On a trip to Mexico in 2010, photographer Stefan Ruiz stumbled on a sizable amount of vintage Mexican crime photos. He was perusing Mexico City’s sprawling La Lagunilla thrift market when he came across them. Something grabbed his interest and hooked him. Over the next six months he met the seller of the images and made repeated trips to the market to buy more and more, eventually amassing a large collection, which he published as a book titled, “Mexican Crime Photographs From the Archive of Stefan Ruiz” (Gost, 2015). Ruiz is uncertain about where the photographs originated but thinks they came from the archives of the Mexico City police department.
There is an eery beauty in this collection of images, which contains over 100 mugshots, artist’s sketches of notorious criminals and even stills from surveillance cameras showing armed robberies. The deterioration of the mugshots, some replete with pen markings and fading edges, has a kind of classic, perhaps nostalgic, aesthetic. The gritty, washed out and not-so-sharp stills showing bank robberies in progress have a visceral, voyeuristic feel that adds to their power. There’s even a dash of style seen in the way some people in the mugshots are dressed and have groomed their hair.
Beyond that, the collection also maintains a relevance to today’s Mexico. Writing about the book, Benjamin Smith, associate professor of Latin American History at the University of Warwick, notes, “In Mexico, contemporary events often evoke strong historical echoes. The photographs in this collection and the stories that underpin them still have resonance 40 or 50 years later. In 2012 the PRI returned to power after 12 years of opposition party rule. Stories of crime, police corruption, and impunity still dominate the news. Radicals are still depicted as criminals (witness the government effort to demonize the 2014 victims of the Iguala massacre); even daring prison escapes have made a return. Outside the mainstream media, Mexico’s marginalized continue to respect select members of what elites deem the criminal class. The days of the gentleman thief like El Carrizos or El Elote may have passed. Narcos, like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, are the new popular heroes.”