Keegan Boyar, Doctoral Candidate, History
Late one night this past summer, I was in the back seat of an Uber, returning home along the streets of Mexico City. Chattier than most, the driver asked what brought me to Mexico. I told him that I was here for dissertation research. “What’s your project?” he asked. “Well,” I said, trying to think of how to summarize it quickly and wondering how well it would go over in my functional but inelegant Spanish, “I’m researching the history of law and policing in Mexico City in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.” “Oh, the police,” he scoffed. “You know, there’s only one word you need to know to understand the police here in Mexico. Do you know what it is?” “No, what?” I said. He dramatically turned his head to face me. “CORRUPTION!”
For the rest of the trip, he expounded at length on his views about the problems with the police in Mexico—their inefficacy, their insufficient training, their frequent use of violence, and above all, their corruption. Although there were some novelties (notably, he briefly suggested that the Freemasons were ultimately to blame, although he refused to expand on this), by and large it was nothing I hadn’t heard before. What might be termed the “police problem” is a well-known issue in Mexico City. The police are widely distrusted by the broader population, and many people have their own stories, or know the stories of friends or family, about police extortion, abuse, and incompetent and/or insufficient service. Such issues frequently come up in news and writing about the city, as well. Throughout, there is often a certain tension in these stories, in that residents widely believe that the criminal justice system does not function, yet also frequently complain about the perceived lack of police.
I think about these stories often while I work on dissertation research. My project, to give a more complete description, examines the institutional and social construction of public order and security in Mexico City and the surrounding Federal District from about 1870 to 1950. These were years of dramatic upheaval. The capital went from a stagnant city of a couple hundred thousand residents, still mostly concentrated near the old colonial central district and surrounded by farmland and lakes, to a bustling metropolis of millions that sprawled outward, building over former farms and drained lake beds and absorbing many of the once-distant suburbs into the rhythms of urban life. With this urban growth came the perception of supposedly “new” problems, including crime, unequal access to public services, and urban poverty, as well as the development of “modern” institutions to deal with them, such as new legal codes and professional police. Yet the reach of these institutions remained limited. Many city residents lived in a state of quasi-illegality, their survival dependent on informal relations of clientelism and unofficial toleration from authorities that could be revoked at any moment. People used, debated, and at times resisted these institutions in a variety of ways, shedding light on the tensions between the formal order set forth by the state through legal codes and institutions, and the informal but no less regulated order carried out in the practices of daily life in the city. Ultimately, the conversation between informal practices and formal regulation came to be at the heart of everyday life in Mexico City, and embedded in the foundations of the Mexican state.
Figure 1. Much of my research has been in the National General Archive, or AGN, which is housed in the former national penitentiary–apt, considering my project.
Understanding the history of the “police problem”—and of police-public relations in general—is of course a major part of my project. As historians have shown, the Mexico City police (as well as laws and regulations more generally) largely functioned to target the urban poor and working classes for scrutiny, arrest, and abuse. Yet this did not preclude these same residents from trying to make use of the police and criminal justice system as they struggled to survive. Indeed, a variety of sources suggest that, while those who lived on the margins of society were the most likely to be victimized by police abuse, their marginal status limited their access to some other forms of authority, and they therefore often had to turn to the police to mediate their disputes or use the police in concert with other tools. Meanwhile, residents of all classes in newly constructed, sometimes unlicensed neighborhoods on the outskirts of the expanding city frequently wrote in to request police services, complaining that they were targeted by criminals in the absence of police.
