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Rum runner sloop Kirk and Sweeney with contraband stacked on deck

Smuggling, or trafficking, is illegal transport, in particular across a border, of goods or people. Taxes are avoided; or the goods themselves are illegal for unlicensed possession; or people are transported to a place where they are not allowed to be. With regard to smuggled goods, the illicit activities form a black market, and as such operate outside the accepted norms of lawful society. Nonetheless, as the commodities involved are in demand by a large sector of society, there is debate over whether they should be legalized (as was alcohol at the end of Prohibition in the United States). The elimination of this type of trafficking requires an agreement on the part of the both consumers and producers, as well as an overall change in the responsiveness of people to the legalities and ethics of trade. Trafficking in people, which generally involves bringing people against their will to a situation often resembling that of slavery is anathema to society that recognizes even basic human rights. On the other hand, smuggling people across borders to escape oppression or other threats to their lives (as in the Underground Railroad) is regarded as righteous. The end to all smuggling, therefore, depends not on just one method of prevention, but involves a revolution in human nature such that all people put aside their selfish desires (for profit, power, and so forth) and learn to live for the sake of others.


Smuggling refers to the clandestine conveyance of goods or people, usually across a border to evade tariffs or to bring them illegally into the country. The word may come from the Common Germanic verb smeugan (Old Norse smjúga) meaning "to creep into a hole." Alternatively, it may come from the Middle Dutch verb smokkelen.


Smuggling has a long and controversial history, dating back to the first time at which duties were imposed in any form.

In Britain, smuggling became economically significant at the end of the eighteenth century. The high rates of duty levied on wine and spirits, and other luxury goods coming from mainland Europe at this time made the clandestine import of such goods and the evasion of the duty a highly profitable venture for impoverished fishermen and seafarers. The principal reason for the high duty was the need for the government to finance a number of extremely expensive wars with France and the United States. In certain parts of the country such as the Romney Marsh, East Kent, Cornwall, and East Cleveland, the smuggling industry was more economically significant than legal activities such as farming and fishing for many communities.

Later, as many first-world countries struggled to contain a rising influx of immigrants, the smuggling of people across national borders became a lucrative extra-legal activity, as well as the extremely dark side, people-trafficking, especially of women who may be enslaved, often as prostitutes.

People smuggling

People smuggling is a term which is used to describe transportation of people across international borders to a non-official entry point of a destination country for financial gain. Typically those being transported may not have adequate formal travel documents or prior approval to enter the destination country.

With regard to people smuggling, a distinction can be made between people smuggling as a service to those wanting to illegally migrate and the involuntary trafficking of people. In the Southwest United States, a person paid to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border between Mexico and the United States is known as a "coyote." Those who smuggle people from China into the United States and other Western countries may be known as "snakeheads." An estimated 90 percent of people who illegally crossed from Mexico into the United States are believed to have paid a smuggler to lead them across the border.[1] Due to the illegal nature of trafficking, the exact extent is, however, unknown. A U.S. government report published in 2003, estimated that 800,000-900,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year.[2] This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally.

People smugglers are sometimes used by refugees fleeing persecution. However, a majority are people who are seeking better employment. Interpol has described people smuggling as follows:

People smuggling has become the preferred trade of a growing number of criminal networks world-wide which are showing an increasing sophistication in regard to move larger numbers of people at higher profits than ever.

Human trafficking differs from people smuggling. A people smuggler will facilitate illegal entry into a country for a fee, but on arrival at their destination, the smuggled person is usually free. Trafficking involves a process of using physical force, fraud or deception to obtain and transport people. Victims do not agree to be trafficked: they are tricked, lured by false promises, or forced into it. Traffickers use coercive tactics including deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat, and use of physical force, debt bondage or even force-feeding with drugs to control their victims. Women, who form the majority of trafficking victims, are particularly at risk from criminals who exploit lack of opportunities, promise good jobs or opportunities for study, and then force the victims to be prostitutes. While the majority of victims are women—and sometimes children—forced into prostitution, other victims include men, women and children forced into manual labor. To many, the contemporary phenomenon of trafficking in human beings is equivalent to slavery.

Goods smuggling

Illegal drug trafficking, and the smuggling of armaments (gunrunning), as well as the historical staples of smuggling, alcohol and tobacco, remain widespread. The profits involved in smuggling goods appear to be extensive. It has been reported that smuggling one truckload of cigarettes within the United States leads to a profit of $2 million.[3]

Concealment of the whole transport or concealment of just the smuggled goods can be distinguished:

  • Avoiding border checks, such as by small ships, private airplanes, through overland smuggling routes and smuggling tunnels. This also applies for illegally passing a border oneself, for illegal immigration or illegal emigration. In many parts of the world, particularly the Gulf of Mexico, the smuggling vessel of choice is the "go-fast boat."
  • Submitting to border checks with the goods or people hidden in a vehicle or between (other) merchandise, or the goods hidden in luggage, in or under clothes, inside the body, and so forth. Many smugglers fly on regularly scheduled airlines. A large number of suspected smugglers are caught each year by airport police worldwide. Goods and people are also smuggled across seas hidden in containers, and overland hidden in cars, trucks, and trains. The high level of duty levied on alcohol and tobacco in Britain has led to large-scale smuggling from France to the UK through the Channel Tunnel.

