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Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly

Chapter 4. Fayuca Hormiga: The Cross-border Trade of Used Clothing between the United States and Mexico

Mélissa Gauthier

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1Borders, regardless of their location, represent lucrative zones of exchange and trade, often illicit and clandestine. Along the US-Mexico border there is a lively trade taking second-hand clothing into Mexico through a complex system of smuggling, which is locally known as fayuca. Although used clothing is a restricted import in Mexico, it is sold everywhere in urban markets. This chapter details the “unauthorized” flow of used clothing across the US-Mexico border in light of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, over a period of twelve months between 2003 and 2005.

2To begin, a conceptual distinction put forward by Van Schendel and Abraham (2005) between political legitimacy, or “legality,” and social legitimacy, or “licitness,” is introduced. This distinction is particularly useful for understanding the various processes involved in what these authors call “the criminal life of things.” This chapter will reveal the interplay between the strict, state-based aspects of borders and their market-level aspects, and illustrate how borders and flows can operate at either the structural or the agency level. The second section of this chapter outlines the decades-long development along the US-Mexico border of a dynamic, informal recycling of second-hand goods, including the fayuca of used clothing. The next two sections focus on the overall political and legal environment that structures and regulates the unauthorized flow of used clothing between the United Sates and Mexico. Attempts to regulate cross-border flows have involved the monitoring of the border-crossings of Mexican traders by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the use of regulations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with reference to used clothing, and local authorities’ attempted disruptions of these flows. The final section is an ethnographic description of the actual cross-border trade in second-hand clothing between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.


3The study of “illegal flows” – flows of commodities, persons, and ideas that have been outlawed by one or more state – makes up the general framework of this chapter. Borderlands are the classic sites of research into unauthorized flows because flows are more visible there than in any other observation sites (Van Schendel and Abraham 2005, 47). The theoretical perspective adopted here is that proposed by Van Schendel and Abraham in the introduction to their edited book on illicit flows and criminal things, in which they call for a radically different way of conceptualizing illegal transnational flows. These authors proposed a more subtle approach to the issues of legality and illegality, one that draws upon a conceptual distinction between what states consider to be legitimate (“legal”) and what people involved in transnational networks consider to be legitimate (“licit”). As Van Schendel and Abraham (2005,4) suggest, “Many transnational movements of people, commodities, and ideas are illegal because they defy the norms and rules of formal political authority but they are quite acceptable, ‘licit,’ in the eyes of participants in these transactions and flows.” By introducing the concept of social legitimacy (or licitness) and setting it against political legitimacy (or legality), they are encouraging us to adopt analytic perspectives that privilege the participants in international illicit activities, which, they argue, allows for the development of contrasting explanations and understandings of the causes, meanings, and processes involved in what they call “the criminal life of things” (6).

4Van Schendel and Abraham (2005, 15) define “transnational criminal activities” as “forms of social practice that intersect two or more regulatory spaces and violate at least one normative or legal rule.” Regulatory spaces refer to zones within which particular sets of rules prevail, rules that may be generated by states or otherwise socially produced and that are usually formulated directly in response to specific practices, typically some combination of the consumption, production, exchange, or distribution of commodities. Van Schendel and Abraham (2005, 15) refer to the notion of the “life cycle” of the commodity, which can be outlined through a sequence of linked activities that are exemplified by the image of the commodity chain (see also Hansen 2002):

The traditional commodity chain approach does not, however, consider consumption a vital omission in the case of the transnational illicit. While in general the movement of any capitalist commodity continues until the moment of exhaustion, in the case of illicit goods, movement/consumption might also mean crossing over a key regulatory threshold. The vector of consumption, the passage of the commodities from one agent to another, is also often an act of transformation as well as an act of exchange.

5In other words, according to Van Schendel and Abraham, consumption cannot be detached from exchange and transformation, and movement constitutes an inherent quality of commodity chains. Production, movement, and consumption, they argue, are bound by and happen within regulatory spaces. Each transformation carries with it new meanings, which might translate the illegal good into something quite legal, or vice versa. “What determines legality and illegality at different points of the commodity chain is the particular regulatory scale the object finds itself in” (Van Schendel and Abraham 2005, 17). Thus the origins of regulatory authority must be identified, whether they are political (legal and illegal) or social (licit and illicit). Studying illegal flows in borderlands from this kind of theoretical perspective can shed light on the everyday practices (production, exchange, consumption, and distribution) and local networks that actually make it possible for “illegal” commodities to cross regulatory spaces.

