Criminology (1880-1940)

Cuban scientists in the early 1900s published books on how to use hair to distinguish the degree of racial mixing because determining skin color could indicate degrees of criminality. Writings in Mexico averred that men with thick lips were likely to be rapists while men with thin lips had a propensity for murder. Brazilian law enforcement made permanent records for any woman wandering the streets because she was assumed to be either a thief or a prostitute. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists throughout much of the Western world believed that physical and psychological traits could be used to distinguish criminals and that the observed traits could then be statistically quantified to reflect recurring themes. Latin American criminologists were most influenced by the Italian School of criminal anthropology and Cesare Lombroso, its leading figure. Lombroso considered "born criminals" comparable to "primitive" races who were afflicted with "social diseases," traits presented as negative in order to establish a wider sense of social normality. Latin American reformers attempted to use this supposedly empirical science to identify and segregate the disruptive elements, rehabilitate them, and make the world safe for progress and modernity (Rodriguez 2006).

As is the case with several aspects of Latin American society since the late 19th century, experts on criminology and forensics have striven self-consciously to appear modern, both in order to enforce the law more efficiently and to demonstrate to the rest of the "civilized" world that the leading Latin American nations could be counted among them. Julia Rodriguez, an historian of science and society in Latin America, argued that the incredible advances in medicine that began in the mid nineteenth century led the upper-class intelligentsia to believe that science could also provide cures for the problems of society, especially crime. As in medical science, criminologists looked to identify the causes and symptoms that were characteristic of the criminal element in society. Their discoveries, however, often reflected the elites' preexisting racist, nationalistic, and classist prejudices.

More so than perhaps any other science, criminology is connected to the specific mores of individual governments and works to promote the norms that are valued by those in power. In Latin America from the 1880s to the 1930s, this science focused all too often on the exclusion, imprisonment, and degradation of people who did not fit their preconceived notions of race, gender, and class. As seen in the source "Direccion General de Inmigracion, governments exercised this power not only in an effort to identify the criminal elements within their countries, but to exclude potentially disruptive immigrants.

From the late nineteenth century on, the emphasis was on using new techniques, like fingerprinting, physiognomy, and photography to identify criminals and enter them into the public records. The source on Juan Vucetich relates an innovation in fingerprint classification that originated in Argentina. In theory, creating permanent fichas (files) on suspected criminals would discourage recidivism, prevent criminals from using aliases, and allow suspects to be monitored internationally. The Latin American nations that possessed modern forensics, however, tended to use these new tools of power towards specifically local ends. Argentina hoped to use fingerprinting to monitor working class immigrants, the group considered most dangerous to the larger social body. Mexican criminologists in the Porfirian era legitimized existing elite notions that Indians were prone to criminal behavior and used their evidence to exclude them from citizenship (Buffington 2000). Brazilian law enforcement used their new capacity to make authoritative fichas in order to label individuals (who were often innocent) as suspect (Da Cunha 2005), while Cuban criminology stressed racial classification in their files because darker skinned persons were considered more prone to criminal behavior (Bronfman 2007).

Although criminology was pervaded by exclusionary social practices, Latin Americans nevertheless achieved remarkable scientific advancements in this field. Carlos Roumagnac conducted empirical studies within Mexican prisons by interviewing inmates and Juan Vucetich created and implemented the first practical fingerprinting system in Argentina and spread it throughout the world. Discoveries such as these serve as further evidence that scientific excellence can be achieved in unexpected regions of the globe.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Although each Latin American country developed its own form of criminology and used it for its own purposes, they were part of an Atlantic network of scientific ideas. Which aspects of European and U.S. science most affected Latin American criminology?

2. Did Latin American practices in criminology have an impact on the Atlantic scientific community (if so, what was it)?

3. To what extent did racism (fueled by racial science, social-Darwinism, or older prejudices) shape the work of criminologists in Latin America? How did criminologists, in turn, impact racist ideologies?

4. How did Argentinean reformers known as the Generation of 1880 incorporate scientific criminology within the greater milieu of new scientific ideas influencing Argentina near the end of the nineteenth century (see the sources on immigration documents and fingerprinting)?

5. Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil all had complex racial stratifications within their societies. What was the impact of Lombrosian criminology on the racial dynamic in any one of these countries?

Further reading:

Bronfman, Alejandra. "The Allure of Technology: Photographs, Statistics, and the Elusive Female Criminal in 1930s Cuba." Gender and History. 19: 1 (April 2007): 60-77.

Buffington, Robert M. Criminal and Citizen in Modern Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Da Cuna, Olivia Maria Gomes. "The Stigma of Dishonor: Criminal Records, Civil Rights, and Forensic Identification in Rio De Janeiro, 1903-1940." In Honor, Status, and Law in Modern Latin America. Ed. by Sueann Caulfield, Sarah C. Chambers, and Lara Putnam. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Piccato, Pablo. City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

Rodriguez, Julia. Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and the Modern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Rodriguez, Julia. "South Atlantic Crossings: Fingerprints, Science, and the State in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina." The American Historical Review. 109: 2 (April 2004): 387-416.