A person who smuggles something "with him or her" (as opposed to sending by mail, for example) across a national border, transported for a smuggling organization, is commonly known as a "mule" or courier. The organizers employ mules to reduce the risk of getting caught themselves, while often profiting most.


Gunrunning, also known as arms trafficking, involves smuggling contraband weapons and ammunition. Not surprisingly, this is most widespread in regions of political turmoil, but is by no means limited to such areas. For example, in South Asia, an estimated 63 million guns have been trafficked into the region.[4]

Estimates of the arms trafficking market are difficult to come by. However, available estimates have placed the value of the arms trafficking market in the billions of dollars.[5] The suppression of gunrunning is one of the areas of increasing interest in the context of international law. One example of this is the Larne Gun Running or Provisional IRA arms importation.


Main article: Bootlegging

Rum-running or "bootlegging" is an informal term for the smuggling, sale, or transport of illicit goods. While the smuggling of alcohol and other contraband was common as early as the 1500s, when British revenue cutters were put in place to stop smugglers trying to evade the tax on alcohol, the term "bootlegging" most likely originated at the start of the 1920s with prohibition in the United States, when the Volstead Act and Eighteenth Amendment were passed, making it illegal to sell, own, or consume alcohol. In order to circumvent U.S. authorities, ships carrying Caribbean rum would drop anchor slightly over three miles from the U.S. coast, where the Coast Guard and other authorities had no jurisdiction. This three mile limit was known as the "rum line."

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, and with it the rum-running business. Most of the rum ships were sold or scrapped, and their crews either went into the merchant marine or the U.S. Navy. Surprisingly, the Navy welcomed the ex-rum-runners as skilled and experienced seamen (some with battle experience), often giving them non-commissioned officer ranks. The Coast Guard emerged from Prohibition a new service, larger and more effective. Many of the skills they learned battling the rum-runners went to defend the U.S. coastline during wartime.

Drug trade

These lollipops were found to contain heroin when inspected by the U.S. DEA

In jurisdictions where legislation restricts or prohibits the sale of certain popular drugs, it is common for an illegal drug trade to develop. For example, the United States Congress has identified a number of controlled substances with corresponding drug trades.

Legal drugs like tobacco can also be the subject of smuggling and illegal trading if the price difference between the origin and the destination are high enough to make it profitable. With taxes on tobacco much higher in the United Kingdom than on mainland Europe this is a considerable problem in the UK.[6] Also, it is illegal to sell/give tobacco or alcohol to minors, which is considered smuggling throughout most first-world countries.

Most nations consider drug trafficking a very serious problem. In 1989, the United States intervened in Panama with the goal of disrupting the drug trade. The Indian government has several covert operations in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent to keep a track of various drug dealers. Some estimates placed the value of the global trade in illegal drugs at around US$400 billion in the year 2000; that, added to the global trade value of legal drugs at the same time, totals to an amount higher than the amount of money spent for food in the same period of time. In the 2005 United Nations World Drug Report, the value of the global illicit drug market for the year 2003 was estimated at US$13 billion at the production level, at US$94 billion at the wholesale level, and at US$322 billion based on retail prices and taking seizures and other losses into account.

Major consumer countries include the United States and European nations, although consumption is world-wide. Major producer countries include Afghanistan (opium), Bolivia (primarily cocaine), and Colombia (primarily cocaine).

Sometimes the goods are hidden in the bag or vehicle of an innocent person, who does not know about this, and the goods are retrieved after crossing the border. Other methods of smuggling include hiding the goods in a vehicle, luggage or clothes, strapping them to one's body, or using the body as container. The latter is mainly applied for heroin and cocaine, and sometimes for ecstasy.[7] It is often done by swallowing latex balloons (such as condoms, or fingers of latex gloves) or special pellets filled with the goods, and recovering them from the feces later (such a smuggler is called a “balloon swallower” or “internal carrier”; the practice is also called “body packing” or “body stuffing”). It is a common but medically dangerous way of smuggling small amounts of drugs: such a "mule" may well die when a packet bursts or leaks. With regard to traffic from South America to the U.S., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports: "Unlike cocaine, heroin is often smuggled by people who swallow large numbers of small capsules (50-90), allowing them to transport up to 1.5 kilograms of heroin per courier.[8] However, elsewhere cocaine is also smuggled this way.