6This approach stands in sharp contrast to the current discourse on illegal flows, which is based on constructing multiple contrasts between flows and borders. One particularly interesting contrast identified by Van Schendel and Abraham (2005, 41) is that between stimulus and reaction:

In the discourse on illegal flows, agency rests with the flows. They are described as permeating borders, subverting border controls, penetrating state territories, seeking markets, and finding customers. Borders, on the other hand, are presented as passive, vulnerable, and reactive. Whatever changes occur at states borders are in response to proactive, indeed aggressive, attempts by proponents of illegal flows to violate them. These changes are defensive, geared toward restoring a level of national security that is in danger of being lost.

7This vision of states as merely reactive, as just holding back against the increase of illegal transnational flows, is misleading, according to Van Schensel and Abraham (2005, 59), because, as they correctly point out, it downplays the extent to which “states actually structure, condition, produce, and enable clandestine border crossings.” In contrast, the border model proposed by Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly in this volume provides space for agency and structure to interact, thus allowing us to develop a more accurate picture in which borders and flows can work at either the structural or the agency level.

8Accordingly, this chapter is as much about understanding how and to what extent illegal flows shape and reproduce borderlands as it is about understanding how state borders condition and reproduce illegal flows. Thus it contributes to the general theoretical framework elaborated by Brunet-Jailly in terms of balancing the market-level aspects of borders and the strict, state-based aspects of borders. Moreover, these two different and sometimes contradictory aspects of borders and flows echo Van Schendel and Abraham’s conceptual distinction between what people involved in transnational networks consider to be legitimate (“licit”) and what states consider to be legitimate (“legal”).

9The underground cross-border flow of used clothing between the United States and Mexico is often described by the local expression fayuca hormiga, which means “ant trade.” This border metaphor nicely captures the complexity of these transnational networks of “ant traders,” who respond to the local-market demand for used clothing from the United States, and it conveys the determination and persistence that they must demonstrate on a daily basis to subvert the official rules. As Van Schendel and Abraham (2005, 4) suggest, the “‘armpit smugglers’ or ‘ant traders’ who cross borders all over the world with small quantities of goods may together account for huge quantities of contraband, but they do not represent global syndicates of organized crime.” This chapter sketches a contrasting portrait of ant traders as “quintessential free traders,” but from below, who trade with little regard for national and border regulations (Staudt 2001, 124). This portrait also illustrates the agency of these economic actors, which has arisen from the economic culture of this border region.


10Since the mid-1960s the economy of the border region has been highly influenced by the booming maquiladora industry in northern Mexico. Maquiladoras are foreign-owned assembly plants that take advantage of a commercial agreement, established in the mid-1960s, through which they are allowed to import supplies from other countries without paying duties, assemble the product in Mexico, and export it back without paying duties aside from the value added (Vila 2000, 255). The proximity of Mexican border cities to high-level consumerism in American border cities has fuelled the development of a significant trade in used goods from the United States. During the Maquiladora Period (1967-86) vast amounts of second-hand goods (cars, stoves, clothes, etc.) began to flow from the United States into the border cities of Mexico (Heyman 1994, 191), and a good opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship in these border cities consisted of informal brokering of used goods into Mexico (Spener and Roberts 1998,93). Because much of this activity took place extra-legally and clandestinely, it is difficult to estimate the overall value of the goods or the number of people employed. However, qualitative accounts of this brokering activity led Spener and Roberts (1998, 86) to conclude that it was a vital part of the regional economy (see also Anderson and de la Rosa 1991; Hellman 1994).

11One of the most revealing of these accounts was Joan Anderson and Martin de la Rosa’s study “Economic Survival Strategies of Poor Families on the Mexican Border.” The authors showed how, as compared to the interior of the country, the border maintained a more dynamic economy, sustained by tourism and the maquiladora industry, during the economic crisis of the early 1980s (Anderson and de la Rosa 1991, 66). Moreover, their study revealed the different ways in which the border environment favourably influenced coping strategies, one of the most important being the existence of an “economy of discards” from the United States (54). This economy of discards became a crucial survival strategy in the border region and included, for example, construction materials, appliances, automobiles, and materials such as used tires, which were in demand for use not only on cars, but also as retaining walls for houses, fences, and stairways. As Anderson and de la Rosa (1991, 66) noted, “Trash is recycled in practical ways to improve the quality of life within the context of poverty.” But the type of discards from the United States most widely used by low-income border families was second-hand clothing. Indeed, in almost all of the study’s cases families reported relying mainly on used clothing (59).

