CONTRABAND AND THE LAW
Increased economic activities associated with the Santa Fe trade produced few changes for the majority of the people who continued to live in poverty, barely managing to subsist. Economic opportunity was mostly limited to those who were well-connected, owned a substantial amount of land and raised large herds of sheep. Life was hard and even the ricos apparently did not accumulate significant amounts of liquid capital or credit until the 1830s.
One of the major impacts of the Santa Fe trade was an increase in available jobs. This resulted from the large amount of fabrics and the Mexican ban on the importation of already-made clothes. Between 1822 and 1840s the number of sastres (tailors) and costureras (seamstresses) multiplied dramatically. Censuses for 1860 and 1870 reveal a growing number of trade-related occupations, particularly in San Miguel, Doña Ana, Valencia, and Bernalillo counties.  Additional employment and the availability of cheaper and better merchandise also contributed to an improvement in the standard of living.
Wages, however, remained incredibly lowin the 1840s most peones earned only two pesos per month, although some managed to obtain the maximum remuneration of five pesos. Herders made even lessone-and-three-quarter pesos a month. Work in the Santa Fe trade caravans possibly paid better. In the 1860s the going wage for a peón was six to eight dollars a month, but a surviving account reveals that this might have only applied to highly skilled arrieros. Teen-age boys, who were a significant element of the convoys, received considerably less. In 1867 16-year-old José Librado Gurulé, after working 11 months and traveling back and forth to the United States, received eight dollars. There were few fringe benefits. The merchant who owned the goods (José Leandro Perea) furnished the meager food he consumedone full meal during each day supplemented by two snacks of tortillas and onions, but Gurulé had to pay for his own clothes and shoes. 
Increased commercial activity offered a limited number of opportunities to those with certain skills. New Mexicans, who enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as excellent muleteers and horsemen, became highly sought for work in the caravans that traveled from Missouri to the interior of Mexico. Americans acknowledged their superlative skills in packing and handling beasts of burden, but it is not clear that recognition resulted in adequate wages. 
Packing and freighting offered economic opportunities for some. Leading commission merchants and wholesaling firms, like Chick, Browne & Co. and Otero & Sellars, relied on the hispanos' packing expertise to haul merchandise cheaply and effectively. Freighting was an attractive economic enterprise that required less capital and risk. As Charles Raber noted after he and his partner failed to sell anything on a trading trip down the Río Grande, "This was the last time we hauled our own goods again. From then on we did a freighting business, and in this way got our pay at the end of each trip, and could put the money into more rolling stock, thereby increasing our earning capacity."  The United States Army provided others, like Epifanio Aguirre and the Romeros (Vicente, Miguel, Trinidad, and Eugenio) a chance to capitalize on their reputation as excellent packers as they obtained contracts to carry United States Army freight. The need to save the cost of transporting forage and food items across the plains, particularly after the Civil War, resulted in a series of contracts to supply military installations in the west. Some hispanos were able to take advantage of this opportunity. 
But only a small portion of the population enjoyed significant improvements in their economic circumstances. Even though the 1821-1880 period witnessed substantial territorial expansion, making a living remained difficult.  The majority continued to farm and ranch. They lived in abject poverty and many were driven into a system of debt peonage from which escape became difficult. 
Some searched for extra legal means to enhance their economic conditions. The increased commercial activities associated with the Santa Fe Trail possibly raised the expectations of New Mexicans. They had resorted to contraband to ease their economic woes while under Spanish control, and in the 1820s they tried to profit from foreigners' interest in evading Mexican regulations. Smuggling was not a new activity for the foreigners operating in the territory either. Widespread contraband and disregard for British mercantilist policies had been one of the major causes leading to the American revolution. Prevalent in the western frontier it had involved British, French, Spanish, and Americans, and a variety of Indian groups, and had been rampant in Missouri. 
