While the City Sleeps: A History of Pistoleros, Policemen, and the Crime Beat in Buenos Aires before Peron

While the City Sleeps: A History of Pistoleros, Policemen, and the Crime Beat in Buenos Aires before Peron

by Lila Caimari


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289437
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Series: Violence in Latin American History Series , #2
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lila Caimari is an
Independent Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, where she studies and teaches the history of crime, journalism, and urban culture. She is the author of several books, including Perón y la Iglesia católica: Religión, Estado y sociedad en la Argentina, 1943–1955 and Apenas un delincuente: Crimen, castigo y cultura en la Argentina, 1880–1955.

Read an Excerpt

While the City Sleeps

A History of Pistoleros, Policemen, and the Crime Beat in Buenos Aires before Perón

By Lila Caimari, Lisa Ubelaker Andrade, Richard Shindell


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-28944-4



October 2, 1930: the Palermo woods. It's a pleasant morning. Neighbors are riding down the street on horseback. Others enjoy the day at a nearby sporting club. In just a moment they will witness the following chain of events (to be reconstructed later by police investigators): first, a car speeds up Vivero Avenue, coming from the direction of downtown Buenos Aires. The driver, the witnesses later find out, is transporting money — salaries for the workers at the National Office of Public Works. The car carrying the payroll is then cornered by another automobile, carrying two members of a seven-person gang. The remaining five quickly descend upon the scene in a third vehicle, the getaway car. Both the assailants and their targets are armed, carrying Winchesters and high-caliber revolvers. A brief shootout leaves a few wounded, and one dead. The assailants rush to the getaway car with the money in tow and speed off in the direction of Belgrano. It all takes place in a matter of minutes.

Naturally, those porteños who followed the news about the public works payroll holdup saw this episode as only the latest in a wave of similar crimes that had been the talk of the town: a subject of worried debate in police stations, a favorite topic in the press, and a fixture of conversations in cafés, on the trolley and in stores, social clubs, and neighborhood associations. By the end of the 1920s, the crime problem was common knowledge in Buenos Aires. Said one observer in 1927, "The outrages of the criminal underworld are generating alarm among all social classes; it has even become common to hear it said that people live better out on the pampa, where there is some guarantee of safety, than in any corner of our cultured and opulent metropolis." No one would argue that the people of Buenos Aires were unaccustomed to living with crime. Gruesome chronicles had been circulating for years. Portraits of delinquents and dangerous perpetrators were regular elements of the city's newspapers. Yet midway through the 1920s, a change began to insinuate itself into the nature and intensity of society's anxiety over crime, swelling by the beginning of the next decade into a growing sense of imminent crisis. Editorials decried that the police and the penal system were ill-equipped to face the city's increasingly arrogant bandits. Neighborhood petitions called for more police in the streets. La Prensa, La Nación, El Mundo, and La Razón all pushed for firmer laws and stronger enforcement. Some called for Congress to reinstate the death penalty; others demanded that the police be armed for all-out war.

Talk of the "new" crime bound together a range of anxieties and concerns, most frequently connecting it to the perverse effects of modernity: a decaying moral order (in the realms of family and sexual mores), an identity crisis brought about by the city's rapid growth, the unbridled expansion of consumer culture, the rise of the entertainment industry and its cornucopia of dangerous fantasies and seductive stimuli, and so on. It activated a host of fears regarding the moral abyss besetting modern society. Crime was also perceived as an indicator of political decadence, suggesting a connection between power and rampant corruption. The illegal structural framework of caudillo control over vast territories of the province of Buenos Aires was, in the 1930s, part of the political landscape of any regular reader of newspapers, where anecdotes and scandals drew a picture of official complicity (both political and police) with crime or its related activities, particularly on the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires. A complementary reading of the problem took the form of a more general critique of the state's weaknesses and inefficiencies. The climate of anxiety and distrust left in the wake of certain high-profile cases cannot be ignored when we consider the context in which broader challenges to the liberal state were flourishing.

This chapter looks at a specific aspect of this phenomenon: the material evolution of illegal practices in the city of Buenos Aires. This emphasis suggests a hypothesis: that the motor of change can be found in interactions between technological modernization, the expansion of consumer culture, and the rise of a performative dimension of crime. New criminal practices emerged within the context of different local practices and traditions, but their performative quality allowed them to be superficially grouped together and homogenized under a single conceptual mantle.