12As Martin Medina (2006, 1) points out, the US-Mexico border is one of the few places in the world where an industrialized country shares a common border with a developing country. This economic disparity has created opportunities on both sides of the border for an intense cross-border flow of goods, including recycled materials, in both directions. Thus many different kinds of materials are recovered and transported across the border informally. Medina has analyzed this complex system of cross-border recovery, involving scavengers and businesses, by describing some of the recycling activities that have developed over the past several decades in the El Paso-Juarez area. Medina (2006, 8) views this entire cross-border movement of discarded materials as beneficial to both countries and argues that these cross-border activities should be supported by public policy.

13Commercial dealers in American border towns, such as El Paso, that specialize in selling used clothing in bulk to Mexican cross-border traders are an integral part of this dynamic informal recycling system. However, as this chapter reveals, the cross-border trade of used clothing gets little support from public policy. As a result the importation of used clothing occurs through a complex system of smuggling, which is locally called fayuca. Those who participate in the fayuca trade in used clothing are often called fayuqueros.

14Pelayo and Parra (1994, 7) defined the concept of fayuca as a popular expression used along the northern Mexican border to designate the introduction, not the importation, of new and used merchandise for consumption:

Esta tiene como objetivo el comercializarlas a nivel detallista y consumidor en pequeña escala, con fines de abastecimiento para consumo local y como complemento del producto nacional. [Its objective is small-scale commmercialization at the retail level, as a source of supply for local consumption and as a complement to national production.]

15Over the past several decades fayuca networks have gradually made their way into the interior of Mexico (Staudt 1998, 54) and this extension of the fayuca practice at the national level has gradually converted it into a euphemism for smuggling (Pelayo and Parra 1994, 7). Several decades ago, however, the fayuca trade was apparently immersed in the formal economy, without the connotations of illegality that are currently attached to it (Pelayo and Parra 1994, 6).


16The United States is the world’s largest exporter of used clothing, both in volume and value. American exports of used clothing have grown significantly over the past fifteen years. In 2005 the United States exported US$ 300 million worth of used clothing (United Nations 2006) compared to US$ 174 million in 1990 (Hansen 2004, 3). The largest single source of garments fuelling the global trade in second-hand clothing is the donations that American consumers make to charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries. After selling half, or less, of the donated garments in their thrift shops across the country, these charities dispose of their massive overstock at bulk prices, selling it to commercial used-clothing dealers that, in turn, export it throughout the world (Hansen 2002, 227).

17Different countries subject imported American second-hand clothing to various trade policies, ranging from liberalization to protectionism. The Mexican government has adopted numerous protectionist policies concerning the importation of used clothing for resale in Mexico over the past several decades, but used clothing has remained a highly desired commodity in Mexico and currently its popularity is greater than ever.

18The clothing is retailed in stores and warehouses on the US side of the border before being smuggled across the border into Mexico through the fayuca system. This fayuca of used clothing is an illegal practice that could not survive without its legal counterpart in El Paso: used-clothing wholesalers. Indeed, it is made possible by the presence in downtown El Paso of many purveyors of this second-hand product. These wholesalers of American used clothing range from family-owned businesses, which have operated over several generations and sell almost exclusively to Mexican buyers, to larger textile recyclers and graders of used clothing, which export throughout the world. Most of the El Paso wholesale dealers carry on long-term business relationships with regular buyers of used clothing from Juarez, who each week must cross the border to the El Paso warehouse in order to sort their weekly stock of used clothing. Thus the business relationship over time strongly depends on the capacity of their Mexican customers to cross the border from Juarez to El Paso on a regular basis.

19Most do this by means of a border crossing card known as a “laser visa.” The laser visa allows Mexican nationals to enter the United States for up to thirty days at a time but restricts their mobility to within forty kilometres (twenty-five miles) of the border and legally prohibits their employment in the United States. (In Arizona, Mexican citizens can travel within 120 kilometres [seventy-five miles] of the border with their laser visa.) Laser visas are usually issued to individuals who can meet residency and financial-solvency requirements and who make frequent visits to the United States for different reasons, including business, shopping, and visiting relatives and friends. The Juarez traders who use a laser visa to cross the border in order to stock up on used clothing at the wholesalers in downtown El Paso comply with all the terms of the border-crossing cards, as the visas allow them direct access to their sources of used clothing. The cross-border sourcing activities of traders who lose their laser visa or have it stolen can be paralyzed for weeks due to the procedures required to replace it. Their cross-border activities can now also be affected by the new measures relating to the laser visa that have been implemented by the DHS. In the new context of increased border security, many politicians and community leaders from states along the border with Mexico have been concerned that securing the homeland may come at the economic expense of their communities.

