Markus-Michael Müller’s new book, The Punitive City, is a valuable analysis of an ongoing “punitive turn” in the neoliberal governance of Mexico City. Müller suggests that we can broadly characterize this punitive turn in urban governance as a war on impoverished people, who are, according to contemporary governmental logic, an impediment to urban economic development. Muller’s book comes on the heels of more than a decade of Mexicanist scholarship from multiple disciplinary perspectives (e.g., political theory, literary studies, geography, sociology, anthropology, and criminology) that problematizes the rhetoric of “democratic transition” in Mexico and situates the contradictions and tensions embodied in democratization in a transnational context. Müller himself has substantially contributed to this literature from a geographically informed sociological and criminological perspective (see, e.g., articles in Geopolitics, Latin American Perspectives, and Third World Quarterly). This new book offers fresh insights but also synthesizes Müller’s previous writing to reveal the punitive turn in the governance of Mexico City as the combined effect of “the urbanization of neoliberalism, the securitization of urban space, and the criminalization of poverty” (p. 40). In doing so, The Punitive City also offers a grounded argument for “desecuritizing” scholarly analysis and practical engagement with the instabilities wrought by neoliberal governance of urban society.
Müller organizes his arguments into an introduction, five substantive chapters, and a conclusion. His introduction broadly traces continuities and discontinuities in the “dispersal of social control” through Mexico City (p. 2), as situated in the historical-geographical [End Page 177] context of democratization and neoliberalization in Latin America. Müller leans on sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s pathbreaking analysis of urban marginality and authoritarian neoliberal urban development, and on the constructivist concept of “securitization” from international relations theory. Adopting these conceptual signposts to describe how politicians and their constituents together securitize would be “vectors” of criminality and mobilize political support for “democratization” across the region, Müller argues that this securitization of democratizing societies deepens historical modes of social exclusion, and creates an ostensibly democratic order based upon punishment.
The subsequent five chapters provide concrete analysis of the process through which Mexico City specifically has emerged as a punitive city. The first focuses on institutional forms, juridical innovations, and the transnational context of neoliberal re-regulation through which the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) presided over experimentation with punitive governance in the historic center of Mexico City and later promoted “quality of life” policing elsewhere in the Federal District. The next chapter shows how this PRD-led “rule through law” approach to producing and governing new categories of social-spatial disorder in Mexico City rests on a renovation of clientelist practices in the years after formal democratization of Mexico City politics in 1997, when Federal District residents were empowered to elect a local mayor. Chapter 3 remains interested in continuities of clientelist relations and their extension into the provision of security services through neighborhood-level intermediaries. Particularly notable, here, is that Müller provides an overdue geographically sensitive and concrete account of how policing models from the so-called “neoliberal heartland” are refashioned and contested in Latin American cities. Chapter 4 extends the previous chapter’s analysis of how non-elite and extra-institutional actors contribute to the punitive turn, and situates the case of Mexico City in a transnational context of expert knowledge transfer and the vernacularization of police science. Finally, Chapter 5 presents the diffusion of punitive governance through the practices of citizens and citizens’ associations that take responsibility for policing their neighbors amidst a “climate of fear” so that “us-versus-them” discourses observably materialize in the urban landscape.
The five substantive chapters are unfortunately of uneven quality in their depiction of punitive city formation. Müller typically provides densely descriptive, contextually sensitive, revealing vignettes and narratives in support of his claims, but readers will find that the chapters sometimes offer transcripts from interviews or observations from...