American merchants claimed to be horrified at the New Mexican officials' willingness to accept bribes and to subvert Mexican laws. Yet Americans engaged in similar illegal activities and took advantage of the local permissiveness when it was in their best interest. Gregg claimed that "the average gross return of the traders has rarely exceeded 50 percent, upon the cost of the merchandise, leaving a net profit of between 20 and 40 percent; though their profits have not infrequently been under 10 percent; in fact, as has been mentioned, their adventures have sometimes been losing speculations."  This became a good excuse to avoid paying the tariff duties imposed by Mexican laws and to lobby in the American Congress for the drawback act. This legislation, which was finally enacted in March 1845, allowed overland traders who re-exported goods in their original packages to Santa Fe and Chihuahua to receive drawbacks (rebates) on their customs duties. 
Americans' ethnocentrism was undoubtedly behind their pejorative remarks about the local population and their legal system. Most of their observations reveal a profound misunderstanding of New Mexican culture, attitudes, and values. Josiah Gregg questioned the character of Mexicans and felt strong contempt for what he considered absolute disregard for legal institutions:
He was not the only critic. Charles Bent, one of the most famous Americans to settle in the territory, described New Mexicans:
Gregg and Bent were not alone in depicting New Mexicans in these terms. Other observers shared their animosity. James Ross Larkin noted in 1856, "the morals of the residents generally are very badthe habits of the women very loose and the men addicted to gambling and stealing." George Rutledge Gibson's remarks about the man who offered him board and embraced him provide another good example of the profound distrust Americans felt, "Like all Mexicans he is tricky and I watched him closely without being able to discover anything." 
John P. Bloom recording the perceptions of New Mexico by American troops included comments from a Mormon youth who admitted that he was quite prejudiced against Mexicans having heard since infancy that they were a very savage and unprincipled people, his mother having particularly cautioned him against them when he enlisted. 
Americans found it hard to adjust to the legal system which operated in New Mexico. Local authorities often handled small legal matters by means of a system of verbal decisions whereby the plaintiff and the accused got together with the justice of the peace and a pair of individuals who would speak for each of the parties. Conciliations were reached promptly and in most cases those involved appeared satisfied with the outcome. Little formality accompanied these hearings, which were devoid of the argumentation typical of traditional legal proceedings. 
Lack of funds and support from the central government also impeded the implementation of the judiciary system as stipulated in national legislation enacted in 1826 and in article 148 of the Mexican constitution. According to the law the territory of New Mexico was to have a district judge expert in matters about the federation. If for some reason this appointment was not possible the government was to appoint three individuals well-versed in the law as substitute, and if this were impossible, to name three of the most capable individuals in the territory to take their place.  But no such appointments were made until the mid 1830s.
Local officials tried to enforce the laws to the best of their ability and to avoid unjust and unusual punishments. Even the ricos were penalized for their excesses. José María Chávez, a member of one of the leading families in New Mexico, had signed a contract with a carpenter named Ignacio Trujillo to build a series of shelves for Chávez's store. Trujillo was unable or unwilling to deliver the shelves. Chávez, believing that serious punishment was in order, sued Trujillo for breach of contract and convinced the local alcalde to order Trujillo's mother and brother to administer him a series of lashes. The carpenter was lashed, but he appealed the humiliating sentence to the governor who declared the punishment cruel and unjust and sentenced Chávez to pay a fine. 
The negative stereotypes Americans presented did not consider that local circumstances provoked illegal activities, like contraband. In most cases it was not lack of morality, but a human and normal response to a frontier situation where economic survival often depended on taking advantage of limited opportunities. Earning a living was difficult and the prospect of realizing any economic gain encouraged disregard for laws which were troublesome to enforce and which were perceived as detrimental to the local well-being. The increasing presence of foreigners and merchandise provided incentives and additional markets for those with initiative.