20Founded in 1986, the Border Trade Alliance (BTA) is a non-profit organization that serves as a forum for participants to address key issues affecting trade and economic development in North America. Working with entities in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, the BTA advocates on behalf of policies and initiatives designed to improve border affairs and trade relations among the three nations. It has urged the DHS to reform the regulations surrounding the use of laser visas and extend the permissible period of entry and the geographic entry area “to be more reflective of the social and economic realities of the border region” (BTA 2006). In August 2004 the DHS announced that all Mexican nationals holding laser-visa cards would be allowed to visit border cities for up to thirty days, an increase from the previous limit of seventy-two hours. The BTA continues to call for the extension of the distance limitation of 40 kilometres (25 miles), or 120 kilometres (75 miles) in the Nogales-Tucson corridor, “to more accurately reflect the realities of today’s cross-border trade” (BTA 2004).

21Border-security measures related to human mobility include the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) program. Its entry procedures require that everyone crossing US borders be fingerprinted and photographed. They apply to all foreign travellers except for most Canadian citizens, who do not need a visa or passport to enter the United States, and most Mexican visitors who apply for admission to the United States using a BCC (laser visa) within the 25-mile-wide “Border Zone.”

22In contrast, the laser-visa reform is a measure of accommodation that can help to distinguish between legitimate commuters and individuals intending to enter the United States with the intention of harming the nation. After all, “securing” the border is about identifying and separating legitimate from illegitimate flows of people and submitting them to very different regulatory regimes. The US embassy in Mexico (2004) has referred to the laser-visa reform as “part of the on-going cooperation and dialog between the governments on making the shared border both more safe and more efficient.” In other words, the imperatives of the new border-security agenda that emerged after the events of September 11, 2001, must be balanced with the realities of growing cross-border trade under NAFTA. In the case presented in this chapter, there is no clear evidence that border-security policies are impinging on local shoppers and fayuqueros crossing the border into the United States using their laser visa. Moreover, the ever-tightening control that fayuqueros face when they re-enter Mexico seems to demonstrate Mexico’s lack of concern with national security in this specific case.

23The concern raised most frequently by Mexican authorities is the adverse effect of used clothing imports on the domestic textile and garment industries, an argument that is often coupled with hygiene and public health issues. According to the president of the Mexican National Chamber of the Textile Industry (Canaintex), “Used clothing is totally insalubrious so, not only to protect the productive chain, but also to protect people’s health, it is necessary to eliminate the illegal importation of those products” (Vanguardia, March 21, 2006).

24Many similar accounts of the Mexican textile industry lobbying the Mexican government to end the importation of used clothing from the United States by denouncing its negative impacts on the production of Mexican clothing have appeared in local newspapers. In 1992 a coalition of businessmen presented a petition asking the Mexican authorities to legislate against the entrance of ropa usada (used clothing) from the United States. The coalition argued that fayuca hormiga (“ant trade”) was harming the production of Mexican clothing and that the Secretaria de Comercio y Fomento Industrial (Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Development, or Secofi) was ignoring its petition because thousands of people were involved in this activity at the border. The coalition’s efforts were intended to denounce the fact that the trade in used clothing had never been under control at the border (El Norte, May 30, 1992).

25The fayuca of American used clothing, which is part of a larger market of contraband clothing in Mexico – fifty percent of all clothing sold is said to be contraband (mostly from Asia) or pirated (El Sol de México, May 9, 2005) – has become a matter of serious concern to Mexican authorities in recent years. Allegations of corruption against Mexican customs authorities, as well as law-enforcement operations surrounding the unauthorized entrance of used clothing into Mexico, are the focus of intensive coverage by local newspapers. Moreover, Mexico’s trade restrictions on imports of used clothing give rise to contrasting discourses from Mexican and American political officials. According to the Legal Counsel for International Trade at the Mexico Embassy in Washington, DC: “We cannot say that in order to clean up the corruption in Mexico we are going to make a free trade on a product such as used clothing. If there is corruption in Mexico we certainly will fight it and we are fighting it” (San Antonio Express-News, August 22, 2005). However, the deputy assistant US trade representative for North America declared, “Any restrictions that Mexico has in place we would like to eliminate. There are very few prohibitions. That makes used clothing unique” (San Antonio Express-News, August 22, 2005).

