Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este: Efforts to force a busy informal commercial hub to follow global trade rules have only made life harder for those eking out a living

Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este is a busy South American contraband hub where scrappy Paraguayan vendors and Brazilian traders mix with businessmen from places as far away as Lebanon and South Korea. This hive of activity moves billions of dollars’ worth of consumer goods – everything from smartphones to whiskey.

The city was built as a commercial hub around low taxes and tariffs, benefiting both well-to-do traders and poor workers. In its bustling main market – eight square blocks packed with street vendors, brick-and-mortar businesses and cavernous shopping galleries – thousands of Paraguayans eke out a living selling fake Gucci handbags, fishing poles and even contact lenses.

I also wanted to understand the role that thousands of informal Brazilian traders and Paraguayan street vendors have played in trading systems shaped by powerful countries and corporations.

While informal markets are common, poor workers in Ciudad del Este helped build an entire city oriented around global trade. As I explain in my new book, “Outlaw Capital: Everyday Illegalities and the Making of Uneven Development,” policies aiming to legalize trade in Ciudad del Este have hurt these vendors and traders while protecting the illegal commercial activities conducted by more powerful people.

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