Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Crime in Mexico City

Pablo Piccato, City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 363. $21.95 (ISBN 0-8223-2747-3).
Upon opening Pablo Piccato's City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931, one enters a violent metropolis of thieves, murderers, prisoners, police, neighbors, criminologists, and victims. It is a world in which intricate networks of reciprocity, moral economy, and community relations have as much–-if not more-–to do with defining deviance and acceptable terms of punishment as the more visible and prominent legislative and judicial processes. Piccato, who has a history of the Mexican legislature and a co-edited volume on nineteenth century crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction to his credit, presents the turn-of-the-century Mexican capital as a dynamic, living organism that both shaped and was shaped by the delinquency that took place within its borders. City of Suspects is a compelling and well-written study, which challenges older ideas about revolutionary change and adds to a growing body of work dealing with the cultural history of criminality in Latin America.
Building on recent legal histories that integrate political and cultural perspectives into studies of deviance and punishment, Piccato's book presents crime not as a by-product of rapid urbanization and anomie but instead as the result of complex interactions among neighbors, workers, legislators, public officials, and citizens. He argues that this methodology—that is, studying crime from the perspectives of both elites and the popular classes, including criminals—can provide historians with a new way of periodizing the early twentieth century in Mexico. This new periodization, he suggests, will enable analysis to move away from the traditional divisions between dictatorship, revolution, and social reform that have characterized the historiography of the early twentieth century to instead view the years from the twilight of the Porfiriato through the first phase of post-revolutionary social and political reconstruction as a coherent epoch.
Piccato has structured City of Suspects thematically to emphasize this fact. The book is divided into several sections to reflect the "distinct rhythms" in which he believes crime in Mexico City developed over the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. One rhythm, he says, was "swift." This fast-paced phase was reflected in the new laws, criminological theories, and disciplinary institutions that characterized the frenzied modernization of the Porfirian, revolutionary and post-revolutionary orders, and culminated in the Penal Code of 1931. The other rate of change, Piccato says, was slower. This gradual change was the process by which popular perceptions and practices regarding crime–-including neighborhood understandings of right and wrong-–shifted and were often at odds with official, legislative norms.
In the book's first section Piccato discusses the changing institutional landscape of penal law and criminology, providing an analysis of the various international influences and legal traditions that underpinned official ideas about delinquency in late nineteenth-century Mexico. Popular understandings of criminality, deviance, and public policy occupy the second two sections of the volume. In these chapters Piccato examines the ways in which ideas about honor, violence, money, gender, and justice shaped community responses to crime waves as well as official security campaigns.
City of Suspects reads well because Piccato takes care to ground the subject with a vivid introduction to the Porfirian city, contrasting the elites' idealized hygienic, safe, and modern metropolis with the cramped, dirty, and intensely public lives of the urban masses. In subsequent chapters dealing with the development of criminology and penology in Mexico and with police practices in the capital, Piccato provides significant information about legislation, institutions, and intellectual trends that increasingly equated poverty with criminality. These chapters, like those in the next section, provide a fascinating glimpse into the private worlds of Mexico City's men and women who, unlike elite actors, did not always leave memoirs or other documentary evidence of their lives and experiences.
The sections on honor and sexual crimes are particularly interesting. Piccato uses specific case histories from the judicial and welfare archives to demonstrate the importance of class and gender to conflicts centering around insults, rape, or seduction. Whereas colonial elites had sought to reserve the privilege of honor for themselves, by the Porfiriato men and women of all social classes felt compelled to defend their honor on the streets and in the context of personal relationships. According to Piccato, whether a knifing, beating, insult, or killing was deemed criminal depended both on popular notions of gender right as well as the level of participation by neighbors or police in discovering or prosecuting a crime. In the final section, Piccato departs from the streets and courtrooms of the city to describe life inside the city's infamous Belen jail, discussing the social world of prisoners and explaining how by the 1920s prisoners increasingly took advantage of revolutionary rhetoric to secure their release from the institution.
Because Piccato treats the years between 1900 and 1931 as a coherent historical period, the chapters do not necessarily move chronologically, a fact that may make it somewhat difficult reading for those who do not already count on a solid background in contemporary Mexican history. To his credit, however, Piccato does take special care to explain the relevance of major political developments when appropriate. The book's focus on Mexico City, the nation's political capital and largest urban center, also raises questions that other researchers will want to take up, including how understandings of law, crime, and violence developed historically in smaller cities and rural contexts. Social scientists investigating current perspectives on law and criminality in the Mexican context will also want to consider Piccato's assertions that the 1900–1931 period was critical in shaping later ideas about governance, rights, and delinquency in the capital.
Overall, City of Suspects successfully invites the reader into the complex climate that shaped popular and elite perspectives on crime in turn-of-the-century Mexico City. It complements a growing body of work on crime, law, and urban life in Latin America, challenges older periodizations of Mexican history, and suggests new connections between historical and contemporary perspectives on delinquency and justice, as well. Finally, City of Suspects closes by raising significant questions for debate and future research.


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