26Indeed, used clothing was considered a very specific case in NAFTA negotiations and documents. Section 9 of Annex 300-B states, “The Parties have established a Committee on Trade in Worn Clothing, comprising representatives of each Party.” Initially, this committee’s mandate was to “assess the potential benefits and risks that could result from the elimination of existing restrictions on trade between the Parties in worn clothing, including the effects on business and employment opportunities, and on the market for textile and apparel goods in each Party.” This specific section of NAFTA also states,

A Party may maintain restrictions in effect on the date of entry into force of the NAFTA on the importation of worn clothing, unless the Parties agree otherwise on the basis of the recommendations presented to the Commission by the Committee on Trade in Worn Clothing.

27A report of the NAFTA Committee on Trade in Worn Clothing, published in 1997 and made available by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, confirmed that the American and Mexican representatives to this committee first met informally in April 1994, and that all three parties (Canada being the third party) attended a formal meeting held two years later in Mexico City (NAFTA Committee on Trade in Worn Clothing 1997). This report does not, however, provide any information on the work accomplished by the NAFTA Committee since 1996. Although NAFTA has incontestably brought a freer flow of “legitimate” commodities among the United States, Mexico, and Canada, thus creating new opportunities in Mexico for commerce to capture markets inside the country, fayuqueros have continued to respond to strong consumer demand for all sorts of contraband goods, such as used clothing, that continue to fall outside the scope of NAFTA regulations.


28The Mexican government has legally restricted the trade in used clothing to those holding an import license (permiso previo) from the Dirección General de Comercio Exterior (Directorate of External Trade) of the Secretaría de Economía (Ministry of the Economy). This import license is intended to be used to regulate and control the entry of certain products such as used goods, but apparently the Secretaría de Economía has never received a request for an import licence. Moreover, among the Mexican authorities there seem to be different interpretations of the regulations on trade in used clothing. In an interview given to a Juarez journalist in November 2003, the head (administrador) of the customs office in Juarez did not seem to know the exact reasons why the importation of used clothing was regulated in Mexico (El Diario, November 24, 2003). After claiming sanitary reasons (“because, it could bring a lot of diseases”), he rapidly changed his mind when informed that sanitary authorities did not have jurisdiction over the import of used clothing. Only after some investigation was the administrador able to say that the importation of second-hand clothing in Mexico was regulated by the Secretaría de Economía.

29An official of the Secretaría de Economía interviewed by the same journalist did confirm that his office was in charge of delivering import licences for used clothing, but he indicated that in twelve years no one had ever applied for such a licence: “Nobody has presented a solicitude, which means that nobody is authorized to import used clothing” (El Diario, November 24, 2003). According to this official, it would be very difficult for traders to fulfill all of the specific requirements for an import licence. For example, they must provide information on the country of origin of the clothes and the classification of the garments, according to their material, in order for the customs tax to be fixed, as well as detailed fiscal information, which, because most traders operate informally, would be very difficult. The official concluded by assuming that the licence would probably be denied anyway: “The Mexican textile industry would probably go against it, but this is unsure until someone makes an application” (El Diario, November 24, 2003).

30It is practically impossible to evaluate the total amount of used clothing that is brought from El Paso to Juarez every day, but in 2003 an underestimated five tons of used clothing was said to be smuggled across the border each day (El Diario, November 24, 2003). It is also very difficult to estimate the total amount of used clothing that is impounded by Mexican authorities. They regularly confiscate huge quantities, up to twenty-five tons (El Norte, December 29, 2001) and sometimes as much as fifty tons (El Norte, March 3, 2001). The authorities usually destroy used clothes as a sanitary precaution due to concerns about infections and pests (El Paso Times, October 10, 1999), but they impound smaller amounts of as little as sixty to one hundred kilograms (130 to 220 pounds). Because it is up to agents to confiscate used clothing that they believe is destined for resale in Juarez, they must be convinced that the clothes are for personal use. “It has to be justified by the person’s size and the length of the travel,” according to one Mexican customs official in Juarez (El Paso Times, October 10, 1999).

31The real target of the Mexican customs authorities remains the larger importers of used clothing. At the beginning of 2004 the “brand new” administrador of the border customs in Juarez announced the imminent installation of sensors to detect overloaded vehicles and video cameras to register licence plates at the moment of entry in Juarez (El Diario, February 2, 2004). The official was very confident that the new system would help in detecting the fayuca hormiga of used clothing through the international bridges and put on file the vehicles used by the fayuqueros. Smugglers caught in this illegal activity can receive steep fines. In addition to the import tax, at 35 percent, they can be fined an amount equivalent to 70 to 100 percent of the value of the used clothing, which can be as much as 20,000 pesos, or US$ 2,000 (El Paso Times, October 10, 1999). Their car may also be confiscated until they pay, and their used clothing imports are seized.