The earliest and most widespread form of contraband involved furs. Beaver skins had always attracted foreigners' interest. French, British, and American hunters had successfully operated along the Rockies during the late 18th century. Spanish authorities had been aware of their presence and remained quite wary about the infiltration of foreign trappers along their northern frontier. These activities continued and possibly increased after independence from Spain. 
Mexicans also looked with suspicion at the foreigners operating in the back country, and were reluctant to issue the required permits for hunting. Difficulties arose as a result. Licenses were scarce. Foreigners were seldom allowed to hunt legally. And if unable to get a permit for beaver directly, they purchased the furs from the locals who in turn claimed to have obtained them from a variety of Indian groups.  The earliest recorded cases involved Frenchmen. Silvestre Pratte was charged with illegal hunting of beaver. Although part of the information is missing, surviving evidence reveals that Juan Bautista Vigil who had a legal license to hunt, had sold the pelts to Pratte. A similar case involved two other Frenchmen, Vicente Guion and Jean Baptiste Trudeau. In this instance the authorities confiscated 300 pounds of beaver. Guion claimed that he had never hunted and that he had obtained the furs from Trudeau, who in turn testified that he had bought them from the alcades of Taos and Abiquiú, their predecessors and their children. Americans Richard Campbell and Philip Thompson, were also involved. The alcalde of Taos admitted selling beaver skins to merchants, like Manuel Alvarez, but professed to have obtained them from the Comanches. Trudeau admitted that he had purchased the skins from the alcalde and other locals and had sold them to Guion. He maintained that Guion paid him in fabrics, not in cash. 
Americans continued to hunt illegally until declining numbers of beavers forced trappers to scout large regions to obtain sufficient pelts, and eventually put a halt to their activities. In 1832 Ewing Young hunted over a considerable portion of Mexico's northern provinces along the Colorado and the Salado, the Río Arriba (the Río Grande Valley north of La Bajada), the San Francisco, the Río Abajo down to the Gila River, the Maricopa, and from there to California.  His appears to be the last major legal case involving the illegal acquisition of furs.
The most significant type of contraband activity, however, focused on foreign goods. New Mexicans used a variety of methods. Sometimes they made arrangements with foreigners to introduce merchandise illegally. These operations, described in several legal cases, varied. The parties involved, usually a foreigner and a New Mexican, selected a rendezvous where the former hid the merchandise. The latter waited until the danger from the militia dispatched to prevent fraud disappeared, retrieved the cache, and met the owner at a prearranged location. Few documents record the identities of these partners. Manuel Armijo, for example, participated in such an incident in 1832. During the judicial proceedings he did not deny that he had illegally introduced a tercio of foreign merchandise for an American merchant. The details became public only because Armijo was sued when he claimed to have lost the merchandise. 
Most commonly New Mexicans furtively followed the foreign caravans hoping to see where the foreigners hid or left contraband merchandise.  Then they had two options. They could try to sell the goods by themselves, or they could denounce the contraband to the official authorities. The first option potentially could produce greater profits because there was no need to share the proceeds. But there were more risks involved; they had to hide the merchandise until they could arrange for its sale. During this period it was more susceptible to denunciation and it was hard to get high prices for contraband goods, so profits were smaller. 
The second option, made possible by Mexican law, entailed less risk and could be remunerative if the contraband was sizable. The government had continued Spanish mercantilist policies issuing strict regulations detailing the comiso (confiscation) process. Legally it was a simple operation, but the rules were periodically modified as were the lists of prohibited merchandise. The procedure should have been easy to put into effect as the regulations detailed every stepfrom the official declaration of contraband to the distribution of the profits resulting from the confiscation. The law provided that 50 percent of the proceeds from comiso were to go to the public treasury while the other half was to be divided equally into thirdsone for the denunciante (denouncer), another for the aprehensor (apprehender), and the last to be shared among the local alcalde who declared the contraband, the promotor fiscal (district attorney), the commandant, and the administrador (political leader). 
