The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The State, Surveillance, and El Pollo Rico’s Pretty Good Chicken


July 17, 2007

On Thursday, ICE agents raided El Pollo Rico, a very, very popular Wheaton area pollo a la brasa restaurant, charging the owners with money laundering and hiring illegal immigrants.

Now, as it happens, I live really close to this place, and I often (used to) go there for chicken. It is perhaps the best chicken one can get anywhere–in the DC area Zagat guide, they usually had a top 10 finish for food, up there with all the fancy restaurants, and they were a decidedly cheap eats venue. For $13.50, I could feed my whole family on a whole chicken, cooked to perfection, with a side of fries, cole slaw, and plantains.

Now the local blogosphere is all over this, with predictably mixed reaction. On the one hand, the law and order, close the border types are applauding the government while fans of the fantastic chicken are quite annoyed that a hard-working community icon they frequent is being shut down.

Aside from serving as yet another flash-point on the ongoing immigration debate in this country, I think that this story is indicative of yet another long-term trend in Political Science that often is under appreciated and under-noticed. That is: in the techno-globalized-capitalist marketplace, the state grows ever more powerful, and many of the things supposedly responsible for the retreat of the state, the eclipse of the state, actually are enabling the state to become significantly more powerful.

As the story goes, the heyday of the sovereign state was several decades ago, when the State controlled all the interesting and relevant levers of power in the international realm. With the rise of the global economy, globalization, and the Internet, there emerged a realm of significant international activity outside the purview of the state. Indeed, it was possible to have a complete existence outside the state, and in some cases, these global forces were powerful enough to even discipline the state into complying with global or market norms. Unfettered flow of capital, movement of people, and the exchange of ideas all beyond, across and through borders seemed to render the state irrelevant. The State is Dead.

And yet, Long Live the State. One tends to forget that many of these so called global institutions and structures that permit individuals and businesses to move beyond the state (the upside of globalization) also permit a seamy underside of globalization, but both are still dependent on structures formed, maintained, and monitored by the State. Moreover, the very same technology available to those challenging the state is also available to the State itself.

Most tend to look at this the other way–that which the state has is now available to the common NGO, business, or individual. But, in this case, its the state making use of powerful surveillance equipment to know more about what is going on in and around its borders than ever before. In the supposed heyday of the state, how much did the state really “know” about its citizens? Yet today, it can monitor each and every one of them and track scads of data in ways that were previously unfathomable. According to the Post report of the story, the key charges against the family that owned El Pollo Rico were financial:

The restaurant, at 2541 Ennalls Ave., accepted only cash. The Solanos paid employees who were in the county illegally in cash and wrote checks to those who were here legally, prosecutors said.

Federal agents say the Solanos deposited more than $6.6 million into a business account between June 2002 and September 2006 in increments of $7,000 to $9,000, which authorities say was done to avoid filing currency transaction reports that must be submitted with deposits that exceed $10,000.

The Solanos deposited checks from the business account into their personal accounts and used the proceeds to purchase residences, vehicles, loan and life insurance policies, and retirement accounts, according to the affidavit. Federal agents seized more than $2 million in cash and jewelry from the Solanos’ residences and vehicles, authorities said.

NBC4 (WRC) reported:

Officials said their investigation began about a year ago because of suspicious banking activity such as a quick succession of high-volume deposits and withdrawals. Officials said the underlying immigration violations were revealed over the course of the investigation.

In other words, El Pollo Rico was done in by the high-tech surveillance of the state attracted by its financial transactions. FinCEN has primary responsibility in the US for catching money laundering criminals, and the primary way they do that is with transaction reports by banks and other institutions that distribute cash (like Casinos). Every cash transaction over $10,000 must be reported to FinCEN, as well as any suspicious financial activity. As one might expect, they receive thousands of reports per year, so they rely on sophisticated technology and computer surveillance equipment to sort through all of that and identify questionable activities (as opposed to cash-heavy legitimate businesses).

20 or 40 years ago, it was next to impossible for a State operating in such a free market to really know all that much about what was going on inside or across its borders. Transactions like those at El Pollo Rico would have gone unnoticed until someone spilled the beans. Like Al Capone, you had to know who the bad guys were in order to finally find the financial crimes to put them away. Now, however, the state can survey financial flows, identify suspicious activity, and use that as a springboard to larger investigations.

That’s some power for the state.

And, it means I now need to find a new Chicken joint.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.