32This seizing of second-hand clothes is coordinated in some cases with the municipal government of Juarez. Municipal public security agents recently impounded 850 kilograms (about 1,900 pounds) of used clothing and footwear. The merchandise and the vehicle in which it was transported were then turned over to the Procuraduría General de la República (Office of the Federal Attorney General); the amount of import taxes evaded in this specific case was estimated to exceed 25,000 pesos, or US$ 2,500 (El Diario, April 25, 2006).

33The municipal government seems to be increasingly involved in law-enforcement operations directed at used-clothing fayuqueros. The involvement of municipal authorities at this level stands in sharp contrast, however, to their administrative role in the regulation of municipal commerce. Although used clothing is a restricted import in Mexico and thus imported illegally across the border, it is “legally” sold along Juarez curbs and street markets. In fact a significant number of the used-clothing vendors are licensed by the municipal government and have vending permits issued by the Dirección de Comercio Municipal (Directorate of Municipal Commerce) of the City of Juarez. These vending permits allow the sale of brand-new and second-hand goods, contraband or not. Street-market leaders usually play an active role in securing vending permits on behalf of used-clothing vendors. As well, there are only a few municipal inspectors to enforce vending regulations in the hundreds of popular markets (tianguis) dispersed across the city (colonias).

34Some of these markets in Juarez are under the leadership of the Comité de Defensa Popular (Popular Defense Committee, or CDP), one of the most important of the several popular organizations that operate in northern Mexico. As Staudt (1998, 50) has explained, “Under CDP leadership, settlers ‘invaded’ publicly and privately owned land to create new colonias. CDP leaders maintain a dense, top-down organization reinforced with weekly meetings.” During the 1980s the CDP’s clientele in Juarez included a large number of the cross-border traders in used goods (Lau 1991, 47). According to Staudt (1998, 191), the CDP is well known in Juarez for providing protection for informal traders and fayuca commerce. Indeed, some of the CDP’s leaders were actively involved in the development of an underground structure for the importation and freight transport of foreign goods throughout the state of Chihuahua during the 1980s. The CDP remains a powerful actor in the informal economy of Juarez, playing an active role as a mediator between the state and local civil society. The CDP in Juarez is certainly one of the most powerful illustrations of what Brunet-Jailly (2005, 633) calls “the political clout of borderland communities.”

35Although the importation of used clothing into Mexico has evolved into a practice that is categorized as “illegal” by the state, this cross-border trade enjoys widespread “social legitimacy” in borderland communities, due to its local economic importance to the survival of Mexican border consumers. As even a former head of the customs office in Juarez has acknowledged, the only way to avoid smuggling is to allow the import of used clothing: “Anyway, they are going to cross it [the border], the necessity is too important because people need to purchase inexpensive clothing” (El Diario, November 24, 2003).

36Furthermore, as Martinez (1994, 313) has pointed out, smuggling ordinary goods is “an illegal activity that borderlanders easily rationalize” because they see it as a necessity for carrying on daily life and as an essential component of the unique economic integration of the border region. Martinez (1994, 53) also observes that

while government intervention is expected for the purpose of enforcing national tariff laws or keeping out undesirable products, borderlanders also expect officials to be flexible and tolerant, allowing a certain amount of illegal traffic to go on in order to maintain the delicate interdependence between the two sides of the border.

37Thus smuggling or illegal cross-border flows open up a significant space of negotiation between structure and agency in these borderlands.


38The present-day market in Ciudad Juarez for recycled and refurbished clothing is vast. Mexican traders travel daily to El Paso to purchase used clothing by the pound at several warehouses downtown. Currently, the most important commercial used-clothing dealer in downtown El Paso is the Mid-West Textile Company. Founded in 1982, Mid-West Textile has grown into one of the largest graders of used clothing in North America, grading more than 22 million kilograms (50 million pounds) of clothing every year in its processing plant. One of Mid-West’s main suppliers is Noamex, Inc., of Brooklyn, New York, which makes periodic shipments to the Texas communities of El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, and Brownsville. Mid-West also deals directly with the local Goodwill Industries by buying the overstock of used clothing from the nine Goodwill stores around El Paso.

39Mid-West Textile’s plant has more than 200 employees trained in processing, sorting, and grading clothing in large volumes on the basis of quality, style, and fabric. They sort the clothing into 600 classifications, some of which are intended for industrial use as rag, some for the “vintage” clothing market, and some for export. The garments meant for export are compressed into bales (pacas), weighing between 45 and 635 kilograms (100 and 1,400 pounds), which are then wrapped in waterproof plastic and bound with metal straps. The company ships 90 percent of these used clothes throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa (El Paso Times, October 10, 1999; El Diario, November 24, 2003).

