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Crime, Truth, and Justice in Modern Mexico: Notes for a National History

  • Pablo Piccato (a1)
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With this lecture by Pablo Piccato, The Americas continues its collaboration with the New School for Social Research to publish its annual Lecture in Latin American History. The series features lectures by senior historians in the field of Latin American history across an array of topics. This is the fifth in the series.

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1. This text was first presented at The New School Annual Lecture in Latin American History on March 18, 2015. I thank Federico Finchelstein and Eric Zolov for the invitation and encouragement. The hospitality of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, made the final writing of this article possible. I thank Renato González Mello and Cuauhtémoc Medina.

2. From the 1954 prologue: “la palabra infamia aturde en el título, pero bajo los tumultos no hay nada. No es otra cosa que apariencia, que una superficie de imágenes.” Borges, Jorge Luis, Obras Completas (Barcelona: Emecé Editores, 1996), 1:307, 338 .

3. Piccato, Pablo, City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). The book is A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico, forthcoming, University of California Press.

4. See, on the communicative value of murder, Pablo Piccato, “Murder as Politics in Modern Mexico,” in Murder and Violence in Modern Latin America, Eric A Johnson, Ricardo Donato Salvatore, and Petrus Cornelis Spierenburg, eds., Bulletin of Latin American Research book series, 2013, 104–125. On crime news, see Piccato, Pablo, “Murders of Nota Roja: Truth and Justice in Mexican Crime News,” Past and Present 223:1 (2014): 195231 .

5. See Monsiváis, Carlos, Los mil y un velorios: crónica de la nota roja (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes; Alianza Editorial, 1994); Paz, Octavio, El laberinto de la soledad (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1963); and Aub, Max, Crímenes ejemplares (Madrid: Editorial Calambur, 1991). An important predecessor is Guerrero, Julio, La génesis del crimen en México: estudio de psiquiatría social (Paris: Vda. de Ch. Bouret, 1901). On crime fiction, see Bermúdez, María Elvira, Cuento policiaco mexicano, breve antología (Mexico City: UNAM/Coordinación de Difusión Cultura, Dirección de Literatura, 1987), 1517 ; and Piccato, Pablo, “A Historical Perspective on Crime Fiction in Mexico During the Middle Decades of the Twentieth Century,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Crime and Criminal Justice, Knepper, Paul and Johansen, Anja, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

6. See for example Cornelius, Wayne A. and Shirk, David A., Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico (Notre Dame, IN, San Diego: University of Notre Dame Press; Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, 2007); and Lecuona, Guillermo Zepeda, Crimen sin castigo: procuración de justicia penal y ministerio público en México (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, CIDAC, 2004).

7. Usigli, Rodolfo, Ensayo de un crimen (Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1986), 116 .

8. Usigli, , Ensayo de un crimen , 20, 91, 205. For an analysis that highlights the search for the truth and the role of newspapers, see de la Fuente, José Luis, “Rodolfo Usigli busca la verdad: Ensayo de un crimen, antecedente policiaco mexicano,” Alter Texto 1:1, p. 27 ; and Torres Medina, Vicente Francisco, Muertos de papel: un paseo por la narrativa policial mexicana (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 2014).

9. Ginzburg, Carlo, “Checking the Evidence: The Judge and the Historian,” Critical Inquiry 18:1 (Fall 1991): 7992 .

10. Foucault, Michel, La verdad y las formas jurídicas (Barcelona: Gedisa, 1992). But see Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech (Los Angeles: MIT Press, 2001) for the validation of truth in Greek tradition by courage that challenges power.

11. Boltanski, Luc, Enigmes et complots: une enquête à propos d'enquêtes (Paris: Gallimard, 2012).

12. Cercas, Javier, El impostor (Barcelona: Literatura Random House, 2014). Cercas uses fiction to look at a forgotten past in his book Soldados de Salamina (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 2001).

13. Benjamin, Walter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 253264 . His agenda could not be more relevant today: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. . . . The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical.”

14. Benjamin, Walter, “Critique of Violence,” in Benjamin, , Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 281 .

15. Davis, Diane, “Policing and Regime Transition: From Postauthoritarianism to Populism to Neoliberalism,” in Violence, Coercion, and State-Making in Twentieth-Century Mexico: The Other Half of the Centaur, Pansters, Wil, ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

16. Quintana, Valente, Memorias de Valente Quintana (Mexico City: Ediciones Populares, 1961); Kalifa, Dominique, Histoire des détectives privés en France, 1832–1942 (Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2007).

