Crime in Modern Latin America: New Narratives on Deviance and Social Control

Conference on Latin American History 14
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
River North Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Robert Buffington, University of Colorado Boulder
James Garza, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Session Abstract

Session Abstract

 This panel explores discourses on crime and criminality and their influence in the enforcement of the law in Brazil, Peru, and Mexico from the late nineteenth century until the 1950s. It focuses on cultural and social processes and analyzes not only the criminalization of specific sectors of the Latin American society but also the political agenda behind social control debates and policies. In particular, these studies highlight the impact of new theories and technologies of control within the context of modernizing projects that attempted to transform Latin American societies and economies during the last decades of the nineteenth century. These projects trumpeted the acquisition of foreign standards in the name of progress and increased the state’s presence in the public and private spheres. However, they did not involve a rupture with the colonial past. The new “modern” discourses “recycled” old ideas on gender, race, and class. They fueled the rise of communities of social control “experts,” the spread of debates about criminality and security, and the legal and institutional reforms. Prominent among these changes was the criminalization of sectors of society threatening to elites’ status and their modernizing projects.

Josť Najar’s paper, for example, examines the impact of criminal anthropology in São Paulo, Brazil, and the criminalization of the Syrian-Lebanese community during the late nineteenth century. Najar argues that the construction of the Syrian-Lebanese criminal subject emerged in a context of high immigration that threatened the privileged economic and social status of the Brazilian elite. Luz Huertas’ paper focuses on criminologists’ discourses from the 1880s to the 1930s in Lima, Peru, and contends that these intellectuals’ ideas reveal a perspective in which social order meant the decrease of social mobility, the homogenization of the lower classes, and the increase of the state’s authority. In addition, this community of intellectuals emphasized crime as a problem not only to echo the elites’ fears but also as a strategy for their self-promotion as indispensable social control agents.

Shari Orisich’s paper analyzes the criminalization of Mexican youth in post-Revolutionary Mexico City, arguing that marginalized youths became the main objective of programs of social control that sought to monitor “antisocial” behavior. Orisich pays special attention to visual artifacts, which played a constitutive role in the construction of the “ideal adolescent” while portraying the contradictions of modernity. Finally, Gregory Swedberg’s paper examines the intersections among gender notions, crime, and social control in post-Revolutionary Mexico, arguing that a continuity between colonial and republican perceptions of sexual violence characterized this period. These perceptions ultimately determined police officers’ reluctance to impede on men’s cultural rights to control women’s bodies, which was especially evident in cases of rape.


This panel will attract professional historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, as well as a non-specialized audience. The different perspectives of the papers will draw the attention of scholars interested in gender studies, intellectual history, and social and cultural history. In addition, the geographical range of these studies should appeal to a general audience interested in Brazil, Peru, and Mexico.