40Although Mid-West does not directly export to Mexico, the company sells 10 percent of its used clothes by the pound from its sales centre, mostly to Mexican buyers from Juarez. According to the cross-border traders from Juarez, its sales centre is one of the most popular warehouses of ropa usada (used clothing) because of its variety of choice and its wholesale prices.

41Many Juarez traders cross the border legally into El Paso with their laser visa once or twice a week to buy second-hand clothing at the warehouses, where they sort the bales of used clothing on the spot. Each bale contains a particular type of garment (such as Polo Men, Blouse Poly, Skirt Denim, Legging, Polo Lady, Jeans) and can weigh as much as 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds). Traders who purchase a larger number of bales can count on the services of surtidoras (sorters) to help them in the sorting process. Some surtidoras cross the border into El Paso every day to come to the sales centre, where they receive a certain amount of money for each bale they sort for the regular buyers. The sorting process consists of throwing away any garment that is too discoloured or outmoded or has too many holes and then identifying the remaining clothes according to two categories. The “number one” category is generally for brand-name clothes that have been worn only once or twice or have arrived intact, price tags and all. They have a higher resale price and usually end up displayed on hangers or body forms in Juarez market stalls. Clothes assigned to the “number two” category are of lower quality and are sometimes sold directly on the floor at a lower price.

42Purchasing the stock in El Paso is the most straightforward part of the used-clothing trade. The real uncertainty and expense comes with bringing the used clothes back to Mexico. Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are linked by four separate bridges. Entry to Mexico via the international bridges is screened through a red light/green light random system of car and pedestrian inspection, operated by the Mexican customs authorities. A green light means an automatic customs clearance while a red light leads to an inspection. Considering that the proportion of green lights is said to be 95 percent of the total (El Diario, November 27, 2003), the probability of crossing with used clothing without being stopped is relatively high. Thus numerous women from Juarez who buy used clothing in the El Paso warehouses lug their best finds to the international bridge and sneak them across the border, usually by presenting themselves as shoppers (Staudt 2001, 127) and trying to minimize the size of their bags, or by making more frequent trips in order to avoid the customs agents’ attention. Nonetheless, the probability of having to pay informally for their imports in the form of mordidas (bribes) to the Mexican customs agents is never excluded. Other buyers smuggle the used clothing across the border by folding their purchases in clothes baskets in the trunks of their cars, with fabric softener sheets to mask the smell of mothballed used clothes, in order to make it look as if they are coming back from doing their laundry in El Paso if they are stopped for a car inspection. Those who travel south by bus into the interior of Mexico to sell used clothing must usually pay a set of bribes for their imports, which can range as high as double the worth of the used clothing, at a number of government checkpoints (Hellman 1994, 155).

43The Juarez vendors who do not want to risk crossing with used clothing on their own can rely on a network of pasadores (smugglers) dedicated exclusively to the process of smuggling such merchandise across the border. The pasadores offer their services in exchange for a certain amount of money, which depends on the amount of used clothing to be taken across the border. The pasadores, who are almost all men, act as packers, loaders, and drivers, and they use mini-vans for their smuggling activities. These vehicles, known as venaditas in the argot of the fayuca, usually have tinted windows, missing back seats, border plates, and reinforced suspensions in order to carry their cargos of used clothing, which can weigh as much as 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds). The pasadores have contacts among Mexican customs officials, who allow them to make numerous trips in their venaditas from El Paso to Juarez, and they smuggle a large volume of used clothing every day in exchange for bribes. However, these bribes only certify their border crossing (pasada) and are no guarantee of safe passage once they arrive in Juarez, where they may face other forms of extortion. They are always at risk of being stopped by officers of the Policia Federal Preventiva (Federal Preventative Police) and having to pay them an extra mordida. Failure to pay can lead to the confiscation of their entire cargo of used clothing and the vehicle in which it is being transported.

44The traders’ cross-border sourcing and smuggling activities are a response to Mexican consumers’ demand for second-hand clothing from the United States. These activities are also essential to a vast network of Juarez vendors who prefer to rely on local sources of used clothing, either because they do not have laser visas or because the weekly volume of used clothing they purchase is too small. Some used clothing vendors sell their merchandise in front of their houses, while others manage to get stalls at one of the numerous Juarez markets. Vendors usually display the clothes, which have been washed and ironed, on hangers to add value to the garments. Their strategy is to de-emphasize the second-hand nature of the clothes while displaying their American origin as much as possible. The thrift stores’ price tags or the brand-name labels still attached to some garments in the “number one” category are never removed, in order to keep every trace of their foreign origin intact, which appears to be very meaningful to their marketing.

