- A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico by Pablo Piccato
On 26 September 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers' college disappeared in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero. The incident involved male students on their way to Mexico City to participate in a march commemorating the anniversary of the infamous 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. The students had commandeered three commercial passenger buses for this purpose (a traditional practice among rural students), but were intercepted by local police in the nearby city of Iguala—never to be seen again. Public anger was soon on clear display. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand justice. Four years have now passed since Mexican security forces launched that violent attack on those students; the government, however, has yet to provide a conclusive account of events. Not one person has been identified and convicted, and only recently has an investigation been ordered into the officials that handled the case and who may have obstructed justice. Such breakdowns in the criminal justice system have a long history in Mexico. In his important and timely study, A History of Infamy, Pablo Piccato historicizes this culture of impunity and explores how civil society grappled with the broken nexus between crime, truth, and justice in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Through an examination of the linkages among social practices, institutions, the press, and literature, this excellent book underscores the stories of those that wielded violence, debated it in the public sphere, and came to understand the "darker side" of the criminal underworld (mundo del hampa). Central to the study is what Piccato has termed "criminal literacy;" that is, the "basic knowledge about the world of crime and penal law" (6) that helped citizens navigate and cope with the uncertainties (and violence) of modern life in the rapidly growing urban sprawls of Mexico. This included diverse information about "institutions, famous cases, everyday practices, and dangerous places" (6). Piccato eschews a traditional narrative structure in favor of a series of famous criminal cases and stories set in Mexico City because, according to the author, this "was the place […where they happened], the newspapers […] covered them, and the legislators and policymakers […] tried to deal with their consequences" (8). But he does not simply mine the information contained in famous criminal cases to reflect upon or draw broader conclusions about the [End Page 1442] historical moment; instead, the cases themselves become "the very object of the knowledge" (8) that he is attempting to reconstruct. In this regard, Piccato skillfully brings to light the unique characteristics of each case and how they in turn contributed to the development of "criminal literacy."
The book is organized into three parts: "Spaces," "Actors," and "Fictions." In the first part, Piccato examines jury trials in Mexico City as exemplary arenas where debates about crime and justice publicly played out. For Piccato the diversity of individuals involved in jury trials were its defining characteristics as "[u]nexpected voices could challenge the government in the public sphere" (59). In this regard, women played important and decisive roles. The trial of fourteen-year-old María del Pilar who murdered Senator Francisco Tejeda Lorca to avenge her father (33-43), for example, piqued the interest of contemporaries because it not only merged political and private plotlines, but also sought to "remedy the flaws of the law and the impunity associated with politics" (34). After the abolition of the jury trial in 1929, crime news (nota roja) filled the void. Piccato claims that reporters, editors, and photographers "created an effective language to tell stories to an avid and critical audience" (60) generating a medium where the search for truth and "unofficial" sentencing coalesced.
The second part examines the actors and practices that undermined justice. Specifically, Piccato provides vivid portraits of detectives and policemen; murderers; and pistoleros (gunmen). Chapter 5, in particular, does much to advance the notion that investigations and sentences did not provide closure as "there was always an ultimate explanation [. … that] someone...