Matteo Cantarello on Pablo Piccato’s A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico
Today, crime speaks a universal language. Every day and across the world, people in the media talk about the chaotic world of crime and the intricacies of penal law in ways that make police work and the judicial system seem entirely intelligible to the non-specialized citizen. TV series like Narcos and El Chapo have altered the discourse surrounding Latin American crime in particular, as they have brought to wide audiences—while abbreviating and sensationalizing—complicated narratives of (trans)national (il)legality. Our growing familiarity with crime has indeed given the general public the illusion that it can monitor crime’s relationship with truth and justice and thus the well-being of modern society. But when and how did this start?
In A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico, Pablo Piccato, a professor of history at Columbia University, answers questions involving this relationship through an analysis of the central decades of the twentieth century in Mexico. He collates archival documents, newspaper articles, trials, interviews, and literary works to examine how Mexicans discussed crime and justice during these years. By distancing his account from “high politics and the mechanisms of the state” to emphasize “the public sphere and everyday experience,” Piccato centers his work on the voice of Mexicans. This approach departs from earlier scholarship on crime and punishment in Latin America, which often resorts to the words of leaders and high-level bureaucrats to make its case. To refer to this collective voice of Mexicans, who have a “basic knowledge about the world of crime and penal law,” Piccato coins the term “criminal literacy” and places it at the center of his narrative. In examining Mexican criminal literacy, Piccato analyzes manipulations of justice, abuses of power, and cases of police ineptitude (to name but a few) that illustrate the impunity, violence, and injustice that characterized Mexico between the 1920s and the 1960s. The evolving narratives surrounding these cases, Piccato demonstrates, not only tell their own story but also clarify contemporary Mexican reactions to the widespread corruption and hobbled judiciary of its modern society.
Indeed, in Mexico nowadays, hanging bodies, mass graves, and drug lords interviewed by celebrities for Rolling Stone represent the popular façade of the uncontrolled violence and abundant impunity that reign. The picture one gets of Mexico is that of a country which “has become virtually synonymous with infamy,” Piccato tells us. Our present associations, he argues, are the result of a decades-long malfunctioning of the relationship among crime, truth, and justice. During the seventy-year-long quasi-democratic PNR-PRI hegemony, Mexicans grappled with the gradual normalization of violence and impunity that corroded this crime-truth-justice link, he says, since “the truth … was often impossible to know, and as a result, justice could be achieved only occasionally.”
Piccato makes it easy on the reader, dividing his monograph into the “who,” “where,” and “how” of Mexican criminal literacy. The chapters simultaneously function as stand-alone essays and, together, as a narrative arc that deepens our understanding of the present. The first two chapters look at jury trials where victims, perpetrators, and Mexican citizens convene and hold some of the most telling debates that set the basis for Piccato’s analysis of what crime, truth, and justice ought to mean. These juries, as Piccato explains, were introduced in a wave of national democratization after “half a century of civil war and foreign invasion”; they became “living laboratories of justice and schools to build criminal literacy.”
One of the most important features of criminal juries was that they gave voice to those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Women and political dissenters, for example, used them “to challenge their [own] subordination.” Piccato presents two cases that captivated Mexicans in the 1920s: the murders perpetrated by María del Pilar Moreno and José de León Toral. In 1922, fourteen-year-old María del Pilar Moreno killed Senator Francisco Tejeda Lorca, who had murdered Moreno’s father—Deputy Jesús Moreno—two months earlier. Six years later, in 1928, José de León Toral assassinated the president-elect Álvaro Obregón for political and religious motives. Both cases cast light on the disruptive violence endemic to Mexican politics in the 1920s. They also epitomized how human dramas, in courtrooms that doubled as theaters, prevailed over orthodox legal procedure. Both murderers influenced public opinion through their body language as well as through statements made during trial and in interviews. Although jury trials allowed common citizens to play an active role in their country’s judicial system, those same jurors then felt empowered to circumvent the legal system, “embracing the emotions of the trial and adopting a negative view of the law when [the jurors] thought it was flawed.” Piccato underscores how such emotional factors ended up undermining the impartiality of trials. As a woman, an adolescent, and a victim of political violence herself, Moreno was found innocent by jurors who sympathized with her story. José de León Toral, prosecuted as a political dissenter, was executed in 1929. Despite the democratizing role that juries were supposed to have played, then, they sometimes and paradoxically helped dismantle the credibility of the Mexican justice system instead. Though Moreno and Toral faced different fates, the narratives of their cases forever transformed the way the Mexican public was to view its own legal system.