Was crime really on the rise in Buenos Aires? Police data provides no easy answer. The methodological problems in using these kinds of statistics are well known, but they warrant review. First, we should recall that police information only reflects reported crimes, which are themselves a highly uneven selection of real crime. Second, such data is labeled and filed according to institutional definitions of crime, which can skew perceptions. Third, crime reporting is gathered irregularly across time. Statistics thus reflect the typical problems of institutional data collection, including failures of efficiency, structural incentives to skew data, and the typical failings of information gathered by small offices. We should also note some specific problems associated with the Buenos Aires Capital Police's methods of data collection during this period. The data most cited in the press and by state agencies was not disaggregated in any way — the numbers were simplified as a global rate for reported crimes. Contemporary observers who sought data on crime noted that official information was insufficient to either confirm or deny perceptions of high crime. Yet, these figures remain the only numerical data available for analysis, and it is still the only quantitative information we have to map out these broader trends.

These are the kinds of rather placid statistics that police authorities cited when they cast doubt on the public perception of a crime wave. The data, they said, "shows that public opinion sounds a false alarm; it confuses a rise in news about crime with a rise in crime." These same statistics were used by those who defended the 1922 penal code against those who argued for harsher punishments. The graph suggests, in effect, that crime rates per capita remained relatively stable throughout the period, with a brief upswing during the early 1930s. This rise, as we shall see, was consistent with disaggregated statistics on violent crime and should be considered within the context of global economic depression. Just as in other societies, including those in which the consequences of the Depression were more profound and sustained, the relationship between the economic downturn and criminal activity is far from clear. Moreover, public perception of rising crime actually preceded the escalation marked out in the statistics in 1930. Even if we isolate the period in which reported crime did rise (between 1931 and 1937), it is apparent that Buenos Aires's crime rates were still far lower than those in other major cities. There was certainly less crime per capita than in Chicago, which represented the vanguard in the trend toward urban crime, with double the homicide rate of New York or Philadelphia. But Buenos Aires did not even approach the crime levels of European cities like Berlin or Paris — cities with which porteño authorities were most inclined to compare themselves. This was confirmed in statistics of "crimes against property," a category that actually declined over the long term. The numbers consolidated at the beginning of the 1920s at a relatively low rate, between 3 and 4 per thousand, and did not change considerably during the crisis.

Rising crime? On the contrary, the statistics suggest years of relative calm after the wild peaks accompanying the rapid urbanization of the first two decades of the twentieth century. What, then, made porteños of the 1920s so certain that they were in the midst of a crime wave? Sociological literature describes a "crime wave" as a series of complex changes in social perception that can be independent of rises and declines in crime rates. The first studies on crime waves began to appear in the United States in the late 1950s, and hypotheses about the nature of the disconnect between real crime and perceived crime have become increasingly complex since. This literature shows that no matter how large the gap between perceived and real crime, perceptions generate a very real impact: social pressure can change laws, increase the presence of police on the street, and cause a dramatic change in the number of convicted criminals. Thus, the ways in which crime was perceived and represented are crucial to our understanding. Yet before focusing on perceptions and representations, we must take a deeper look at criminal practices, because the symbolic renovation of the discourses and imaginaries of crime would not have occurred if certain kinds of crime — crime with high visibility and with great potential for sensationalism — had not actually been on the rise. Indeed, the relative stability suggested by the available statistics was hiding notable qualitative changes. The comparatively moderate (and relatively steady) crime rate in Buenos Aires was overshadowed by pronounced and evocative new kinds of crime that confirmed the feeling that the streets were becoming more unsafe.

Unsafe streets: this simple commonsense perception was, in fact, confirmed by statistics. But danger in the streets seemed to come more from negligence than criminal intent, from accidents rather than premeditated crime. Taking only homicide as a point of reference (since it is the crime that is least likely to escape police detection and that involves less symbolic construction), we can compare, for example, deaths caused by stabbing, by automobiles, and by firearms. The relatively stable rate of homicides by stabbing is the first point of reference. The two other sets of data, however, follow divergent paths: we see a rise in mortality from auto accidents that neatly correlated with the rise in number of automobiles present in the city during the 1920s. The rise in shooting deaths made them the number-one cause of violent death by the beginning of the 1930s.

As we can see, at the end of the 1920s traffic accidents were the principal cause of violent death in the city. They were also the number one cause of nonfatal injury, of which there was a dramatic rise during the decade.

In this case, there are few reasons to doubt the trends suggested by the numbers. The spike in "crimes against people" caused by car accidents was so swift that the category was soon subdivided further. Authorities found it necessary to disaggregate involuntary and voluntary manslaughter (car chauffeurs lead this group) and introduce distinctions between vehicles (trolleys, buses, taxis, private cars), the location of accidents, and so on.

Maps of violence produced by the automotive transport authority at the end of the 1930s, when accident rates had stabilized, showed that downtown streets were covered by a dense cluster of accidents. On some streets the concentration was so great that the trail of yearly accidents created an uninterrupted outline of the street plan. They became more widely spaced as they moved away from the downtown area, though no jurisdiction saw less than tens of wounded from accidents per year.

