In City of Suspects, published in 2001, I tried to understand crime as an urban phenomenon, a product of the interactions between actors and institutions suddenly brought together by the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the late nineteenth century. The most important sources for that project were the judicial records kept by the city’s judicial power in the basement of one of its main penitentiaries, which I consulted around 1995.
In the years since, those trial records were moved to the Archivo General de la Nación and, paradoxically, became harder to consult, at least for the decades following those covered by the first book. When I decided to return to the history of crime, starting the project that resulted in A History of Infamy, I tried to understand the urban setting of crime in different way.
While in the first book I looked at the spatial and demographic expansion that produced the capital’s colonias, neighborhoods often built during the late 1920s and 1930s on expropriated urban land for workers, the new book focused on the debates about crime and justice that took place in courtrooms, newspapers and crime fiction. These were also essentially urban settings, but they reflected the realities of crime and punishment in different ways. Judicial records demonstrated, for example, that the lack of interest of the Porfirian state in the welfare of urban working classes forced urban communities to deal in their own terms with the problems of theft and interpersonal violence. Thus, neighbors and relatives could intervene to negotiate the return of stolen property, or fights could be arranged in order to solve long-standing disputes—all of this without the disruptive intervention of the police.
By the mid twentieth century, however, the tabloid newspapers centered on crime (the publications were known in Mexico as the nota roja) became a record of the critical views of urban dwellers toward the police and the judiciary. While crime rates declined, reflecting the diminishing frequency of people’s use of violence to solve conflicts, the pressure of public opinion became the most important driver in the pursuit of justice. Newspapers reflected, and shaped, the emergence of the urban publics that demanded investigations and the solution of the most egregious crimes.
Newspapers became the main, although not the only, source for what I call criminal literacy–the knowledge that any inhabitant of the city had to possess in order to navigate the dangers of modern life. This knowledge included a map of the dangerous areas of the city, the colonias where it was better not to walk at night, the practices of thieves and con men, and the risky attractions of night life. At the heart of criminal literacy were the stories of famous criminals, like Goyo Cárdenas, the man who killed four women and buried them in the backyard of his house, in a new working class neighborhood north of the city.
One piece of criminal literacy of particular importance required to understand the transformation of the city between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s was the emergence of the pistolero. This was the name given to the gunmen who worked for politicians, usually under the guise of bodyguards, and were charged with intimidating, beating and in some cases eliminating adversaries.
Pistoleros became a highly visible component of post-revolutionary politics with their violent interventions in strikes, agrarian conflicts, and elections. People knew about them and their threat, but they also knew that they were protected by powerful interests and seldom faced punishment. Impunity also allowed pistoleros to maintain other profitable activities on the side: they could extort prostitutes, protect drug traffickers, engage in robberies and, in some cases, murder for money. For the inhabitants of Mexico City, pistoleros embodied the corruption of post-revolutionary politics but also the legacy of the revolution itself. They were perceived as a byproduct of the violent rural politics that in the second decade of the century exploded with the civil war and invaded the city after the end of the conflict. With their brutality and ostentatious impunity, pistoleros seemed to represent the occupation of the respectable spaces of the capital by strong men from the countryside. Yet pistoleros also evoked the dizzying pace of modernization: with their tailored suits, Texan hats, shiny cars, and general similarity to U.S. movie gangsters, they were only appropriating the goods that all city dwellers aspired to have.
Looking beyond the judicial and police records, in other words, allowed me to appreciate how crime and justice, or the lack thereof, became central aspects of urban life in modern Mexico. Newspapers and crime fiction reflected on impunity, a key shortcoming of the state that emerged out of the revolution. Public debates involving actors from all social backgrounds proved that the concern about violence and corruption was a constant of everyday life for city dwellers, even as violence was, in general terms, becoming less frequent. The city that I had initially explored as a space for social practices was also, I realized, the virtual space of a public sphere where crime and justice were central themes.
Pablo Piccato (B.A. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1989; Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 1997) is professor at the Department of History, Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on modern Mexico, particularly on crime, politics, and culture. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (2001) and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (2010).
A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (University of California Press, 2017) explores the broken nexus between crime, justice, and the truth in mid-twentieth century Mexico. Facing the violence and impunity that defined politics, policing, and the judicial system in post-revolutionary times, Mexicans sought truth and justice outside state institutions. During this time, the criminal news beat and crime fiction flourished. Civil society’s search for truth and justice lead, paradoxically, to the normalization of extrajudicial violence and neglect for the rights of victims. Ordinary people in Mexico have made crime and punishment central concerns of the public sphere during the last century, and in doing so have shaped how crime and violence took form over time.