The abolition of criminal juries in 1929 made space for a press genre that, today, still dominates Mexico’s publishing landscape: the nationally popular nota roja (crime news). Photographic reportages, criticism of police, and citizen concerns about safety in urban settings comprise its quintessential features; but most importantly, the emergence of the genre highlighted the malfunctioning relationship among crime, truth, and justice. In fact, as Piccato points out, “nota roja readers … continued to see justice as a right associated with the truth, a constantly renewed claim rather than a privilege of modern life.” As the twentieth century progressed, so too did the degree of criminal literacy in Mexico. Whereas mere criminal narratives, as during the years of criminal juries, were once enough to satiate the Mexican public, by the second half of the twentieth century, crime narratives needed to be three-dimensional, which often involved investigating the reasons behind a crime and the motives behind its perpetrator.
By the 1960s, the nota roja began its decline in popularity. Its graphic descriptions were usurped by more dynamic media, like television, and the independence of the press had been undermined by its increasing collaboration with the government. Nevertheless, Piccato underscores how the legacy of the nota roja survived in its direct and crude language, utilized by the new media to attract consumers. Equally important, the nota roja’s mission of keeping citizens up to date on the latest development of the most ferocious murders contributed a great deal to the construction of Mexican criminal literacy by fueling the citizenry’s search for the truth. Born from the ashes of jury trials, the nota roja gave flight to Mexicans’ need to amplify citizen voices in order to fight widespread impunity. And truth was its building block: the nota roja distanced itself from the police and judiciary, which had previously monopolized the distribution of crime-related information. In the end, the nota roja’s criminal literacy, Piccato tells us, “codified the perceptions of corruption, ineptitude, and violence that characterized the postrevolutionary political order from civil society’s perspective.”
In line with the changing times, Piccato shifts his attention to infamous agents of Mexican crime and the city as the new criminal setting. Detectives, police officers, murderers, and pistoleros (gunmen) come to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the urban landscape that, between the 1940s and the 1960s, underwent deep changes. Rampant urbanization paralleled the changing definition of crime and the criminal. For Piccato, this new urban life fueled rampant individualism that both exacerbated violence and begot impunity.
Piccato focuses on case studies that epitomize how murder and murderers adapted to the urbanization of Mexico in the mid-twentieth century. Narratives of criminal literacy showed how a murderer’s acts and public persona deviated from cases like Moreno’s and Toral’s, emerging instead as the product of this new landscape. In the second half of the twentieth century, murder in Mexico was no longer carried out to fulfill personal revenge or vindicate honor. Instead, it became a means to react against the anonymity of the new, urbanized society. Alberto Gallegos, for instance, was incriminated in 1932 for the murder of Jacinta Aznar. For a couple of months, Gallegos kept confessing and recanting his statements with the excuse that they were forced, thus drawing the attention of the general public and the press. Piccato also discusses the case of Gregorio “Goyo” Cárdenas, a chemistry student in whose private laboratory the police found four victims in 1942. Cárdenas’s violence was explained as motivated by uncontrolled sexual impulses. These two cases epitomized how murders “were harder to explain and the narratives they provided, although often detailed, often failed to make any moral sense.” The fame some of these murderers achieved, Piccato notes, might help explain acts of killing as extreme reactions to the dehumanization and the anonymity of daily city life.
Among the characters that appear in the second part of Piccato’s book, the pistolero is the one that most embodies continuity of criminality between pre- and postrevolutionary Mexico. Licensed gunmen operated in the space between legality and illegality. Their use of violence, often dictated by politicians for personal or political interests, was seldom prosecuted and often went unpunished. More importantly, the rise of gunmen also inaugurated the phase of political authoritarianism in Mexican history. As violence spread across the country, pistoleros embodied the unspoken political need for violence. This illicit, state-sponsored violence became the height of Mexican infamy, as politicians themselves would demonstrate a distrust of the judicial system by ordering violence and circumventing justice.