45Most low-income Mexican border consumers cannot afford to purchase new brand-name clothes in El Paso and rely instead on the local markets for smuggled second-hand name-brand clothes, which are marketed as fashionable American garments and can be purchased at lower prices than locally produced garments or branded copies made in China. Whether consumers come into the segundas (flea markets) with the intention of buying in order to resell or to shop for a special item to complement their wardrobe, consumers are selective when purchasing second-hand garments, just as wholesalers of ropa usada are selective when sorting bales of used clothes in the warehouses of El Paso.


46The borderlanders who introduce used clothing into Mexico clandestinely or who pay bribes to Mexican custom officers in order to do so are carrying on a local tradition that began in the nineteenth century. As Oscar Martinez (1994, 314) has noted, “Over time, the only changes in the contraband game have been in the volume of the merchandise making its way from one country to the other and in the strategies invented to circumvent the law.” Although Mexico’s interaction with American used clothing goes back several decades, trade in this commodity did not begin to flourish along its boundary with the United States until the mid-1960s, when many commercial used-clothing dealers in American border cities, most of them family-owned businesses, started in the trade. This period in the borderlands corresponds to the accelerated industrialization that was fuelled by the establishment of maquiladoras in Mexican border cities.

47Many less industrialized countries, including Mexico, restrict the importation of second-hand clothing, while others control the volume or limit it to charitable purposes rather than resale. As Hansen (2004, 5) points out: “Regardless of import rules, and because borders are porous, smuggling and other illegal practices accompany the trade.” Van Schendel and Abraham (2005, 60) have criticized current discourses on the cross-border movement of commodities prohibited by states for overlooking “the fact that it is consumer demand within the state territory that fuels unauthorized transborder flows.” Goods that the local economy cannot supply and that the state considers undesirable become contraband as a result of state action. Moreover, the conceptual distinction between political legitimacy (or legality) and social legitimacy (or licitness), which Van Schendel and Abraham (2005) highlight in the introduction to their book, is rarely encountered in the discourse on unauthorized cross-border flows.

48This conceptual distinction is especially relevant in the case of the unauthorized flow of used clothing across the US-Mexico border. It allows us to differentiate cross-border flows that are illegal because they defy formal political authority, yet are quite acceptable (“licit”) in the eyes of the participants involved in these flows. This cross-border trade of used clothing is among those kinds of activities that large populations require for their livelihood, housing, and so on. In short, these activities have widespread legitimacy, even where they are illegal. As Josiah Heyman and Alan Smart (1999, 21) wrote in the introduction to an influential book on states and illegal practices, “Many illegal-labelled activities have much legitimate life in society (or in particular groups), and under such circumstances the state response can constitute bad law, adding to illegality and persecution.” By categorizing used clothing as an illegitimate commodity and maintaining restrictive import trade policies on it, the Mexican government contributes to the creation of alternative markets, and to opportunities for the importation and distribution of this foreign commodity across the Mexican border.

49The economic activities of the ant traders involved in the fayuca hormiga of used clothing “challenge state attempts to regulate the movement and flow of commodities, to define what are and what are not marketable goods” (Donnan and Wilson 1999, 88). This chapter has illustrated the agency of these economic actors that arises from the economic culture of the border region, and how ant traders bypass the multiple activities of governments and increase the economic integration of the border region. It does not, however, merely exemplify the agency that borderlanders demonstrate to get around state attempts to interrupt illegal cross-border flows. Its contribution to the theoretical framework outlined by Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly in the introduction to this volume also resides in its effort to illustrate how borders and flows can work either at the structural or at the agency level. Consequently this chapter has further highlighted the extent to which states’ borders produce and enable clandestine border crossings.


50Field research for this paper was first initiated in Ciudad Juarez in the summer of 2003 and continued between January and September 2005. Financial support for this research was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through the research project “De la récupération. Analyse ethnographique de la seconde vie des objets de consommation” (2002-05), directed by Jean-Sébastien Marcoux (HEC Montréal), and a CGS Doctoral Scholarship (2004-07).

51At the University of Texas at El Paso, I thank the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies (CIBS), to which I was affiliated in 2003, and Josiah McC. Heyman, Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department, for his thoughtful comments on this chapter and his continuous support of my research.

52I am also grateful to all the people of Juarez who dedicate themselves to the cross-border trade in used clothing and have shared their experiences with me.



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PhD candidate, Humanities, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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