17. Fondevilla, Gustavo, “Controlling the Madrinas: The Police Informer Management and Control System in Mexico,” Police Journal 86 (2014): 116142 . Quintana was repeatedly accused of extortion and the illegal use of violence, both as police chief and through his private agency. Isla, Carlos, El mejor caso de Valente Quintana: los “Corta Mechas” (Mexico City: Fontamara, 2004), 1113 ; Quintana, Memorias de Valente Quintana, 6, 126–127, 134, 168.

18. Monsiváis, Carlos, Los mil y un velorios, 29; El jurado de Toral y La Madre Conchita: lo que se dijo y lo que no se dijo en el sensacional juicio. Versión taquigráfica textual (Mexico City: n.p., 1928), 1:53–62.

19. Asesinato Alfonso Mascarúa, 1954, Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal, Sección Jefatura de Policía, Serie Investigación y Seguridad, Servicio Secreto (hereafter AHDF/JP/ISSS), caja 11, exp. 75; Víctor Velásquez, El caso Alarcón, 1930, Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN), Archivo Judicial Distrito Federal, expediente 23196, 1930, 17v-18. Despite reforms of penal procedures, confessions obtained under torture continue to be accepted in penal courts. “En México, confesiones bajo tortura: Amnistía Internacional,” Proceso, December 16, 2011, http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=291699, accessed October 6, 2016.

20. La Prensa, March 20, 1932, 1, 3; March 1, 1932, 3; and March 4, 1932, 3, 5; La Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), March 19, 1932, 1; Declaración presented by Alberto Gallegos before the chief commander of the Policía del D.F. in the case of the murder of Jacinta Aznar, March 1, 1932, AHDF/JP/ISSS, caja 2, exp. 9, 194, 67.

21. “Nobody has the right to the superfluous as long as anybody lacks the essential.” La Prensa, January 27, 1957, 38; Eduardo Téllez Vargas and José Ramón Garmabella, ¡Reportero de policía!: El Güero Téllez (Mexico City: Ediciones Océano, 1982), 175.

22. Roa, Miguel, “Encuesta relámpago. ¿Es posible la regeneración del delincuente? ¿Cómo puede lograrse?” La Prensa, April 24, 1934, 8 ; Torres-Mazuera, Gabriela, “La delincuencia como conflicto político en la prensa de la Ciudad de México, 1994–1996,” Estudios Políticos, Medellín 30 (June 2007): 16 , 18. Opinions in favor of death penalty are found in Sepúlveda Lozano, Juan B., “Escuela de padres de familia,” Revista de Policía 23:281(July 1964), 3031 ; and Everard Kidder Meade, “Anatomies of Justice and Chaos: Capital Punishment and the Public in Mexico, 1917–1945” (PhD diss.: University of Chicago, 2005).

23. Téllez Vargas and Garmabella, ¡Reportero de policía!

24. Sodi, Demetrio, El jurado en México: estudios sobre el jurado popular (Mexico City: Imp. de la Secretaría de Fomento, 1909); Sodi, Federico, ed., El jurado resuelve: Memorias, vol. 1 (Mexico City: F. Trillas, 1961); Moheno, Querido, Mis últimos discursos: la caravana pasa . . . (Preliminar), discursos ante el Congreso Jurídico, Defensa de La Sra. Jurado, Defensa de La Sra. Alicia Olvera (Mexico City: Botas, 1923); Sodi de Pallares, María Elena, Los Cristeros y José de León Toral (Mexico City: Editorial Cvltvra, 1936). On the legal reforms, see Speckman Guerra, Elisa, Del Tigre de Santa Julia, la princesa italiana y otras historias: sistema judicial, criminalidad y justicia en la Ciudad de México (siglos XIX y XX) (Mexico City: UNAM-INACIPE, 2014).

25. Gregorio Silva and Modesto Caballero, Santa Anna Tlacotenco, Milpa Alta, to Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, 5 Oct. 1956, AGN, Fondo Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, 541/676. Another example in Francisco M. Garza Gutierez, Federal District, to Miguel Ávila Camacho, 4 Jan. 1941. AGN, Fondo Miguel Avila Camacho, 541/57. These letters, almost 2,000 per presidential period between Cárdenas and López Mateos, are catalogued under “Homicidio” in presidential archives at the AGN. Pablo Piccato, “Estadísticas del crimen en México: Series Históricas, 1901–2001,” 2003, http://www.columbia.edu/~pp143/estadisticascrimen/EstadisticasSigloXX.htm, accessed October 5, 2016. Detailed references for these and the following paragraphs are found in Piccato, “Murders of Nota Roja.”

26. Cited in Miquel, Ángel, Disolvencias: literatura, cine y radio en México (1900–1950) (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005), 156157 . See Piccato, “Murders of Nota Roja.”

