City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (review)
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City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931. By Pablo Piccato (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. x plus 365 pp. $64.95/ cloth $21.95/ paper).

Pablo Piccato connects his examination of crime, and less directly policing and corrections, in Mexico City to the broader cultural and political concerns that currently dominate the urban history field. The result is both a history of crime in Mexico City and a history of the city itself. Neither the author’s thematic and interpretive concerns nor the sweep of his conclusions is surprising, since most of the best studies of crime and policing over the last three decades have worked the obvious connections between urban modernization in the industrial era, including the appearance of scientific criminology and modern police departments, and the elites that directed these economic and political transformations.

Although this study fits neatly into this well-developed international literature that has illuminated the experiences of places as diverse as Stockholm, London, and Columbus, Ohio and relies on sources and methods that are widely used, the results are quite remarkable. Piccato’s gifts as a historian are revealed best in his close and detailed discussions of individual cases or clusters of related cases. By allowing the victims, perpetrators and witnesses to speak and by connecting these testimonies to the norms and values of the urban masses, he is able to both convincingly explain specific acts of violence and illuminate the lives of the urban poor. Of particular note is his discussion of community norms and the means used to enforce them. An additional benefit is that his sympathetic and patient reading of the sources for individual cases allows him to overcome some of the intrinsic class bias found in criminal records produced by police and judicial authorities who saw the urban masses as inherently dangerous.

Piccato’s discussion of the role of honor in masculine violence serves as preface to an equally impressive analysis of violence against women. These are among the strongest sections of an impressive book. Piccato makes clear the class-based nature of criminal prosecutions of male perpetrators and illuminates the complex vulnerabilities imposed on Mexican women by law and culture. Female victims, especially victims of sexual assaults, were subjected to intrusive, sometimes dismissive, interrogations by police and the courts that often left their reputations shattered and their family ties weakened. In reacting to these [End Page 1088] crimes, the courts and police commonly distinguished between “crimes of passion” committed by males of the propertied classes and the violent “machismo” of poor males. While authorities and newspaper reporters could generously intuit the underlying virtues that informed violence committed in defense of family honor by the better off, similar crimes committed in similar circumstances by poor males were viewed as evidence of a generalized pathology that could only be restrained by more police and increasingly severe sentencing regimes.

The author ambitiously pursues his study of crime and policing across a tumultuous period in Mexican history, beginning with the reforming ambitions of the Porfiriato and carrying forward to the institution-building era of the 1920s and 30s. As a result of this periodization, he is able to explore questions of central importance to the history of modern Mexico from the little-utilized perspective of crime and policing. His conclusions will be read profitably by nearly every historian of modern Mexico. Piccato finds broad similarities evident across this period of tumultuous change, including an enduring belief in the existence of a criminal class that threatened both property and political stability. He also finds significant differences that suggest large structural alterations in Mexican society and political culture, including a declining crime rates for the post-revolutionary period.

I am very impressed with the complexity and ambition of the methods and the breadth of the sources used for this study. The techniques of close reading and in-depth analysis of individual cases discussed above were combined with the use of serial data of arrests and convictions. Piccato’s analysis of this serial data serves as the primary basis for his conclusions about declining crime rates and his efforts to connect his examination of crime to politics, the economy and...