Latin American Research Review 40.1 (2005) 268-277
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Corruption, Crime, and Punishment:
Recent Scholarship on Latin America
Some three decades ago when I was in graduate school, a great deal of scorn was being heaped on a previous generation of scholars for their concentration on laws and their supposed failure to differentiate [End Page 268] between the written law and social reality. In the last decade or so, interest in laws and legal systems has reemerged as a central focus for historians, political scientists, economists, and those interested in the development of democratic capitalistic systems. The issue of fighting corruption in Latin America even permeates the popular press.1
Why this change? It is undoubtedly due, in part, to the collapse of the Marxist paradigm with its emphasis on economic structures. Cultural history, often disguised under more modern names, has reemerged as a dominant trend, and legal systems and theories about crime and punishment have become an important subset within this larger enterprise. These studies expose elitist attitudes towards other social groups and reveal how the elite try to control other classes. The ideas of Michel Foucault also have been an important contributing factor. Crime, criminals, laws, and prison systems have all increasingly become part of the historiographical production. In a short period the production has been extensive and impressive.2 The study of laws and legal systems have allowed for new and innovative ways of looking at critical issues in political and social history.3
For other disciplines this renewed interest in law seems, in part, to have come from other directions. The rise of brutal dictatorships throughout much of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and the reemergence of democracy in the 1980s made clear the need for the rule of law. The impunity of the militaries made the question of civil rights and civil liberties loom very large.
Some of the subsequent problems of the resurgent democracies were also important. In many countries, corruption was perceived, probably correctly, as having reached new heights after the swing towards democracy and neoliberal economic systems in the 1980s and 1990s. The ability to compare the level of corruption fairly across eras and countries is difficult. As a number of the authors in the books under review point out, at least some of the perceived increase in corruption in the 1980s and 1990s is not simply due to rising levels of corruption, but rather to increased awareness of corruption resulting from more vigorous media coverage as well as public outrage towards corruption. The [End Page 269] most famous example of intensive reaction was the uproar that led to the impeachment of the president of Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello. This occurred in a country...