In New Mexico the practice was somewhat different, and it changed with time and with various local administrations. In some cases the public treasury received close to the 50 percent stipulated by the law, but in most instances it secured only 25 percent, the denouncer and the apprehender collected 35 percent each while the remaining 5 percent was used for the expenses associated with the confiscation. In the 1820s the alcalde received roughly 10 percent, the promovedores (promoters) 20 percent, the public treasury close to 45 percent, while the rest went to the denouncers. 
The documents reveal that some New Mexican officials made a concerted effort to curtail contraband, particularly during the late 1820s and 1830s. As soon as the Santa Fe Trail caravans approached, authorities dispatched troops to discourage fraud, particularly the common practice of hiding merchandise along the road.  According to Gregg about 150 miles from Santa Fe parties of customs house agents or clerks accompanied by a military escort would come out to guard the caravan to the capital with the ostensible purpose of preventing smuggling. But he claimed that "any one disposed to smuggle would find no difficulty in securing the services of these preventive guards, who, for a trifling douceur (gift) would prove very efficient auxiliaries, rather than obstacles to the success of any such designs."  Naturally these agents and soldiers were susceptible to bribes and the local authorities might have been aware that these encounters could produce a measure of economic relief for the underpaid New Mexicans. Unrest among the troops in Santa Fe had flared after they denounced a load of contraband belonging to Daniel Workman, and the local officials authorized the return of the confiscated merchandise. In 1845 securing enough funds to cover soldiers' salaries continued to be an important political issue. 
Still, the legal process in handling contraband cases reveals determination on the part of some local authorities to follow correct procedures. This was difficult because New Mexico's isolation delayed judicial appeals and impeded the prompt administration of justice. Furthermore officials were seldom adequately trained and often ignorant of the legal system and the current judicial dispositions.
The most revealing case during this period involved a leading citizen accused of smuggling. The prolonged proceedings (1828-1831) are important for two reasonsthey include valuable information on the mechanics of contraband and operating the legal system, and reveal conflicting perspectives between New Mexican and Mexican authorities regarding the punishment of smugglers. 
In July 1828 Francisco Pérez Serrano, Primer Vocal (first deputy) for the territory of New Mexico to the Mexican Congress, was accused of carrying five tercios of contraband. Pérez Serrano was jailed and the confiscated merchandise distributed. The total assessed at 816 pesos two reales and five granos, close to 42 percent (342 pesos six reales and three granos) went to the treasury, the alcalde received 81 pesos four reales and two granos, while the denouncers and promoters received 196 pesos each. According to Pérez Serrano's testimony he had found the tercios on the side of the road along the Cañada de los Alamos (near Pecos) as he was riding with José María Padilla. His deposition indicated that he immediately realized that fraud was involved, with the purpose of either stealing the merchandise or avoiding import duties, so Pérez Serrano and Padilla moved the tercios to a spot close by where they waited to see if the owner would show up. Since nobody did, Pérez Serrano decided to take them to the aduana (customs house) in Santa Fe on less-frequented roads. Corporal José Larrañaga and a detachment of soldiers dispatched for the purpose of preventing contraband stopped Pérez Serrano and Padilla and accused the former of trying to introduce merchandise illegally. Pérez Serrano told Larrañaga to take the merchandise back, but the officer refused and carried Pérez Serrano to the Santa Fe jail. The following depositions indicate that animosity existed between these two individuals and it is possible that there is an underlying family feud behind much of what happened. 
Pérez Serrano sat behind bars as his plea for bail was not accepted. Juan Bautista Alarid, the Alcalde Segundo (vice-mayor), mishandled the case as a result of his ignorance about correct legal procedures, or perhaps antagonism toward Pérez Serrano. A month after the incident New Mexican authorities requested legal advice from Licenciado Victoriano Guerra from Chihuahua. He severely chastised Alarid for not following exactly the provisions of the law. The comiso should have been declared within 48 hours of finding the merchandise. Only then would it have been possible to establish a legal action against Pérez Serrano. It would have been necessary to obtain depositions from the soldiers and the corporal immediately after they seized the property. Guerra also noted that there appeared to have been intent to harm the Provincial Deputy because Padilla was left free while Pérez Serrano stayed in jail. Most important, since the deputy had been held for more than 72 hours without being told the motive for his imprisonment, he should have been released immediately. 