As this data suggests, the feeling that violence in public places was on the rise was a perception rooted in reality, although the principal culprits were the new cars rather than the new crime. These two trends were not unrelated, however. As we will see in the next section, the rise of "new" crime was closely linked to the transformation of urban transport.


"Not in Any Hurry" is pure Argentine.

— Jorge Luis Borges, "Inscriptions on Wagons" 1928

Changes in crime practices during the 1920s and 1930s illustrate the challenges that modern technologies posed (and continue to pose) to the established order. They are testimony to the functional and semantic multiplicity of artifacts, to the repertoire of unforeseen appropriations, and to their potential use. They also reflect a context in which the structures of opportunities for crime were transforming — a historical moment in which engaging in illegal activity suddenly became easier. Telephones, radios, autos, firearms, and improved photography — to name only a few of the most relevant technologies of this period — were readily available tools. The history of the relationship between the state and crime in the early decades of the century was, by and large, a race to discover the most avant-garde application of each new artifact.

It was often said that the era's greatest threats resided in mass access to certain goods and the subsequent misuse of these technologies by sectors of the population. Audacity, boldness, and vertigo: crime's descriptives emanated from the changing material conditions of the times. The "new" criminal became most closely associated with the automobile. The account of motorized robbery that opened this chapter serves as one window into the changes brought on by new forms of transportation. In 1917 and 1925 (respectively), local subsidiaries of Ford and General Motors opened dealerships, introducing U.S. automobiles into the local mass market. Argentine car consumption expanded drastically. In 1920, there was one vehicle for every 186 residents of the country. A few years later, the number had climbed to one car for every 27 residents, more cars per capita than in Germany. By 1926, Argentina placed seventh in the world in automobile ownership, with numbers comparable to those in France and Great Britain.

The car was the most important consumer object of the 1920s — far more relevant than any domestic artifact. Mass production, financing opportunities, and the diffusion of advertising in the media transformed the public's perception of car ownership. The automobile shifted from being a luxury object to being an accessible consumer item that, while not cheap, nevertheless marked an aspirational horizon for a growing segment of the urban populace. Car ownership was also a dream for those who, barring a stroke of good luck, could never hope to acquire one. With a mixture of compassion and disgust, Roberto Arlt described the poor characters who gathered at dealership windows to gawk: "They stop at all hours, implausibly unkempt, stealing glances at a machine priced over 10,000, as if seriously considering whether this was the brand that they should buy — all the while stroking in their pockets the only sad coin they have, which will likely be spent on lunch and dinner at an Automat."

Argentina began constructing a network of national highways and roads in the 1930s. Until that time, automobile traffic was largely confined to urban centers, and most specifically, to their central commercial and financial districts. Traffic was an important issue for city officials and, in the emerging field of urban planning, controlling street traffic became a primary objective. In 1927, the weekly magazine Caras y Caretas announced that the city was being "invaded" by automobiles. With Model Ts occupying half of the road, avenues were no longer avenues: "With their overwhelming ambition, the metallic coaches run up and over the sidewalks and drive into empty lots," the article reports. Not even the sidewalks are free from the "plague" of "rubber-footed [beasts] with breath that smells of gasoline."

Thanks to "the madness, the vertigo of velocity that like an infectious micro-organism, is carried in the blood of every man who takes the wheel of a car," a swift rise in speed transformed every intersection into a danger zone. The hurried anxiety unleashed by individual control of the accelerator prevailed over any punitive measure that the city might impose. For many witnesses, this new means of transportation reflected a culture of instant gratification and morally questionable modernity, where the tyranny of desire impaired new drivers' capacity for self-control, spinning into a perceptual frenzy, an intoxicating stream of light and shadow. In 1927, the writer Manuel Gálvez published a story that put his protagonist — a marginal writer who rarely experienced such luxury — in the backseat of a rental car moving through the downtown streets of Buenos Aires. "It is a thrill to see corners crashing with each other and streets cowardly escaping. ... The collapse of colossal buildings in the distance, houses built one on top of the other, automobiles flying away, pedestrians swallowed up by the somber caves of dark doorways, the quick combat of shadow and light, reflection upon reflection — my eyes devour all of this as I ride in the automobile."


Excerpted from While the City Sleeps by Lila Caimari, Lisa Ubelaker Andrade, Richard Shindell. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Pistoleros
2. Languages of Crime
3. Order and the City
4. Detecting Disorder
5. The Places of Disorder
6. While the City Sleeps: Police and the Social Imagination



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