During the 1990s the term “transnational organized crime” became popular with world leaders and media outlets as we moved towards a system of international “security.” Peter Andreas points out that it “was merely a fancy new term for an old and familiar practice” (p. 332). In Smuggler Nation he explains the significance of illicit trade in the making of America.
First of all, smuggling made an important contribution to the outbreak, conduct, and outcome of the American Revolution. Intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson may have rationalized the revolt of the thirteen colonies from British rule in abstract terms but Americans were much more motivated to take on the world’s greatest military power by Britain’s ill-advised and heavy-handed effort to crack down on smuggling. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 and many other incipient rebellions had much more to do with smuggling interests than ideas about liberty and equality. John Hancock, Boston’s wealthy merchant-smuggler, was an appropriate first signer of the Declaration of Independence three years after the Tea Party. Men of his type then helped the army led by George Washington to defeat the British by [End Page 127] organizing and profiting from clandestine shipments of arms and other war supplies.
Just as smugglers helped in the birth of the new nation, Andreas also shows how they were at the forefront of America’s growing engagement with the rest of the world and emergence during the nineteenth century as a dominant commercial power. He illustrates this with the stories of Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell. Slater, known as the “father of the American industrial revolution,” was a British artisan who smuggled himself and several of the secrets of British textile manufacturing machinery into the new nation. Lowell was another of the early industrial spies who was able to not only reproduce British industrial machinery but improve on it and speed up American industrial development, setting the United States on its way to global economic dominance.
Nineteenth-century southern and western expansion is not the story made familiar by countless books and movies peopled with hard-working, rugged individualist heroes. Andreas tells the stories of different kinds of nation-builders: fur traders and government officials who used illegal liquor to cheat Native Americans out of their goods and territory, slave traders who successfully nullified antislavery trade laws, and blockade runners during the Civil War managed to smuggle out more than half a million bales of cotton for use mainly in British factories, and smuggle in a thousand tons of gunpowder, half a million rifles, and several hundred cannon. “Blood cotton” thus played an equivalent role to “blood diamonds” in more recent African conflicts, and helped sustain the Confederacy and prolong the most destructive war ever fought on American soil.
In sum, Andreas concludes, the American experience shows that “the same illicit commercial activities that are today viewed as besieging borders, undermining legitimate business, and spreading violence and corruption were instrumental in the country’s birth, economic development, and geographical expansion.” He notes the irony of the dominant role of America in international efforts to control drug-trafficking, people-trafficking, or other smuggling activities relabeled [End Page 128] as transnational organized crime, “a country made by smuggling has now become the world’s leading anti-smuggling crusader” (p. 4).
Andreas frequently points out the double-edged side of the international effort against organized crime. “Washington,” Andreas states as an example, “has persistently blocked UN attempts to impose more stringent controls on small-arms trafficking . . . the United States spends billions of dollars trying to stop the smuggling of drugs into the country while doing relatively little to impede the smuggling of guns out” (p. 337). America’s southern neighbor, Mexico, bears most of the cost in lives for this since American-sourced weapons kill the great majority of the tens of thousands killed in their drug wars. Even though the Mexican government’s military-led antidrug offensive, which began in 2006, weakened the Tijuana, Juarez, and gulf trafficking...