1In the second half of the nineteenth century, several South American countries embarked on reforms of their police forces, in line with the process of construction of national states. Certain “police models” that circulated as effective cultural devices in Europe during that same period proved to be in many cases useful legitimization instruments for the institutional modernization projects undertaken locally. Paris and the “French model” were by far a favorite source of inspiration for South American reformists, who traveled repeatedly to France in research tripsand to attend international congresses, writing down their experiences and observations to take back home.
2As police models and technologies were streaming into the continent from abroad, an intense transoceanic movement of people was rapidly changing the makeup of society and the forms of socialization in South America’s leading cities. In the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay received approximately 90 percent of all the European immigrants that came to Latin America. A swelling population, accelerated urbanization, increasing social and occupational mobility, and free movement of people both within countries and across porous international borders heightened the fear of crime, simulation, and the risks posed by anonymity, bringing to the fore a number of specific concerns.
3In this context, the Bertillonage arrived in South America surprisingly early, although it was introduced with varying degrees of success by the different police forces. This article explores the system’s implementation in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. It assesses the reasons behind such an early introduction and the limits that constrained its use in the South American Atlantic Word, focusing in particular on communication between police forces and the contexts in which the new identification system was introduced. The method had both supporters and detractors throughout Latin America and there were also very concrete institutional initiatives for its implementation in several countries of the Andean and Pacific regions, namely Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. This article, however, will only look at the above three South Atlantic countries, which concentrated the bulk of the continent’s immigration during this period. This particular selection is further based on the fact that these countries formed a common space shaped by the Atlantic routes.
“South America,” in Americanized Encyclopedia Brittanica, Vol. 1, Chicago, 1892 [areas highlighted by the authors]
4The main stops in the routes of the large ships sailing to the continent from Europe were the Brazilian ports of Recife, San Salvador de Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Santos. These ships continued down south to the Rio de la Plata (or River Plate), whose waters washed the ports of both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, on opposite sides of the river. This was the path taken by European immigrants who chose this part of the continent to “make it big in America,” as the popular saying went. These were also the ports of arrival of such illustrious visitors as Enrico Ferri, Gina Lombroso, and Edmond Locard, who came to see with their own eyes the amazing progress achieved by the great cities of the end of the world.
- 1 Silvado (João B.), O serviço policial em Paris e Londres,Rio de Janeiro, Imprensa Nacional, 1895. (...)
5In the final years of the nineteenth century, many South American police officers traveled to Europe on official “research missions.” Not by chance the leading destinations of these trips were Paris and London, as these elite police missions were closely connected with the European journeys that were practically mandatory among Latin America’s privileged youths. However, in the journals they presented as reports of their missions, these official travelers insisted on stressing that their transatlantic voyages were driven by the “practical purpose” of exploring Europe in search of the latest police developments1.
6This was how the Bertillonage made its way to South America so early. The first contacts with Alphonse Bertillon were made at the International Congress of Criminal Anthropology in Rome (1885). Argentina, in particular, had taken the lead in terms of incorporating ideas from the Scuola positivaof criminal anthropology, founding the Legal Anthropology Society (Sociedad de Antropología Jurídica) in Buenos Aires in 1888. The members of this society had close ties with the university and the government.
7Two prominent participants in this circle were the brothers Agustín and Luis María Drago. Luis María Drago was a criminal lawyer who had written the first Latin American treatise on criminology (Los hombres de presa), which had been translated into Italian with a prologue by Cesare Lombroso. Agustín Drago was a forensic doctor who had been sent to Europe and had interviewed Bertillon in Paris in late 1887. When he returned to Buenos Aires early the following year, he immediately set out to persuade police authorities to open an anthropometry office. And he succeeded.
- 2 Actes du Deuxième Congrès International d’Anthropologie Criminelle, Biologie et Sociologie (París, (...)
8At the Second International Congress of Criminal Anthropology (held in Paris in 1889), the Argentine representative presented a proposal calling for the approval of an identification method based on the anthropometric system. In the proposal, the speaker highlighted the need to “spread [the system] across the world” given the positive results it had garnered, which extended beyond Paris to Buenos Aires and some cities of the United States, such as Chicago. This claim, however, was qualified by Bertillon himself, who noted that to date the only government that had officially adopted the use of anthropometry records had been the Argentine government, as the introduction of the method in the United States was carried out through private initiatives only2.
9Buenos Aires’ pioneer role in the field of criminology and police work is explained by a combination of factors that had turned this city into a beacon of modernization in South America.
10By 1880, Buenos Aires had turned into a fully autonomous city and, after several decades of internal strife, it had also become the undisputed capital of the Republic of Argentina. The “Generation of the 1880s,” as the elite that governed the country until 1916 was called, had liberal political and economic views but was socially conservative. Both Argentine intellectuals and Brazilian republicans adopted the motto “order and progress,” based on the ideas of Auguste Comte, to summarize the national projects they sought to implement.