It was this environment, where fear of crime met fear of police abuse, that gave shape to many of the documents that I have found in my research. One that stands out in particular comes from the personal correspondence of Félix Díaz, the nephew of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and, prior to the Revolution, the police chief of Mexico City. On August 18, 1910, a man named Carlos Espino Barros wrote a letter to Díaz. In it, he said that he had heard from an eyewitness about “a savage attack committed by several police against a decent young man, of recommendable appearance,” on August 16. He had come to suspect that the assault had been “a true crime,” and as the witness thought that the young man might have died of his injuries, Espino asked Díaz if that was in fact the case. Although Espino’s poor health prevented him from going in person to talk to Díaz, or going before a judge to press for an investigation, he invited the police chief to send “a person of your confidence and who you know to keep secrets” to his home to discuss the matter further with him. Discretion was of the utmost importance, Espino wrote, because “I do not want to provoke the vengeance of the alluded-to police”. Despite the danger, he wrote to inform Díaz to show him how “certain police” dealt with “defenseless drunks, above all if they are decent and find themselves far from the city center,” as was the case in the attack in question. In response to the letter, Díaz sent the head of the Reserve Police (the investigative branch of the police) to investigate its claims. After checking with other police officials, he concluded that the young man in question had not been killed or injured, and had been released the following day. The official also interviewed Espino, who said he had heard about the incident from a young woman whose address he did not know.
Figure 2. “First page of letter, Carlos Espino Barros to Félix Díaz, August 18, 1910.
AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.
Several points stand out in the letter and Díaz’s response. Espino’s fear of reprisal for speaking out about police violence suggests the high degree of distrust many residents felt toward the police, as does his belief that “certain police” routinely mistreated those they arrested. Yet this distrust was not absolute: not only did Espino take care to specify that it was only “certain police” (and not a systematic problem), but the fact that he wrote to Díaz with the evident hope that the police chief would listen and take action demonstrates some level of trust in police authorities. Similarly, Espino’s emphasis that the victim was “decent,” and his charge that police especially targeted “decent” people who were drunk, suggests the ways in which social status shaped perceptions of policing. While the police regularly and violently arrested those who were drunk in public, this instance of police abuse was particularly intolerable because it transgressed class boundaries, subjecting a member of the “decent” classes to the same violence regularly meted out to the urban poor. It’s also possible that this concern was animated by anxiety over Espino’s own social status. Although he did not specify his work, he was literate in a society with high illiteracy, indicating more education than many, but lived in a predominantly working-class neighborhood. Clearly striving to assert his own respectability, he may have seen police violence against the “decent” classes as a sign of the fragility of his own social status.
Finally, Espino’s letter sheds light into how knowledge of policing was constructed. Discussions of police violence spread along social networks, as people discussed incidents they had seen or had heard about from friends, neighbors, or other city residents. Rumor and fact mixed with residents’ preexisting anxieties and prejudices. In many ways, the stories people told about police violence, corruption, and incompetence parallel the stories that are told by residents of Mexico City today. While Espino may not have thought that freemasons were ultimately behind everything (or at least he didn’t say so in his letter), had he been able to meet the talkative Uber driver, he may well have found many other areas of agreement.
 For instance, the author and journalist Héctor de Mauleón recently reported on a failed attempt to film a nighttime special in the neighborhood of Tepito, an area with a longstanding reputation for crime. Upon arriving and asking a passing police patrol if they would be patrolling there that night, the journalists were told that the police would not be back until the next morning “due to the insecurity.” http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/columna/hector-de-mauleon/nacion/una-cronica-involuntaria-de-tepito
 Working- and lower-class women, in particular, often had to turn to the police to intervene in domestic disputes, where the patriarchal power of the husband over the family normalized domestic violence against women. In one example from 1904, a woman asked the police to arrest her husband for verbal and physical abuse. However, the husband’s friends, family, and neighbors, variously claiming that there was no reason to arrest him or that they did not know why he was being arrested, intervened, allowing the husband to escape. Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) / Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal (TSJDF) / Siglo XX (S.XX) / Caja 14 / Exp 1067.
 For a 1916 example, see: Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México / Municipalidades / Tacubaya / Policía / Caja 374 / Exp. 36.
 The following information comes from: AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.
 See, for example: AGN / TSJDF / S.XX / Caja 326 / Exp. 58694. In this case from 1904, police arrested a woman for public drunkenness and for supposedly attacking the arresting officer. She, in turn, argued that the police had assaulted her and she was merely defending herself. Despite medical examination revealing substantial evidence that she had been beaten, the judge threw out the charges against her but also refused to investigate the possibility of police abuse.