SWJ El Centro Book Review – In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico
Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. [ISBN: 978-0520344020, Hardcover, 230 pages]
Lynching in Mexico and Latin America is a subject of interest that has produced several contesting theories. Most scholars view lynching in Latin America as a recent reaction to increasing perceptions of crime within an environment of unequal access to justice and corruption and unresponsiveness on behalf of state institutions. Gema Kloppe-Santamaría argues that the prevailing literature on lynching has failed to note the complex political, cultural and long-term underpinnings of the practice. Kloppe-Santamaría, an associate professor of Latin American history at Loyola University Chicago, writes this book to fill the void. The author argues that lynching is a social control tool that reflects people's attempts to safeguard the political, economic and religious status quo of their communities. The text examines the sources of legitimation of lynching and the actual participants to present a complex understanding of the practice of lynching.
The Structure of the Inquiry
In the Vortex of Violence is thematically organized. It contains four chapters: an introduction at the beginning and a conclusion, notes, and an index. The chapters cover dozens of lynching cases from the 1930s through the 1950s, drawing on the various sources of legitimation that made lynching acceptable. The first two chapters follow a standard chronological order. Chapters three and four follow a more thematic narrative. The first chapter (Between Civilization and Barbarity Lynching and State Formation in Post-Revolutionary Mexico) follows the impact of state formation in Mexico on the legitimacy and persistence of lynchings. The author analyses how central elites' modernizing and centralization projects encroached on communal life and caused division and discontent. These projects, coupled with abusive public officials, contributed to the occurrence of lynching.
Kloppe-Santamaría identifies three modalities of lynching that contain patterns of resistance and negotiation between communities and the state: resistance, corrective justice and state-sanctioned. Lynching as resistance focuses on the lynching of state actors representing the state's modernizing and secularizing projects onto local communities. Lynching, as corrective justice, focuses on the lynching's targeting officials and power figures that abused their authority or handed out unjust punishments. Still, unlike resistance, it targeted the behavior of specific officials. Finally, lynching as a state-sanctioned activity focuses on state authorities that led to the lynching of so-called criminals or political enemies. This chapter discloses that lynching was a tool used by the poor and the powerful in Mexico as a form of governance and social control and problematizes the image of the Mexican state as a “civilizing” force.
The second chapter (In the name of Christ Lynching and Religion in Post-Revolutionary Mexico) focuses on lynching due to the stealing or desecration of religious images and spaces and the collective attacks against teachers and attacks on Protestants. The author analyses the church's promotion of an ideology that rejected progressive ideologies and how priests shaped their parishioner's predisposition to violence. The chapter expands on how the state would take an anticlerical position and impose laws restricting the church's power and religious practice in public. Teachers in rural areas entrusted with the agrarian reform and taking over the church's role in education made them a target of lynching. Teachers in Mexico would dismantle church's to turn them into public schools, which would anger the community that saw these acts as iconoclasm. The lynching of teachers and the state's violent response to these killings would finally result in the state taking a more moderate approach towards modernizing and secularizing projects. The chapter also examines the priest’s role in determining proper "Catholic behavior" which also led to the persecution and lynching of Protestants seen as foreign actors.
The third chapter (The Lynching of Atrocious Criminals Justice, Crime News, and Extralegal Violence) argues that crime news and the narratives about crimes and criminals presented by the press were central in constructing lynching as an acceptable and even moral response to crime. The lack of justice in Mexico led to the portrayal of lynching due to inadequate or insufficient punishment administered by the state. People demanded swift and harsh punishment to respond to stories of monstrous criminals, but the crimes meriting lynching varied from killings to bloodless crimes. As time passed, citizens would punish bloodless crimes with lynching under the justification that these types of crimes still threatened people's subsistence. The author concludes the chapter by stating that the culture of punishment demonstrates that lynching was not merely a result of impunity.
The fourth chapter (The Lynching of the Wicked Fat Stealers, Bloodsuckers, and witches in Post-Revolutionary Mexico) narrates the role mythical beliefs had in the incidence of mob violence. The author uncovers how mythical thinking combined with real-life concerns such as illness would drive lynching. The community perceived individuals as malicious due to their position as outsiders, and justified their lynching in order to ensure the safety of the whole community. The author also finds cases in which envy or even personal vendettas could also drive lynchings. Overall, Kloppe-Santamaría understands these cases as collective responses to modernization projects.
Conclusion: Out of the Vortex
In the Vortex of Violence relies on archival research documents to present specific examples of lynching that help develop the authors' claims. The text shows how lynching represents a form of sociologically and historically significant violence propelled by contentious and erratic political processes. The author notes how lynching is neither static nor linear. It evolved throughout the period under study and presented extralegal violence in Mexico as a central feature of coercive tactics used by the state to gain political stability. The author shows that citizens experiencing economic deprivation and a lack of access to institutional channels of justice committed most lynchings. Lynching is thus understood as a form of social control informed by conservative and defensive politics rather than by revolutionary claims.
This research touches on interesting themes, such as the effects of modernization projects on its citizenry, which present valuable insights that support and develop the claims of authors like James Scott in his seminal piece Seeing Like a State . The book also offers a unique understanding of lynching in Latin America that relies on historical evidence to show the evolution and complexity of the practice. The author demonstrates how the legitimation of lynching and its history help illuminate the social, political and cultural motivations behind lynching and the variety of actors involved in the practice. It would have been a valuable uptake to consider an explanation about the time period chosen for the study. The links between criminality and eugenics in Latin America could have provided an interesting contextual background to consider criminality to shape and utilize politically, socially and culturally during another modernization period in Latin America.
In the conclusion, the author connects the history of lynching with Mexico's contemporary challenges of violence and insecurity. She argues that today's violence has deeper roots in the country's trajectory of state-building and citizens' understanding of extralegal violence as a legitimate form of justice. Kloppe-Santamaría also describes how the process of centralization of violence in Mexico was built on a plural and decentralized exercise of violence. The author connects the past and present of lynching by pointing at the state’s inability to provide security and justice and the general acceptability of lynching. The book is an excellent historical piece that presents a complex understanding of lynching and its motivations and organization. It would have been interesting to include an overall number of lynching in Mexico and Latin America to get a general idea of lynching in the area studied. The connection between past and present lynching would have benefitted from a more profound analysis of the current situation and how it connects to these historical trends specifically. The state's development and expansion seem to be an essential part of the history of lynching. It would have been interesting to explore how drug trafficking organizations fit into the dynamics between state and citizenry that continue to produce lynching.
 See James Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.