11Buenos Aires represented a testing ground and a huge challenge for government leaders. The state had been actively promoting European immigration and towards the last quarter of the nineteenth century the city experienced an unprecedented surge in population that turned it into the largest urban center in Latin America and set it on its way to becoming the continent’s second largest city, after New York.
12As of 1880, the new Argentine capital had its own police force, the Police Department of the Capital, which broke off the old Police Department of the Province of Buenos Aires. A symbol of this institutional change was the inauguration in 1888 of an extravagant building to house Central Police Headquarters and set up the Anthropometric Office with the new instruments imported from France.
13How could the introduction of this technology have been pioneered by a peripheral country that had only just become a consolidated nation-state following a long period of political conflict? The explanation is to be found to a great extent in the close interconnections between governing elites, the international flow of scientific theories, and the development of bureaucratic institutions, as well as in the existence of a deliberate project to turn Buenos Aires into a model for the region. The new identification system was also particularly attractive in a context of acute demographic and urban transformations, which intensified after 1880.
Dias (Arthur), Do Rio a Buenos Aires: Episodios e impressões d'uma viagem, Rio de Janeiro, Imprensa Nacional, 1901, p. 100.
14Immigration had its greatest impact in the city of Buenos Aires: in 1869, 40 percent of the people who lived in Buenos Aires had been born outside the country; in 1895, 52 percent of the city’s dwellers were foreign-born; and in 1914, almost half of the population was made up of foreigners. During this period, the population of Buenos Aires swelled from 200,000 to 1.5 million people and while Italy and Spain contributed with the largest number of immigrants, the city was transformed into a cosmopolitan metropolis where almost all the languages of Europe could be heard. The country’s initial excitement at the arrival of this much-needed workforce gave way to anxieties and the newcomers began to be regarded with suspicion. How could this huge mass of newcomers, whose origins were usually impossible to trace, be identified?
- 3 “Orden del día 3 de abril de 1889”, Libro de Órdenes del Día 1889, Centro de Estudios Históricos P (...)
15It is not surprising, then, that Agustín Drago’s suggestion was immediately and enthusiastically embraced. It is even less surprising considering that the traditional means of policing the streets were stretched past their limit due to the difficulty in forming a stable body of professional police officers. In 1889, the Chief of Police issued an internal order establishing the Anthropometric Office. As reasons for creating the office, the order listed a growing population and the suspected rise in criminal activities; the need to use “scientific criteria” in identifying repeat offenders to provide judges with any information that could help determine the severity of the sentence; the desire to adapt the institution to “European developments”; the proven success of the Parisian bureau; and the suspects’ tendency to conceal their real names and provide false identity data3.
- 4 See Ruggiero (Kristin), Modernity in the Flesh. Medicine, Law and Society in Turn-of-the-Century A (...)
16Moreover, the scope of individuals who were to be identified was a broad one, as the intention was to identify anyone arrested or serving a jail sentence. The national justice minister would authorize the identification of convicted criminals who were already serving their sentences and judges would authorize the identification of defendants. This pioneer office rapidly met with various constraints. The much-desired authorization to identify the entire inmate population was never granted, and the judges often heeded the offenders’ request not to be subjected to the new identification practices. Both body measurements and portrait photographs were seen as “blows to the reputation” of the defendants4.
17The Police Department of the Capital had been taken photographs for identification purposes since 1880, when the first studio was opened at police headquarters to photograph ladrones conocidos (known rogues). Shortly before inaugurating the Anthropometric Office, the Buenos Aires police asked Bertillon for advice on how to improve its photography service. After Argentina’s police departments adopted the use of standard front and profile photographs for identification in 1889, more and more individuals of various backgrounds were registered through photographs.
Front and profile photographs taken at the Anthropometric Office on September 26, 1889
File 5: Pablo Llanes, Uruguayan citizen, in Galería de ladrones, 1888-1891, tomo I, Buenos Aires, Imprenta y Encuadernación de la Policía de la Capital, 1892.
- 5 García Ferrari (Mercedes), Ladrones conocidos / Sospechosos reservados. Identificación policial en (...)
18Despite criticism, the implementation of the anthropometric system brought a significant expansion in both the number and scope of individuals identified. In 1889, the police had photographs on file for approximately 300 ladrones conocidos (known rogues),all of whom were poor urban dwellers, and at the turn of the century, the Anthropometry Office had more than 15,000 files for individuals ranging from police agents to day laborers, merchants, employees, and engineers5.