Soon after Guerra's pronouncement, Alarid acknowledged having made involuntary mistakes in his original handling of the case and proceeded to record the testimony from Larrañaga and his soldiers. They all concurred that upon apprehension Pérez Serrano had admitted he was carrying the merchandise for an American, and asked the corporal to take the mules and the merchandise. Since Larrañaga would not agree, Pérez Serrano asked the corporal to shoot him to avoid the shame that such an action would bring upon his name. 
Miguel Sena, the promotor fiscal of the territory at the time, presented an eloquent case against Serrano. He claimed that Pérez Serrano used the "supposed" animosity of Larrañaga to hide his dishonorable behavior. Sena believed there were doubts about Pérez Serrano's innocence and was particularly incensed at the attempt to defraud the public treasury. He wanted a harsh punishment for Pérez Serrano because he was an empleado público (public employee) and as such he should have been worthy of the people's trust. Sena requested that in accordance with the Mexican law of September 4, 1823, article 13, his name and crime be published in the newspapers declaring Pérez Serrano to be unworthy of the public trust. Sena was particularly incensed that a public servant like a deputy to the Mexican Congress, who might have voted for the comiso law enacted in 1823, should be involved in such an outrageous crime. 
A week later Santiago Abreu presented a lengthy and articulate defense of Pérez Serrano. Abreu's argument rested on the animosity that existed between Pérez Serrano and Larrañaga and spoke of the intent to harm his client, although it is never clear why this was so. Abreu was quick to point out that Padilla was allowed to leave Santa Fe the day after the incident, but his client was forced to remain in jail and his offer of bail was not accepted. 
Alarid was unsure how to continue, so he sent all the documents associated with the case to authorities in Chihuahua, once again requesting legal advice. On December 31, 1828, Licenciado Juan Antonio Villaroel responded. His decision reached Santa Fe in February. By this time Alarid was no longer the mayor, having been replaced by Francisco Trujillo. Villarel decided that in the past when there was no Audiencia (high court), as in New Mexico, the alcaldes and lower judges did not have the authority to sentence, only to suspend a case. In such instances they sent the Audiencia the dossier and an explanation of why there was a disagreement. Villarel decided that this was what had to be done and New Mexican officials complied. But upon receipt of the case the Circuit Court in El Parral returned the materials. They had found a number of nulidades (corrections, crossouts, intercalated documents) throughout the proceedings and made Alarid responsible for the failure to handle the case correctly. The members of the Circuit Court warned Trujillo that the form and order of the documents had to be corrected before the appeal could continue. 
The tribunal at El Parral also requested officials to determine if Alarid had acted as substitute district judge or simply as Alcalde. If Alarid had not acted as a judge, the materials related to the case were to be sent to a magistrate competent on such matters so a decision could be reached in accordance with the law. Alarid admitted that he had acted as Primer Alcalde, but was angered by the turn of events and left for Chihuahua and Sonora. The court at El Parral decided that since it was not the responsibility of the alcaldes of the territory to be knowledgeable on matters about the public treasury, Alarid did not have the authority to declare the comiso nor to distribute the smuggled merchandise as he did. The court also added that Alarid only had the authority to place the merchandise in deposit and that the district judge should take care of the case. 