27. See for example Roa, “Encuesta relámpago,” 8, La Prensa, April 28, 1938, 8.

28. Cuarón, Alfonso Quiroz, Un estrangulador de mujeres (Mexico City: n.p., 1952); Cuarón, Quiroz, Estudios criminológicos (Mexico City: n.p., 1954); Meade, “Anatomies of Justice”; Luna, Ana Luisa, La crónica policíaca en México: Nota Roja 40s (Mexico City: Diana, 1993), 92 ; Cárdenas Hernández, Gregorio, Celda 16 (Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1970), 192 .

29. La Prensa, April 24, 1934, 3; ibid., April 28, 1934, 6; Martínez Baca, Francisco and Vergara, Manuel, Estudios de antropología criminal: memoria que por disposición del Superior Gobierno del Estado de Puebla presentan (Puebla: Benjamín Lara, 1892); Buffington, Robert, Criminal and Citizen in Modern Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); Speckman, Elisa, Crimen y castigo: legislación penal, interpretaciones de la criminalidad y administración de justicia (Ciudad de México, 1872–1910) (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2002).

30. Bustillo Oro, Juan, El hombre sin rostro (Mexico: Mexcinema Video de Mexico, 1950). See a suggestive treatment in Sánchez, Fernando Fabio, Artful Assassins: Murder as Art in Modern Mexico (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2010), 64 ; Oro, Bustillo, Vida cinematográfica (Mexico City: Cineteca Nacional, 1984), 268 .

31. Téllez Vargas and Garmabella, ¡Reportero de policía! 109, 112, 113, 114; “Cuidado con el hampa,” episode 29 of El timo del millonario, n.d. magnetic audio tape, Colección Televisa Radio, Fonoteca Nacional.

32. A study of the genre in Mexico during these years is Rodríguez Lozano, Miguel and Flores, Enrique, eds., Bang! Bang! Pesquisas sobre la narrativa policiaca mexicana (Mexico City: UNAM, 2005). See also Pablo Piccato, “A Historical Perspective on Crime Fiction.”

33. Usigli, Ensayo de un crimen. Compare with Bernal, Rafael, “El extraño caso de Aloysius Hands,” in Bernal, , Tres novelas policiacas (Mexico City: Jus, 1946). The criminal in the story cites De Quincey, and sees murder as a form of expression. He confesses only after the judiciary accuses an innocent man, thus depriving him, the true artistic murderer, of the recognition he believes he deserves.

34. Bernal, Rafael, El complot mongol (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969). See also de la Vega, José Martínez, Péter Pérez, detective de Peralvillo y anexas (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1994); and Helú, Antonio, La obligación de asesinar (Mexico City: Editorial Albatros, 1946).

35. Pablo Piccato, “Ley Fuga as Justice: The Consensus around Extrajudicial Violence in Twentieth-Century Mexico,” in Publics and Politics of Violence and Crime in Latin America, Gema Santamaría and David Carey, eds. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming). See also Everard Kidder Meade, “La ley fuga y la tribuna improvisada: Extrajudicial Execution and Public Opinion in Mexico City, 1929–1940,” presentation at Kayden Colloquium on Crime and Punishment in Latin America: Practices and Representations, University of Colorado, Boulder, October 7-8, 2011.

36. Report dated February 29, 1948, AHDF/JP/ISSS, caja 10, exp. 65; assassination of Senator Mauro Angulo Hernández, La Prensa, February 28, 1948, 1, 8, 10; clipping from Ultimas Noticias de Excélsior, February 27, 1948, AHDF/JP/ISSS, caja 10, exp. 65.

37. A vivid description of the torture and threats against a detainee who refused to confess is in Sucesos 1739, September 17, 1966, 3.

38. Gema Santamaría, “Lynching in Twentieth-Century Mexico: Violence, State Formation, and Local Communities in Puebla” (PhD diss., New School, 2015); Piccato, “Ley Fuga as Justice”; Garland, David, “Penal Excess and Surplus Meaning: Public Torture Lynchings in Twentieth-Century America,” Law & Society Review 39:4 (December 2005): 793834 .

39. Piccato, Pablo, “‘Ya Saben Quién’: Journalism, Crime, and Impunity in Mexico Today,” in Mexico's Struggle for Public Security: Organized Crime and State Responses, Berruecos, Susana and Philip, George, eds. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 4770 .

40. The best overview is Zepeda Lecuona, Crimen sin castigo. See also Cornelius and Shirk, Reforming the Administration of Justice. Current data provided by the Justice in Mexico project, at the University of San Diego, justiceinmexico.org.

41. Alier, Eugenia and Crenzel, Emilio, eds., The Struggles for Memory in Latin America: Recent History and Political Violence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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The Americas
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