19Bertillon or Vucetich
20In the 1890s, the Police Department of the Province of Buenos Aires was also introducing changes. Buenos Aires, Argentina’s most important and richest province, had been forced to reorganize after the city of Buenos Aires had been placed under the federal government. This reorganization entailed the relocation of the province’s administrative center to La Plata, a new city 60 kilometer south of Buenos Aires built especially for that purpose. The provincial police department set up its headquarters in the new city as soon as the provincial government moved there in 1884.
21That same year, Juan Vucetich, a young man from present-day Croatia, was among the many immigrants that disembarked in Argentina. In La Plata, Vucetich found a young city unfettered by tradition and a modest police department in the process of reorganization. These two circumstances combined to offer him a great opportunity to quickly move up in the world. In 1889, he was appointed Head of the Statistics Office and shortly thereafter he trained with Drago in Buenos Aires on the use of the Bertillonage. While preparing the implementation of the anthropometric system in La Plata, he came into contact with Francis Galton’s research on fingerprinting. In 1891, La Plata opened its Anthropometric Office, which combined the Bertillonage method with the taking of prints from all ten fingers.
Vucetich showing how to measure the width of a suspect’s head
Source:Vucetich (Juan), Instrucciones Generales para la Identificación Antropométrica, La Plata, Tipografía de la Escuela de Artes y Oficios de la Provincia, 1893.
- 6 Letter from Alphonse Bertillon to Juan Vucetich, dated June 22, 1893, France, Italy, England, Aust (...)
22In 1893, Vucetich’s concern over the lack of training of his officers prompted Bertillon to offer him the possibility of translating for free his Instructions Signaletiques, which had just been published. The only condition he placed was that Vucetich purchase the color typography chart of shades of irises printed in Paris, and he offered to waive copyright to compensate for the cost of including this imported chart in the Spanish translation6. Vucetich, however, had no plans to translate Bertillon’s work, as a few months before they began corresponding he had published his own manual, Instrucciones Generales para la Identificación Antropométrica based on Alphonse Bertillon’s system, with the aim of instructing his officers and disseminating the new method. This book also included a section on fingerprinting.
23Vucetich had a highly eclectic and somewhat irreverent approach to the identification theories and practices that were being developed in Europe. He soon abandoned the directives of the Bertillonage method to create his own system, which consisted of recording certain simple morphological data, distinguishing marks and scars, and eliminated all body measurements except height. In 1896, this system was officially adopted by the Police Department of the Province of Buenos Aires.
Description of distinguishing marks and scars in the front of a subject’s body (above left); Fingerprinting instructions (above right); Instructions for photographing suspects (below)
Source: Vucetich (Juan), Instrucciones Generales para el Sistema de Filiación “Provincia de Buenos Aires,” Segunda Edición, La Plata, Talleres Solá, Seré y Comp., 1896.
24Vucetich quickly became an authoritative source on matters related to human identification in Latin American. In Uruguay, the Montevideo Police Department was also going through a period of reforms, which included establishing an Identification and Anthropometry Office that began operating in 1895 at Central Police Headquarters, along with the photographic service. It was officially inaugurated in 1896, with Vucetich’s technical assistance. Each day, the country’s police stations were to send in the day’s arrests for identification. The guards’ anthropometric data was also to be taken and recorded in their service files.
25Despite Vucetich’s close relationship with the Uruguayan police force, Montevideo condensed the region’s firmest opposition to fingerprinting and the most vigorous defense of anthropometry. Between 1898 and 1899, the Anthropometry and Identification Office began operating as an annex of the Penitentiary. The range of individuals measured was limited to convicted prisoners and the office took on a predominantly legal medicine approach. Its director, Alfredo Giribaldi, insisted on the superiority of anthropometry over fingerprinting, despite the strong support that had been shown for the latter at the Third Latin American Scientific Congress held in Rio de Janeiro in 1905.
26This could be explained by certain significant differences that existed between the two neighboring countries, most notably the persistence of internal conflicts in Uruguay until 1904 and the fact that the impact of immigration and urban transformations was less spectacular in Uruguay than in Argentina. Immigration peaked early in Uruguay, hitting its highest points in the 1860s, and then declining steadily. Thus, while in Buenos Aires the proportion of foreigners to nationals rose, in Montevideo it dropped. As a result, in the 1890s police authorities in Uruguay were not very concerned with the growing anonymity of the country’s urban population.
27Another significant difference lay in the strong centralization of Uruguay’s political system. The capital concentrated the government’s activities as well as most of the population, the judicial system, and the penitentiaries. This made it possible to mount a single office for the whole country, manned by a stable and highly qualified personnel. For Giribaldi, identification was not a police matter; it was above all a legal medicine issue, and anthropometry provided information about the inmate population that could be used to conduct criminology studies. After heated debates in the Montevideo Society of Medicine, the police finally established a Fingerprinting Identification Office in 1906, but that did not mean that Uruguay abandoned anthropometry. In 1912 the method was still in use, as evidenced by the National Registry of Repeat Offenders created that year, which required the taking of anthropometric measurements of convicted felons.
