused further problems. Private traders thwarted the East Indian Company's attempts to exercise exclusive control over the marketing of Indian tea. Such was the extent of smuggling that in the eighteenth century the British Crown gave up on collecting tea taxes in Europe and tried to recoup the losses by imposing greater control on its North American colonies. Colonial subjects had grown accustomed to acquiring Indian tea from Dutch traders. The efforts to bring colonial consumption in line with mercantilist principles challenged long-standing commercial practices and contributed to the crisis of colonial rule.

Twentieth-century prohibitive regimes also faced difficulties in suppressing smuggling. The ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933 pushed the spirits trade north and south, transforming the U.S.-Canadian border into a vibrant area of production and exchange and making Florida into a rum running center. Organized crime groups in the United States took advantage of Prohibition to consolidate their control over these international smuggling operations and to expand their activities. Narcotics trafficking has proven resilient in the face OF a global prohibition regime that took shape early in the twentieth century. Demand in the North Atlantic, especially for cocaine since the late 1970s, helped drug-trafficking enterprises become powerful forces in national and international politics.

Changes in international economics and politics contributed to shifting patterns of smuggling in the closing decades of the twentieth century. The oil crisis of the 1970s produced shifts in international finance that established the foundation for the thriving business of offshore banking and money laundering of the 1980s and 1990s. Human trafficking expanded during the 1990s. Neoliberal reforms in poor countries and the collapse of the Socialist Bloc left many in dire economic conditions. This combined with sustained demand for labor in the North Atlantic. Generally, the liberalization of international trade has assisted extra-legal trade. Just as the market reforms of the 1990s made the legal circulation of goods, capital, and information easier, they also facilitated smuggling along these same routes.

Techniques for smuggling ranged from the personal and small scale to the institutional and systemic. The methods for surreptitiously introducing goods varied. They were concealed in false bottoms or containers designed for other goods. Sometimes fractions of the merchandise were reported, unloaded, and taxed at the port of entry and then the rest introduced untaxed afterward. Likewise, tax evasion occurred on the export end: Merchants underpaid taxes or loaded additional goods once the taxes were paid or the vessel had left port. Fraudulent emergency landings were a common ruse.

Official collusion has often been vital for successful smuggling operations. Port authorities falsified travel documents on arrival or departure. The confiscation and auction of captured merchandise also served as a smuggling strategy. Arrangements were made so that confiscated goods were sold to the original owners or their agents. Complicit customs officials would then be recompensed.

Quantifying smuggling in relation to legal trade is a daunting, sometimes impossible task. Students of world trade often disagree about the significance of clandestine exchange, some giving it more importance or assessing its percentage of overall trade as much greater than others. Measuring its size and value is always a tentative exercise, as its success rested on its invisibility to state vigilance. Nonetheless, some techniques do provide some insight, albeit incomplete and tentative, into volumes and values. Production records are useful, as are the port records of free-trade centers like Dutch Curaçao and St. Eustatius during the eighteenth century. Price lists have also been utilized successfully to gauge smuggling's significance, as high prices on consumer markets, in Western Europe or China for example, indicate sustained demand for products that have often been officially proscribed.

SEE ALSO Bullion (Specie); China; Empire, British; Empire, Spanish; Gold and Silver; India; Money and Monetary Policy; Privateering; United States; Wine.


Andreas, Peter. "Smuggling Wars: Law Enforcement and Law Evasion in a Changing World." In Transnational Crime in the Americas, ed. Tom Farer. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Benton, Lauren. Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.

Domínguez, Jorge I. "Smuggling." Foreign Policy 20 (1975): 87–96, 161–164.

Klosster, Wim. Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 1648–1795. Leiden: Kitlv Press, 1998.

Nadelmann, Ethan A. "Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society." International Organization 44 (1990): 479–526.

Thomson, Janice E. Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Jeremy Cohen

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The criminal offense of bringing into, or removing from, a country those items that are prohibited or upon which customs or excise duties have not been paid.

Smuggling is the secret movement of goods across national borders to avoid customs duties or import or export restrictions. It typically occurs when either the customs duties are high enough to allow a smuggler to make a large profit on the clandestine goods or when there is a strong demand for prohibited goods, such as narcotics or weapons. The United States polices smuggling through various federal agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the drug enforcement administration (DEA).