Efforts to prevent drug trafficking include the use of X-rays at airports and border control points to check for drug pellets. In 2003, statistics confirmed that over 50 percent of foreign females in UK jails were drug mules from Jamaica.[9] Nigerian women also make a large contribution to the remaining figure. In all, around 18 percent of the UK's female jail population are foreigners, and sixty percent of them are serving sentences for drug related offenses—most of them drug mules.[10]

Smuggling tunnels

Smuggling tunnels are secret tunnels, usually hidden underground, used for smuggling of goods and people.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

During the Siege of Sarajevo a tunnel underneath the no-man's land of the city's closed airport provided a vital smuggling link for the beleaguered city residents. Guns were smuggled into the city and (at what critics said were exploitively high rates) people were smuggled out.

Rafah, Gaza Strip

Smuggling tunnels connect Egypt and the Gaza Strip, bypassing the international border established by the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The tunnels pass under the "Philadelphi buffer zone" (also called "Philadelphi Route" ציר פילדלפי in Hebrew)—an area given to Israeli military control in the Oslo accords in order to secure the border with Egypt. The tunnels connect the Egyptian town of Rafah with the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah.

Rafah is located on the borderline of the Gaza Strip and Egypt. As a result of this geographical location, it accommodated tunnels and has a history of smuggling. These tunnels have been used to smuggle people, mostly militants escaping from Israeli responses to their actions, and a wide variety of items, including food, clothes, cigarettes, alcohol, and vehicle parts. With the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the tunnels were used mainly for smuggling of weapons and explosives used by Palestinian militants.

The tunnels are normally dug by individuals from basements of houses or an olive grove under the border at depths of up to 15 meters (49 feet), reaching up to 800 meters (2,640 feet) in length. In few cases, the owners of the houses might receive a portion of the profits from the smuggling and maybe some sort of financial compensation from those in charge of the tunnel building if the tunnel is discovered and the house destroyed.

The United States

The long land borders of the United States have always attracted drug smugglers, and countless tunnels have been built. The development and use of these tunnels is fueled by the large demand for illegal drugs within the United States.

Due to the country's restrictive policy on immigration in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and heightened security, many more secret tunnels were built to enter the country from Mexico, most running between Tijuana on the Mexican side and San Diego, California on the American side. The prevalent use is drug smuggling, but many other operations have been discovered.

In early 2005, a group of Canadian drug-smugglers took up the idea, and constructed a tunnel between a greenhouse in Langley, British Columbia and the basement of a house in Lynden, Washington. Officials raided the home soon after and arrested the three men. They then appeared before court in Seattle.[11]

In late January 2006, the largest smuggling tunnel to date was found on the U.S.-Mexico border]]. The 2,400-foot-long tunnel runs from a warehouse near the Tijuana airport to a warehouse in San Diego. Authorities said it was unclear how long the tunnel had been in operation.[12] Authorities suspect Tijuana's Arellano-Felix drug syndicate, or some other well-known cartel, is behind the tunnel and its operations.[13]

The Underground Railroad

Main article: Underground railroad
Map of some Underground Railroad routes

The Underground Railroad was a collective name for the overland routes taken by escaped slaves seeking emancipation in the free states of the Northern United States and Canada. The title reflects the fact that the network was hidden from authorities in slave states, not literal subterranean tunnels. The railroad consisted of clandestine routes, transportation, meeting points, safe houses, and other havens. It is thought that 100,000 slaves were smuggled to freedom along this route.


  1. Mexico Human Smuggling – Global Index of Illicit Markets. Havocscope. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  2. Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2003. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  3. Horwitz, Sari. “Cigarette Smuggling Linked to Terrorism.” Washington Post (June 8, 2004). Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  4. “Bangladesh turned into arms smuggling route.” The Daily Star Wed Edition (May 30, 3006). Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  5. Arms Trafficking. HavocScope. Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  6. [ “Smuggling worry over tobacco rise.” BBC News (March 16, 2005). Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  7. Agony of the ecstasy: Report of five cases of MDMA smuggling. Blackwell Synergy. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  8. The Illicit Drug Transit Zone in Central America. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  9. “Jamaica's women drug mules fill UK jails.” BBC News. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  10. Jeavans, Christine. “Nigerian drug mules 'on the rise.'” BBC News. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  11. “US-Canada drug tunnel uncovered.” BBC News. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  12. “Feds smoke out largest drug tunnel yet.” Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  13. “Drug haul in secret border tunnel.” BBC News. Retrieved May 1, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, Everett S. 1979. The Black Ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition. Little, Brown. ISBN 0316032581
  • Kyle, David and Rey Koslowski (eds.). 2001. Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801865905
  • Smith, Joshua M. 2006. Borderland Smuggling: Patriots, Loyalists, and Illicit Trade in the Northeast, 1783-1820 (New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology). University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0813029863
  • Thachuk, Kimberley L. 2007. Transnational Threats: Smuggling and Trafficking in Arms, Drugs, and Human Life. Praeger Security International General Interest. ISBN 978-0275994044
  • Willoughby, Malcolm F. 2001. Rum War at Sea. Fredonia Books. ISBN 1589631056
  • Zimmerman, Stan. 2006. A History of Smuggling in Florida: Rum Runners and Cocaine Cowboys. The History Press. ISBN 1596291990

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2023.


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