- 7 Quesada (Ernesto), Comprobación de la reincidencia, Buenos Aires, Imprenta y Casa Editora de Coni (...)
28Further up north, the Bertillonage had been discussed among Brazil’s elites since the dawn of the first republic. Many texts attest to the existence of an anthropometry office set up in Rio de Janeiro in 1889, one in Ouro Preto in 1893, and another in Sao Paulo in 18987. But when the nineteenth century came to a close, there was no evidence in police records that it was ever systematically applied.
29How can this difference with Buenos Aires be explained? While Brazil’s demographic changes and European immigration flows were not as spectacular as Argentina’s, they were not insignificant either: from 1872 to 1920 the population in the country’s capital increased by four, going from 274,972 to 1,157,141 inhabitants; and in the 1890s almost a third of the city’s population was foreign born. While far from reaching Buenos Aires’ degree of cosmopolitanism, life in Brazil’s capital was such that the risks associated with anonymity and the complexity of a growing melting pot were just as acutely felt and feared.
30Thus the failure of the Bertillonage in Brazil cannot be attributed to an absence of professionals familiar with it nor to the country’s demographics or its urban characteristics. Rather what separated Brazil’s cities from Buenos Aires was the lack of internal cohesion in the country’s governing elites during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Brazil’s republic was the product of a military coup and the country was torn by profound disputes between rival factions.
- 8 Art. 70 of the Police Regulations, in Coleção das leis da República dos Estados Unidos do Brasil. (...)
31Progress was only made in 1898 when the new president of Brazil appointed João Silvado to the position of Rio de Janeiro police commissioner. In the new police regulations, Silvado included mandatory anthropometric identification to be conducted “pursuant to Alphonse Bertillon’s system”8. This initiative, however, would immediately prove untimely as Vucetich’s method spread and was widely accepted in Rio de Janeiro, before the Bertillonage even had a chance to be put into practice. In 1903, when the Identification Bureau was effectively created, its director, Félix Pacheco, contacted Vucetich and began a close working relationship with him.
Juan Vucetich and Félix Pacheco working together at the Rio de Janeiro Identification Bureau
Source: Renascença. Revista mensal de letras, sciencias e artes, n° 49, Rio de Janeiro, March 1908, p. 89.
32The idea of a “scientific, positive, and modern police system” was the connecting thread that tied these late nineteenth-century timid approaches to the Bertillonage method together and led to Vucetich’s system being subsequently embraced. The propagation of the fingerprinting method in Brazil had a lot to do with the simplicity of taking prints, which could be easily taught to low-ranking police officers, and with the low cost of the instruments involved.
- 9 Conferencia Internacional de Policía.Convenio celebrado entre las policías de La Plata y Buenos Ai (...)
33The initial excitement that accompanied the establishment of the Buenos Aires Anthropometric Office soon shifted to fingerprinting. The consolidation of the exchanges between South American police forces had a great deal to do with the wide acceptance of fingerprinting in a number of regional meetings, in particular the first South American Police Conference, held in Buenos Aires in 1905. The main attraction at this inter-police event, which gathered representatives from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay, was Vucetich, The conference closed with the signing of an agreement for the sharing of “information useful for police purposes,” based on Vucetich’s system, while retaining the judicial photograph component of the Bertillonage9.
- 10 Galeano (Diego), “Inter-Urban Policing Networks. The Rise of South American Police Cooperation, 19 (...)
34A second conference was organized in Buenos Aires in 1920, but this time without Vucetich, who had retired from police activities in 1912. This conference was even more focused than the previous one on finding ways to combat anarchism. The European origin of most anarchist leaders was used against them to create a rhetoric in which they were portrayed as “traveling bandits” who were a threat to local societies10.
35Through their protests, the most conservative elites had succeeded in creating an enabling environment for the approval of a series of laws for the expulsion of “dangerous” foreigners. In this context, the exchange of identification files was seen as a strategic challenge, even though in practice the new exchange protocols were not always observed, with police forces resorting instead to the old system of “filiations,” occasionally supported by photographs sent by mail.
36The conflict between the Bertillonage and Vucetich’s system at the turn of the century was so intense that it eclipsed the importance of the pioneer role played by the anthropometry offices, and to this day this obliteration makes it very difficult to reconstruct how these offices operated. Anthropometry was given less and less space in institutional documents and police journals until, in 1905, Uruguay’s Giribaldi was practically the last advocator of the method left. But the importance of anthropometry in the region should not be overlooked, as it brought about a significant advancement in policing capacities. It was, in fact, a platform from which a dense network of inter-police relations was launched, spreading beyond the capital cities of South America’s Atlantic region throughout the twentieth century.