Federal law prohibits the importation of a number of items that are injurious to public health or welfare, including diseased plants or animals, obscene films and magazines, and illegal narcotics. Importation of certain items is prohibited for economic or political purposes. For example, the United States bans trade with Cuba, which means that Cuban cigars may not be legally imported. This restriction inevitably results in the smuggling of Cuban cigars into the United States. Federal law also bans the export of military weapons or items related to the national defense without an export permit.

In addition, federal law prohibits the importation of goods on which required customs or excise duties have not been paid. Such duties are fixed by federal law to raise revenue and to influence commerce.

Travelers at international borders can properly be stopped by customs agents, required to identify themselves, and asked to submit to a search. To combat smuggling, customs agents have the authority to search an individual and his baggage or any packages or containers sent into the country. Within the United States, police cannot conduct searches unless they have a warrant, probable cause to suspect unlawful activity, or the consent of the individual being searched. Such requirements do not apply to border searches. Customs agents have a right to search anyone at a border for no reason at all, although they ordinarily only conduct extensive and thorough searches of individuals who arouse suspicion. By the late 1990s, new technology, including x-ray machines that examine commercial vehicles, had been installed by the Border Patrol at border stations in the Southwest. The DEA has also enhanced its technology for combating smuggling in the Southwest through wiretapping of drug cartel members. In addition, law enforcement agencies have developed "drug courier profiles" that help customs agents identify and question individuals who are likely to be carriers of narcotics.

Smugglers use two methods to move goods. One is to move cargoes undetected across borders. Smugglers move illegal narcotics from Mexico into remote areas of the Southwest United States using airplanes, trucks, and human "mules." These "mules" walk across an

isolated region of the Mexico-U.S. border with backpacks full of illegal narcotics.

The other method is one of concealment. For example, a smuggler may hide illegal narcotics in unlikely places on ships or cars, in baggage or cargo, or on a person. Some drug couriers swallow containers of narcotics to avoid detection of the drugs if searched.

In the event that a traveler possesses anything that he or she did not declare to customs inspectors, or any prohibited items, the traveler can be compelled to pay the required duties, plus penalties, and can also be arrested. Customs agents can seize the illegal goods.

Federal law imposes harsh sanctions for the offense of smuggling. An individual can be convicted merely for having illegal goods in his or her possession if she or he fails to adequately explain their presence. Anyone who is guilty of knowingly smuggling any goods that are prohibited by law or that should have come through customs, or who receives, buys, sells, transports, or aids in the commission of one of these acts can be charged with a felony and can also be assessed civil penalties. The merchandise itself, as well as any vessel or vehicle used to transport it, can be forfeited to the United States under forfeiture proceedings.

further readings

Drug Enforcement Administration. Available online at <> (accessed August 12, 2003).

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2000. National Drug Control Strategy: 2000 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: GPO.


Drugs and Narcotics; Search and Seizure.

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The clandestine importation or exportation of goods in violation of the civil law. Those who engage in it do so for the purpose of evading the payment of duty or customs charges, or of circumventing absolute prohibitions on the export or import of certain commodities. That smuggling is widespread cannot be doubted, although the secrecy with which the smuggler operates makes it impossible to obtain accurate statistics.

There is no difficulty for the moralist in the case of those products that are legally forbidden as harmful or dangerous, e.g., narcotics. Smuggling such goods is clearly sinful since the legal prohibition is, in most cases at any rate, declarative of natural law. But with regard to secret importation or exportation of goods to avoid the payment of taxes, moralists are not agreed. Some insist that all civil laws impose a true obligation in conscience (provided they are just laws), at least by reason of legal justice, or, as some would say, social justice. This opinion was at one time the general teaching of moralists, before the development of the theory of purely penal law and is still defended by many authorities. Others hold that many civil laws are purely penalthat is, they oblige in conscience only to the payment of the penalty if one is caught, and not to obedience to the law itself. All advocates of this opinion number indirect taxes, of which customs charges are a prime example, among those laws that are purely penal. These authors hold that smuggling itself does not involve moral fault. Apart from scandal, bribery, or some other immoral circumstances, one who evades the payment of these charges by smuggling is not guilty of sin. This more lenient opinion is probable enough to be used in practice.

