Smuggling Essay

Smuggling is the importation or exportation of goods in a manner contradicting national or international laws. The last decade has seen a dramatic rise in the incidence of smuggling on a global scale. While illegal goods such as drugs and weapons are most commonly associated with smuggling, the worldwide trade in people, legal drugs, agriculture, and animals comprise a large percentage of the total value of smuggled goods. Typically, smuggled goods are imported or exported in one of two ways: either the entire method of transportation is concealed (for instance, underground tunnels are frequently used to transport munitions into Palestine from neighboring regions) or the illicit goods themselves are disguised to resemble or are hidden in permissible items. Goods have been smuggled in the past inside a variety of items, including luggage, clothing, and false panels in vehicles, and are sometimes ingested by humans or animals for disguised transportation. While the clandestine nature of smuggling makes the scope of its economic value difficult to determine, the approximate annual value of smuggled goods is believed to be in the tens of trillions of dollars.


Smuggling has undoubtedly existed since the first tariff, tax, or duty was imposed and has a storied past in all corners of world history. However, the first legislation explicitly addressing smuggling does not appear on record until Britain’s 1351 Statute of Treason. This Act of Parliament explicitly forbade the importation of counterfeit money into England and those found guilty could be punished with death. Britain continued to struggle with the smuggling of goods into and out of the Commonwealth for the next several centuries due to high taxes levied on many goods in its expanding empire. To illustrate the magnitude of smuggling in the British Empire, Mathieu Deflem and Kelly Henry-Turner report that smuggling became so rampant during the 18th century that approximately one-third of all tea consumed in Britain was imported illegally. The tension between Britain and its colonies over taxes and smuggling eventually came to a head, resulting in protests such as the Boston Tea Party in 1773 that sparked many independence movements throughout the colonies. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and other nations gradually liberalized their restrictions and taxes on trade goods in a series of adjustments that brought about a decrease in the incidences of smuggling on record. While these growing economies saw the negative effects of smuggling decrease during this period, developing economies continued to struggle with smuggling. Developing countries and ungoverned territories remained greatly affected by smuggling and had little coordinated or enforceable recourse, as many of the economic benefits of their exports were smuggled to avoid exportation taxes.

Smuggling made a notable return to worldwide politics with the passage of various prohibition acts in the early 20th century including in Russia, Iceland, Norway, Finland, the United States, and select Canadian provinces. Smuggling continues to expand into the 21st century, unimpeded by stricter government controls after the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, as agents opportunistically exploit price disparities and regulatory differences in countries of origin and destination. Presently, the most common goods smuggled worldwide include people (who are both smuggled and trafficked), weapons, illegal drugs, legal drugs, agriculture, and animals.

Human Smuggling

Although closely related, human smuggling should not be confused with human trafficking. Human smuggling is the assisted illegal migration of migrants from one destination to another. The smugglers are most often motivated by profit, and the demand for smuggling services is significant; for example, more than half of the illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico receive assistance from paid smugglers. Albeit a dangerous and often deadly expedition, smuggling humans illegally into economically advantageous nations can pay large rewards for both the smugglers and the smuggled. Kahlid Koser followed 50 migrants in their illegal journey from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the United Kingdom and found that in this case the smuggling ultimately benefited the smugglers, the smuggled, their families, and the third-party intermediaries who handled the transactions. While human smuggling is mainly driven by a motive to profit, there have also been numerous historic cases of assisted human smuggling for altruistic reasons. Notable examples include the participants of the Underground Railroad that helped blacks migrate from slave-owning Southern states, those who assisted Jews out of Nazi-occupied Germany, and many other recent cases of refugees being smuggled out of nations in conflicts.

In contrast, human trafficking rarely benefits the smuggled. Human trafficking is the purposeful acquisition of humans through deception, force, or coercion with the aim of exploiting the victim through sex acts and/or labor. The United Nations (UN) has recently devoted many resources to highlighting the gravity of this crisis and in March 2007 launched the UN’s Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking through a grant made by the United Arab Emirates. This initiative has provided resources to over 110 countries and all levels of stakeholders within to combat the illegal forced trade of primarily women and children for sexual exploitation and forced labor. While the exact number of human trafficking is difficult to determine, the 2008 UN Report on the Overview of Human Trafficking identifies the number of human beings currently indentured against their will at a minimum of 2.5 million people.

Weapon Smuggling

Weapons and their components are another major object of smuggling and are primarily transported into regions undergoing periods of political turmoil. Because of the weakened enforcement mechanisms in these tumultuous regions, the responsibility to prevent smuggling of weapons and ammunition falls primarily to the UN Office and Drugs and Crime. The UN is currently working on two fronts to reduce the amount of gun and ammunition smuggling, estimated to be at least as big worldwide as legal arms sales. First and foremost, they are working to reduce the amount of guns entering conflict zones through increased monitoring and confiscation, and second, they have implemented a weapons destruction program through a partnership with foreign governments, which is designed to limit the amount of unused surplus weaponry that can potentially fall into the possession of smugglers.

Stable nations also struggle with the illegal importation of firearms, as organized networks of smugglers attempt to supersede laws designed to reduce firearm crimes and violence. In addition to deterring the bulk of weapons smuggling in the form of small arms, national and international coalitions are actively combating the exchange of many other forms of mechanized weaponry and their components including both traditional and nuclear devices.