But there were no district judges in New Mexico. After 18 months (Dec. 1830) the Parral circuit judges noted that a law enacted May 1826 stipulated that the territory of New Mexico should have a district judge and that if such a position could not be filled the government would have to appoint three letrados (lawyers) as substitutes, and if unable to do so, it would have to appoint three of the most capable local individuals. Since none of these appointments had taken place the tribunal decided there was no competent authority in the territory to handle matters pertaining to the national treasury. José Francisco Blanco, the head of the tribunal, admitted that Pérez Serrano had been guilty of trying to smuggle merchandise, but ruled that the irregularities in the proceedings forced him to nullify the case.  An appeal finally went before the Supreme Court which upheld the ruling of the lower court. Mexico's highest judicial authority's verdict endorsed the notion that punishing smuggling was not as important as ensuring that the legal process operated without irregularities and that it follow strictly the dictates of the law. Local authorities had limited powers and until the national judiciary was established they would be limited in their ability to enforce the laws.
Contraband cases were numerous in the late 1820s and early 1830s, but declined within the next decade. Corporal Larrañaga participated in other smuggling incidents and seemed always ready to follow the dictates of the laws. In one instance a group of Americans was digging a large "crater" in the ground supposedly for 55 adjacent tercios. The foreigners claimed that they were trying to cover the merchandise temporarily until two of their broken wagons were fixed. The corporal did not hesitate to inform the local authorities and request a decision whether contraband was to be declared. Unluckily no records survive that document the outcome of this case. 
Denunciation of illegal merchandise was a common occurrence. In March 1831 the authorities seized contraband merchandise from a store operated by Americans.  Another interesting case involved José M. Martínez, the alcalde of Taos. In 1832 an American rented 12 mules from Martínez's brother. Apparently, he later found out that the Americans intended to introduce contraband and tried to catch them. Unfortunately he was not successful, although later it appeared that the Americans had held the merchandise in the vicinity. Afterwords, Martínez argued that since he was only a local official he was not empowered to act. 
There is no doubt that contraband was common, and that many New Mexicans took advantage of the economic opportunity smuggling offered. The administration of justice was slow and ill-suited for a province like New Mexico, large, distant and isolated, and lacking officials who were well-educated and versed in judicial matters. Such a cumbersome system encouraged illegal activities. Pérez Serrano was jailed, but not fined, and suffered only the loss of the merchandise, for which he probably had paid nothing. The local officials, however, were chastised and reprimanded by Mexican judicial authorities. Even though they attempted to conduct the process carefully, their ignorance of proper procedures caused them to spend a considerable time on this case. It is not surprising that relatively few were charged with contraband after 1831. Even if there would have been a strong incentive to prosecute those who violated Mexican regulations, the province did not have the resources to take them to court.
Yet most cases of contraband for which documentation exists listed a limited amount of merchandise, and with a couple of exceptions, involved individuals who were not socially prominent. Political authorities and the well-to-do were able to take advantage of their position and avert any inconveniences for their illegal activities. Manuel Armijo, a relative of the famous governor, traveled east several times. The records show that no guías for foreign merchandise were ever issued to him, even though Missouri newspapers and customs house records note that Armijo, like other merchants from the Río Abajo, regularly made substantial purchases of merchandise in the United States for the Mexican market and brought them to New Mexico via the Santa Fe Trail.  It is not clear what Armijo did with these goods, but it is probable that like other wealthy merchants he succeeded in establishing a sophisticated system of mercantile operations. 
The major impact of the Trail trade on most New Mexicans was an increase in job opportunities, although wages continued to be appallingly low. Because of the Mexican ban on importing ready-made clothing, tailors and seamstresses were in considerable demand. Hispanos were renowned for their muleteer, horsemanship, and packing skills and were sought for packing and freighting services. But most of the population continued to live in poverty with little opportunity for betterment. Many were driven into debt peonage, pledging crops years in advance. Contraband offered economic relief that looked increasingly attractive to a neglected, destitute population.
Most contraband cases show that authorities in Mexico City were unable to pay adequate attention to the edges of the republic and failed to realize that illegal trading was becoming a means of strengthening the economic ties linking American traders to the struggling New Mexican population.
Last Updated: 30-Sep-2005