Whatever their teaching on smuggling in general, however, moralists are agreed that one who engages in smuggling as a profession cannot be excused from moral fault. Great harm is done to civil society and to the common good by an attitude of habitual disregard for the law. Moreover, a professional smuggler places himself in danger of bringing harm upon himself and his dependents. And finally, professional smugglers are ordinarily so disposed that they are prepared to defend themselves, even by use of violence, against legitimate guardians of the law.

Nor is there any disagreement among moralists in stating that those who make use of bribery or fraud to evade customs taxes are guilty of sin against legal and also commutative justice.

Bibliography: r. brouillard, Catholicisme 3:146148. m. t. crowe, The Moral Obligation of Paying Just Taxes (Catholic University of America Studies in Sacred Theology 84; Washington 1944). j. mccarthy, Problems in Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, MD 195660) v. 2 The Commandments, 308311, 324329, 400403.

[j. p. browne]

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smuggling, illegal transport across state or national boundaries of goods or persons liable to customs or to prohibition. Smuggling has been carried on in nearly all nations and has occasionally been adopted as an instrument of national policy, as by Great Britain against Spain and France in the 18th and 19th cent. The restrictive economic policies of mercantilism in the 17th and 18th cent. gave rise to smuggling in France, the Spanish colonies, and North America. British attempts to halt the practice by stringent enforcement of the Navigation Acts were a contributory cause of the American Revolution. Napoleon's decrees attempting to seal off the European continent from British commerce gave rise to widespread smuggling in the early 19th cent. Britain, source of free-trade philosophy, has been more liberal in her antismuggling laws than other nations; the practice was condoned in a famous passage by Adam Smith. Smuggling into the United States flourished in the prohibition era and was carried on practically with impunity from overseas and overland from Canada. Illegal entry of immigrants into the United States has also presented a problem during periods of curtailment of immigration, as at the end of World War I and in recent years. Luxury articles, stolen art and other goods, electronic devices and software, and specifically prohibited items such as narcotics are smuggled worldwide. The U.S. Coast Guard has the suppression of smuggling as one of its chief activities. U.S. law declares the article smuggled to be forfeit and the smuggler liable to a fine or imprisonment, or both. Examples of the smuggling of persons are the slave trade to the United States and Latin America following its outlawing by the great powers in the early 19th cent. and the traffic in women for immoral purposes, contrary to international convention.

See J. J. Farjeon, The Compleat Smuggler (1938); N. Williams, Contraband Cargoes (1959); T. Green, The Smugglers (1969); H. Waters, Smugglers of Spirits (1971).

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smuggling refers to covert movement of goods into or out of the country in order to evade taxes or limitations on imports or exports, and involves practical difficulties relating to clandestine activity and risks of detection by customs and excise. It was so extensive and organized in the 18th cent. as to be considered a trade in its own right, but one able to benefit rather than suffer by the disruption of war. If hampered by high naval presence in inshore waters, smugglers could flourish when the navy's forces were stretched and revenue officers corrupt. The 1740s and 1770s were accordingly profitable, and Wesley found his congregation at Rye in 1773 intensely reluctant to stop the habit. Although the gangs were predominantly comprised of labourers or artisans, who regarded the practice as a legitimate part of the local economy, the contraband reached all sections of society. The risks entailed encouraged ingenuity: Horace Walpole's jacket came via a banker cousin in Paris, probably in the diplomatic bag; in 1792 Parson Woodforde had to hide tubs of rum and brandy since he was liable to a £10 fine for each illicit purchase under 19 Geo. III c. 69 (which not only fined the supplier £50 but deliberately encouraged ‘informing’); more recently, weapon parts have been disguised as engineering components, and clothes have been impregnated with powdered drugs. Flourishing wherever there are high duties (luxuries like silk, spices, wines and spirits, and tea in the 18th cent.), bans, or embargoes (narcotics in the 20th cent., arms in all periods), estimates of the value of the trade, of the loss of revenue to government, and of damage to individuals or businesses can only be conjectural.

Ian John Ernest Keil