Drug Smuggling

Drugs of both the illegal and legal variety remain a lucrative product for smuggling in all parts of the world. Illegal drug smuggling occurs when chemical substances used to alter the body’s normal biological functioning are imported into a jurisdiction that explicitly forbids their possession, consumption, and/or sale. Because most countries did not criminally penalize many drugs until the 20th century, illegal drug smuggling has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Smugglers of drugs around the world typically operate under a coalition known as a drug cartel. Cartels, responsible for the majority of drug smuggling worldwide, take various forms, but they all operate with the intent to profit by consolidating a drug supply chain, from growing to production and distribution. The 2008 UN World Drug Report provides a comprehensive evaluation of the world’s current drug smuggling situation, with the top four drugs confiscated in 2006 (in unit equivalents) identified as (1) amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS)-related substances, (2) opiates, (3) coca/cocaine products, and (4) cannabis products.

The first of these categories is manufactured and smuggled in both legal (Dexedrine and Ritalin) and illegal forms (methamphetamine and ecstasy). The UN’s 2006 report estimates the annual worldwide manufacturing of the drug to be approximately 494 metric tons, with 46 metric tons confiscated the same year. Because of the wide availability of many of the precursor chemicals, many illegal ATS are produced and distributed intraregional. There is, however, evidence that a large amount of smuggling takes place as European and American demands are met from southeast Asian suppliers. The opium/heroin category, the second UN grouping, has seen a major resurgence in cultivation because of record yields in Afghanistan. In 2007 the worldwide illicit opium production was approximately 8,870 metric tons, with Afghanistan accounting for 92 percent of global production. Because of the regional specificity of growing conditions, the international smuggling market for opiates remains large. Imports to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are primarily smuggled in from Afghanistan; imports to Asia primarily from Myanmar; and imports to North and South America are primarily smuggled in from Colombia and Mexico.

The third drug category, coca/cocaine products, is produced in the South American countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is smuggled primarily into North America, Europe, and west Africa. The global production of cocaine has remained largely stable over the last decade and was estimated to be 994 metric tons in 2007, with Colombia accounting for 55 percent of the total. Cannabis products comprise the last of the UN’s major drug categories and dominate all other categories in terms of cultivation volume and use. The UN estimates that 41,400 metric tons of marijuana was produced globally in 2006 with the majority grown in the Americas (55 percent) and Africa (22 percent). The majority of these cannabis products end up being produced and consumed intraregionally with a small percentage smuggled out of the African and Asian countries.

Legal drugs are also commonly smuggled items as price premiums in the destination over the place of origin allow smuggled goods to be sold profitably below local costs. These premiums can arise from tariffs, import quotas, or taxation present in the destination that are absent in the point of origin. Legal drug smuggling occurs both across state and national boundaries. Sari Horwitz recently highlighted the potential profit for the interstate smuggling of cigarettes and noted that a smuggler successful in procuring a truckload of cigarettes in Virginia (a state with low tobacco taxes) and smuggling them into New York (a state with high tobacco taxes) stands to make a potential profit of approximately $2 million. In addition to tobacco products, alcohol and prescription medicine are also commonly smuggled legal drugs.

Agricultural And Animal Smuggling

Agricultural goods and animals are also commonly smuggled at both the intra and international level. Items are often smuggled for one of two reasons. The first is similar to the aforementioned motivation behind legal drugs: avoiding premiums arising from tariffs, import quotas, or taxation allows the smuggler of illegal agriculture to sell at below-market rates. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance (SITC) Program was enacted after Asian fruit growers in Florida notified the federal authorities that goods illegally imported from Thailand were restricting their ability to profitably compete in eastern markets.

The second reason that agricultural goods and animals are smuggled is to provide exotic or rare materials to private collectors to be used as pets or collectibles. Particularly vulnerable are rare species whose limited availability increases the price premium and the motivation to smuggle, resulting in a reinforcing cycle of illegal smuggling. In addition to the threats posed by smuggling on endangered species, another major concern is the international spread of disease and invasive species. When agriculture and animals are smuggled into new ecosystems that have no natural predators or whose inhabitants have not been exposed to diseases or parasites that the imported animals may bring, disastrous loss of the native agriculture and animals can potentially ensue.

Future Of Smuggling

Smuggling is a clandestine act motivated by profit and has taken many forms over its centuries on record. Disguising cargo or avoiding detection at an organized cartel level or by an individual working alone can constitute smuggling. The primary items currently smuggled internationally include both illegal and legal drugs, weapons, humans, agricultural products, and animals. Smuggling is currently combated at both the national level, primarily Customs or Border Patrol divisions, and the international level, through the aforementioned UN divisions and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). Recent increases in trade and disparities in wealth highlighted by globalization have increased both the volume and breadth of international smuggling, resulting in renewed enforcement of ant smuggling measures worldwide.


  1. Ali Nobil Ahmad, “The Labour Market Consequences of Human Smuggling: ‘Illegal’ Employment in London’s Migrant Economy,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (v.34/6, 2008);
  2. Helge Berger and Volker Nitsch, Gotcha! A Profile of Smuggling in International Trade (Freie Universität, 2008);
  3. Tihomir Bezlov, Transportation, Smuggling and Organized Crime (Center for the Study of Democracy, 2004);
  4. Kahlid Koser, “Why Migrant Smuggling Pays,” International Migration (v.46/2, 2008);
  5. Moises Naim, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy (Doubleday, 2005);
  6. Kimberly L. Thachuk, Transnational Threats: Smuggling and Trafficking in Arms, Drugs, and Human Life (Praeger Security International, 2007);
  7. United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, “Human Trafficking: An Overview,” (cited March 2009);
  8. United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “2008 World Drug Report,” (cited March 2009);
  9. Sheldon Zhang, Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations: Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives (Stanford University Press, 2008);
  10. Sheldon Zhang, Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings: All Roads Lead to America (Praeger Publishers, 2007).

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