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The Americas 59.3 (2003) 427-428

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City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931. By Pablo Piccato. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 365. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $64.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.

Crime has preoccupied thoughtful individuals, social scientists, and scientists for generations. Clearly, crime accompanied the first social groups even before subtribal and tribal social configuration emerged. It is a form of dysfunctional behavior that sets a person apart from the primitive pack and disrupts the group cooperation required to survive with a degree of serenity and security. Stoning deviants or burning or burying them alive, indicates the seriousness of the breech of conduct. Crime is a blow against the group and secondarily, the individual victim. Crime is an indicator of social stability as well as state effectiveness. Consequently, the state defines, redefines and decriminalizes behavior to reinforce its legitimacy. Formal culture is a supportive arm of the state, while popular culture flirts with deviance; hence, the authorities seek to control it as much as possible.

State response to crime unfortunately, does not shed insights on the causes of such behavior, no matter how the state defines activity. An examination of individual cases reveals a wide variety of motivations, many of which in an economy characterized by poverty seem understandably opportunistic, rather than evidence of a career pattern. In some cases, it may be an occupation of last resort. Clearly, state pathology is different from individual and its purpose goes beyond simple theft or assault. Dealing with crime in its many social and political arenas is equivalent to [End Page 427] playing on a multi-dimensional chessboard without the ability to make connections between the levels.

The author has selected an interesting span of time within which to examine the problems of explanation, definition, and response to crime. Although a short period of 31 years, it runs from the mature Porfiriato, through the violence of the Mexican Revolution to its consolidation. As the work correctly notes, three stages of control become evident. In 1910, the country seeks to demonstrate its civilized progress, unhappily marred by unacceptable behavior. Definitions result in the formation of criminal categories with common characteristic that predictably lead to a one-size-fits-all solution, punishment. The setting aside of criminals as a sub-category of human beings, who like the barbarians long before them, crashed the walls of civilization, justifies harsh action. A few speak of poverty and rootlessness with little effect. At the same time, tram lines penetrated all areas of the city trying barrios together from the roughest to the more refined. The city functioned with the cooperation of all social levels, including servants and laborers of all sorts. The ambivalence of economic dependency, distrust and fear had to be bridged in a semi-positive fashion. Alleged degeneration caused by the post-conquest destruction of Indian society seemed useful as a macro explanation that shifted blame to the past. Searching for cultural roots and explanation indicates that crime is more than an individual act.

The Mexican Revolution required a different set of definitions and explanation. It sought to incorporate the lower classes, allegedly, mangled by greedy hacendados and factory owners. Given the political needs of revolutionary leaders, they defined crime as reasonable response to social and economic exploitation. Such a broad definition required a different approach to punishment. The putative causes of crime became a propaganda tool that served to justify destruction of the old regime. In the consolidation stage of the Mexican Revolution, definitions of crime reverted to the familiar ones little different from those of the Porfiriato.

An interesting chapter is devoted to the invention of rateros in 1895. A ratero, defined as an intruder from another city may have been be a reactive indication of the pace of urbanization. Rateros allegedly, wanted to live, but not work, in the pleasant climate of Mexico City. Supposedly, they preferred to engage in theft and petty robbery rather than to labor in a hot climate, presumably plantation agriculture. This definition tells us more about the Porfiriato than...


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