Assistant Professor of History Corey Tazzara on Special Economic Zones


Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: A Novel (2009) is one of the great modernist novels of our time. Much of the narrative takes place in the city of Santa Teresa, a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican-American border. The most memorable portion of 2666 is the long segment detailing the crimes that led to the death or disappearance of some 300 women. The reader learns a lot about Santa Teresa in the course of the investigation. It is a booming city, owing to its factories and proximity to the U.S. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Mexico. Most of the victims are women working at the local maquiladoras, that is, factory women: “disposable at any moment or for any reason or hint of a reason.” The criminals belong to the class of industrialists, drug cartels, and politicians who run the city. Whenever a police investigation touches on one of their interests, it is quietly discouraged; many a kidnapped woman is last seen stepping into one of the sleek black sports cars favored by the city’s playboys. Santa Teresa is the kind of place where the rich can indulge their vices with impunity and without compromising their profits. The poor are defenseless, overworked, and expendable.

Bolaño makes it clear who is really in charge in Santa Teresa. Before arresting the prime murder suspect, a German-born American citizen named Klaus Haas, the police chief calls a meeting with his top detectives, a judge, the city mayor, and—naturally—a representative of the chamber of commerce. The businessman is skeptical of their presentation. He affects not to understand the details of the case: “Anything is possible, but there’s no need to descend into chaos, no need to lose our bearings.” When the mayor finally commands the police chief “to put an end to this goddamn business” by arresting the culprit, Bolaño gives the last word to the man from the chamber of commerce: find him, yes, “but discreetly, if I may make one request, without sending anyone into a panic.” Haas is arrested. No other man of wealth or power suffers a similar fate. The murders continue unabated. Business is good.

Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is typical of special economic zones throughout the world, with pervasive structural violence against poor women. A special zone may be defined as any enclave carved out of national territory and endowed with its own administrative and economic policies, usually of a liberal or even libertine cast. They are one of the dirty secrets of modernity. After standing near the brink of extinction at the end of World War II, they have proliferated with wild abandon in recent decades—there are over 4,000 in the world today. The transformation of the global economy after decolonization, which formally redefined the nature of international trade, is responsible for their resurgence. Some are famous for their economic miracles; many are infamous for their relaxation of labor and environmental standards, as the scandals over the iPhone supply chain or the fires in Bangladeshi factories illustrate. There is no doubt that the West has been complicit in the spread of these places: one need only think of the relationship between the U.S. and the maquiladora towns of northern Mexico, whose lawlessness and misery Bolaño so movingly portrays.

The proliferation of special economic zones reflects a willingness to compromise on market principles: firms and governments will gladly alight in free trade zones when they cannot secure universal liberalization. Yet such areas, also known as free zones, do not reflect the effort to contain the evils of an untrammeled market. They do not protect society. Instead, the free zone facilitates a shift from high-paid male labor to low-paid female labor. The feminization of industry has been accompanied by the renegotiation of workers’ rights and privatization (and insecurity) in such matters as housing, healthcare, childcare, working hours, and tenure of contract.

One hopes that prosperity will radiate outward from the zones and downward from industrial elites. Yet the conditions that make zones possible also create pressure to extend industrial privileges at the expense of competing social goods. An industrial enterprise must be located in a specific place. In today’s environment, low labor costs produce development and over the long term raise wages beyond that of the competition (e.g., China vis-à-vis Vietnam or Bangladesh). This means that interest groups are under perpetual threat from the outside: their only recourse is to find further ways to liberalize, further ways to distinguish themselves from the host state and from competitors.

Free zones exist solely to promote economic growth. This fact legitimates strategies centered on economic prosperity and delegitimizes alternative goals—such as the well-being of individual workers, the preservation of cultural heritage, the expansion of participatory democracy, or the preservation of sovereignty. As one scholar sympathetic to free zones commented without qualification: “longer government procedures and lower government efficiency” was the consequence of a certain Chinese municipality gradually recapturing some of its authority over its zone. Efficiency is one of the altar gods of the special economic zone. Special interests readily master its ritual language.

The epigraph of 2666 comes from Charles Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” Behind every poor state’s choice to endow a zone lies the hunger of international capital for cheap labor, the knowledge that capital will seek those places where regulations are minimal and property protections maximal, and the desire—shimmering like a desert mirage—of becoming a prosperous nation.

Corey Tazzara is an assistant professor of history, specializing in the economic and political history and material culture of early modern Italy and the Mediterranean. This text was excerpted from “Capitalism and the Special Economic Zone, 1590-2014,” forthcoming in New Perspectives on Political Economy, ed. Sophus A. Reinert and Robert Fredona.


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