A History of Infamy comes to a close with an analysis of the genre of Mexican crime fiction, which Piccato sees—in books and films—as “one kind of reaction against infamy.” He looks to champion crime fiction against the neglect of contemporary literary studies. Like the nota roja, crime fiction was instrumental in depicting the structural changes crime underwent in Mexico’s urban settings during the central decades of the last century. But its most important contribution is to the development of Mexico’s criminal literacy.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, Mexican crime fiction was the country’s most popular literary genre. Unlike the nota roja, it did not offer a realistic portrayal of Mexico and crime. In fact, it mostly eschewed reality, speaking from metaphorical and exoticizing points of view. But while most Mexican literature was still imbued with postrevolutionary, rural narratives, Mexican crime fiction explored urban life, speaking more directly to what people’s lives were actually like. These narratives described masses of people squeezed into proletariat neighborhoods, rife with drugs and prostitution. Crime fiction did not mince words when it came to portraying the shifting criminal landscape: multifaceted, diversified, and—most importantly—predominantly urban.
Piccato creatively unearths the origins of Mexican crime fiction by explaining how some of the most important representatives of the genre tackled “dilemmas of crime and punishment.” Antonio Helú, María Elvira Bermúdez, Rodolfo Usigli, and Rafael Bernal are some of the names that, during these decades, would have been familiar to almost any regular reader in Mexico. Piccato argues that scholars have discredited crime fiction mostly on grounds that it was too formulaic to be able to depict the reality of Mexican crime. Crime fiction writers stuck to the canonical whodunit formula. But these writers have also been criticized for supposedly making light of crime’s importance at a time when Mexico was witnessing rampant impunity and injustice.
Piccato instead takes the opposite view, insisting on the twofold importance of Mexican crime fiction authors. On one hand, he says, these authors’ descriptions of orthodox police work cast light on the broken link among crime, truth, and justice in Mexico. As Piccato puts it, “fiction was the best way to imagine a country in which impunity would not mar the search for the truth.” On the other hand, by tying together crime, truth, and justice in a dysfunctional setting like urban Mexico, these authors enriched criminal literacy. They validated the psychological, moral, and ethical characteristics of urban citizens who were not part of the nota roja’s narrative. Mexican crime fiction ultimately restored humanity and subjectivity to Mexican urban citizens, who were by then lost in the anonymity of the metropolis.
A History of Infamy’s thorough and innovative account of the voices of crime in Mexico from the 1920s to 1960s—“the formative decades of national infamy”—is truly excellent. Piccato demonstrates how, as Mexicans witnessed the dismemberment of the crime-truth-justice link over these years, they responded by building national criminal literacy, augmenting citizen awareness, and fighting impunity. Equally important, Piccato establishes two hallmarks of Mexico’s recent history of crime and justice that are crucial to understanding the country’s present and to envisioning its future. First, impunity does not stand out as “an obstacle to modernization but rather [as] an integral component of it.” The manipulation of the truth carried out—directly or indirectly—by the central government has led to widespread impunity and, predictably, to a deep distrust of the judicial system. Second, as a consequence of systematic impunity, Mexican criminal literacy is a story of seeking out the truth, whether through fact or fiction.
Piccato’s narrative follows the evolving role of truth within Mexican criminal literacy as the sine-qua-non for defeating infamy. In so doing, Piccato re-assesses the primary role of the crime-truth-justice nexus from a historical perspective vis-à-vis Mexican criminal literacy. In the end, Piccato’s study is key for understanding Mexico’s current, uncontrolled violence through its recent history, as well as a resource that provides the tools Mexicans can adopt today to tackle infamy in the future.
Matteo Cantarello is Visiting Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. His work focuses on fictional representations of Mexican and Italian organized crime and he is currently working on a monograph tentatively titled The Expendables: Women, Adolescents, and Latin American Organized Crime.