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Journal Article


Deas M. Lat Am Res Rev 2012; 47(3): 201-208.


(Copyright © 2012, Latin American Studies Association)






In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
The themes of policing, crime, and punishment have attracted relatively few scholars as far as Latin America is concerned. Violence is quite another matter, of course, and conflict studies flourish. Crime and punishment have for some time attracted the attention of social historians under the varied inspirations of the Warwick school of E. P. Thompson and Douglas Hay; of Michel Foucault; and of subaltern, postcolonial, and gender theories. Those interested in narcotics and their consequences have produced a vast literature. Legal systems have also received some extralegal academic attention, from the old formal analysis of historia del derecho and derecho indiano to burgeoning studies of democratization and human rights, and new theories of transitional and retributive justice inspired by postauthoritarian "closing the books." Policing comes in a very poor last. All in all, scholarship is thin and patchy in this area, and it is worth speculating as to why. Policing is a depressing subject in most places, particularly when the focus is contemporary. Police forces are inevitably the most liable of all state institutions to be inefficient, corrupt, and abusive. Few, if any, police forces welcome study; few have the capacity to study themselves. They are commonly hardened to criticism and expect little understanding from outsiders: the feeling is that "no one loves us except our mothers," and perhaps not even them. Much essential information is inaccessible, and looking for it can be dangerous. Anyone familiar with criminology also knows how difficult it is, even in other areas of the world that have much better statistics, to interpret data in this field to reach sound practical conclusions. In short, policing is a hard row to hoe, as the books under review show in their different ways. Some scholarly difficulties are perhaps particular to Latin America, or to the study of Latin America. In all the works examined--even in The Economics of Crime, which promises some lessons for Latin America from elsewhere--there is scant reference to the experiences of other parts of the world. For example, none of the works mentions the outstanding series of historical studies of British and European policing by Clive Emsley, which, if used, would at least show that Latin America's policing problems are not unique. Another factor affecting scholarship is the feebleness of the region's legal traditions in producing a usable empirical criminology. As Elvira María Restrepo states, "very little is actually known about the real quantity and nature of criminality in Colombia, with the possible exception of homicide and car theft" (Bergman and Whitehead, 181). Long influenced by Cesare Lombroso and his successors, or by more recent musings on crime as a product of law, lawyers have preferred to focus on the philosophical variants of the discipline. Neither school has much practical application, although both have contributed to strikingly indulgent policies in some circles. For example, the influence of Enrico Ferri in Colombia--felt there long before he taught his famous disciple Jorge Eliécer Gaitán--bears some responsibility for light sentencing: the penal code of 1899 fixed the penalty for assassinating the president at six to ten years of imprisonment, or four to eight years if the president was not in office at the time. The tradition persists. Laws of evidence generally favor the accused, and in the few cases in which heavy sentences are given, they are subsequently reduced on all sorts of pretexts; drug traffickers, for example, have had years knocked off their sentences for taking courses in business administration. Recent judicial reforms, notably the change to quasi-adversarial systems, have in large part been designed and carried out in an atmosphere of practical innocence, with little or no regard for the roles of police or for their capacity to fulfill the basic tasks of gathering evidence and producing it in court, for example. The word detective is rarely found on the lips...


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