Over the past decade, tales of crime and violence have dominated coverage of Mexico. Since Felipe Calderón declared war on the country's cartels, images of headless torsos, swinging corpses and boxes of severed limbs have littered the front pages of national and international newspapers. Yet such headlines have a historical context. They cannot and should not be rationalised through the employment of simplistic economistic explanations of the drug trade's financial appeal or lazy stereotypes of Mexicans’ proclivity to violence.
As Pablo Piccato makes clear in this important and timely book, crime, violence and impunity have a history. By the mid-twentieth century there was a ‘broadly shared tolerance in Mexican civil society for extrajudicial punishment and the victimisation of the innocent’. This tolerance arose ‘despite the parallel emergence of critical perspectives sharply condemning the inability of the state to seek and acknowledge the truth’ (p. 1).
As Piccato argues, the bonds linking crime, truth and justice are a ‘premise of modern society’ (p. 1). For society to function, we need to believe in these connections. A crime is committed; the police find out what happened; and the judiciary applies the appropriate punishment. Yet in Mexico citizens started to define reality and their relationship to the state by the absence of these links. ‘The truth about specific crimes was often impossible to know, and as a result, justice could be achieved only occasionally’ (p. 1). In order to survive this system, Mexicans developed what the author describes as a ‘criminal literacy’ which absorbed lessons from both true crime stories and fictional narratives.
Piccato lays out these startling and original ideas in a series of elegantly formulated essays. These mix theoretical and historical insights with well-drawn pen portraits of murderers, journalists, hitmen, pulp authors and corrupt cops. Over the course of the book, the mid-century Mexico City of the Waikikí cabaret, the Casa de la Bandida brothel and the sweaty print rooms of the country's tabloid press come alive.
The book begins by examining the history of Mexico's jury system, which ran from 1869 to 1929. Jury trials were originally introduced as symbols of popular sovereignty. But during the Porfiriato more and more crimes were excluded from the system. Many positivists believed that most Mexicans were incapable of the kind of cold, rational thought processes that a jury position demanded. After the Revolution, jury trials returned with force. They became polyphonic, public debates where traditional and radical, new ideas – particularly over gender roles – met and clashed. For Piccato, the closure of these open trials not only put an end to more democratic forms of justice but also formed ‘an effort to maintain the masculine monopoly over justice’ (p. 43).
Though jury trials disappeared, public interest in crime, truth and justice failed to peter out. Instead, it shifted to the crime pages or nota roja section of the tabloid press. During the middle decades of the last century the market for Mexico City's tabloids, like La Prensa, and its standalone crime magazines, like Detectives and Alarma, increased markedly. Though often dismissed as scandalous, morbid and pulpy these became the bulwarks of Mexico's public sphere. Here, journalists created narratives that were broadly impervious to state manipulation and often exposed the collusion between officials and the criminal class. At the same time, readers wrote in to discuss the finer points of police work, opine on the mental state of criminals and propose suitable punishments for the guilty. Here, criminal literacy, a crucial learning endeavour for Mexico City's millions of recent immigrants, was born.
In the following section, Piccato examines the actors involved in both crime and its prevention. There are chapters on detectives, on murderers and on pistoleros or hitmen. There are fascinating descriptions of Valente Quintana, the cop and occasional private detective who mixed ‘showmanship, knowledge of the underworld and discreet use of force’ (p. 112) to get results, Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón, Mexico's magpie criminologist, who blended old positivist biological tropes with new Freudian thinking, and Roberto ‘el Güero’ Batillas, the pistol-wearing tough guy pictured on the front cover of the book. Outside these entertaining portraits, Piccato cleverly explains how these actors as well as their audiences wove together reality and fiction to create mid-century Mexico's crime milieu. As he argues, using Jorge Luis Borges's insight, infamy was a ‘surface of images’ but one which Mexican citizens were forced to engage with on a daily basis.
The final section examines some of the results of this interaction, in particular the rise of Mexican crime fiction. Here, he dissects some of the well-known texts like Rudolfo Usigli's Ensayo de un crimen (América, 1944), an obvious and powerful influence on Piccato's own work, and Rafael Bernal's El complot mongol (Joaquín Mortiz, 1969), as well as less celebrated works like the serialised La Prensa crime series by the mysterious Leo d'Olmo, who emerges as a kind of B Movie B. Traven.
Taken together, Piccato's new book is an extraordinary and important work. In fact, in my opinion it is the most important work on Mexico's recent history since Sergio Aguayo's La Charola: Una historia de los servicios de inteligencia en México (Grajalbo, 2001). By placing crime, impunity, truth and justice at the forefront of relations between state and society, he redefines the way we should look at twentieth-century Mexican history. Post-revolutionary Mexico was not only the site for clashes over land, workers’ rights and the cultural mosaic of nationalism, but also the place for an increasingly violent and desperate struggle over citizens’ access to justice. This was played out not only on the streets with thuggish cops and intimidating hitmen, but also in the public sphere in the pages of Mexico's tabloids and crime magazines. This struggle, in turn, extended into debates over land, workers’ rights and culture as well as citizenship, gender, politics and the role of journalism. I have no doubt that historians will be quoting, debating, and working off this book for years to come. It also deserves to bridge disciplines and should influence the literary critics, political scientists and sociologists of Latin America.