Order by the Books: Suicide crime scene investigations in southern Mexico

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Beatriz Reyes-Foster as part of our series of anthropological reports From the Field


The complex and contested relationship between representatives of a Mexican law enforcement agency and the citizenry it claims to protect is visible in the documents it produces. Ethnographic material further deepens our understanding of the ways in which law enforcement agents and common citizens form relationships based on negotiation and distrust.


In what way can ethnographic analysis highlight and supplement the strengths and limitations of law enforcement documents as prisms of social reality?

Don Matías1 was a 71-year old indigenous man from a rural community just outside of La Ciudad, a small city of 45,000 in southeastern Mexico. On the morning of May 1st, 2008, his wife left him at home with his extended family. At some point that morning, Don Matías put a rope around his neck, strung it from an S hook attached to the wall, and slowly allowed his body weight to cut off the circulation of air to his lungs, asphyxiating himself to death.  Shortly thereafter, the phone rang at the local ministerio public (MP), public ministry in La Ciudad, and a code 63 –local “police speak” for a death report—was announced. Agent R was instructed by the ministry director to conduct the investigation. He called the local forensic physician, a crime scene investigation specialist, and the judicial police office sharing their building. Then, he texted me. “A hangman has fallen in El Pueblito,” the message said, “we expect you here in half an hour.”

This was my fifth month in La Ciudad, where I had been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on suicide and suicide prevention. Up until now, I had had the opportunity to interview people who had survived suicide attempts and health care professionals involved in prevention. I had been spending two or three afternoons a week hanging out at the MP, reading suicide crime scene investigation reports. Like many doctoral research projects, mine suffered from being too broad and trying to do too much. I wanted to know about the phenomenological experiences that led people to commit suicide, I wanted to know about how mental health care professionals understood suicide, but I also wanted to know –this was the mortuary anthropologist in me—about how the suicidal body was treated by the state.

…next thing I knew, I was sitting at an MP computer terminal, reading suicide investigation files and waiting, literally, for a suicide to take place

The Mexican police are known for being corrupt, secretive, bordering on criminal. I assumed there was no way they were going to allow a random woman to work in their office, look through their files, or shadow them on a crime scene investigation. But I approached a colleague at a local university, where I was doing a stint as a visiting professor, who happened to have a position in the local municipal government. He pulled some strings, and next thing I knew, I was sitting at an MP computer terminal, reading suicide investigation files and waiting, literally, for a suicide to take place. On May 1st, as I was leaving an interview, I got Agent R’s text. Although two more suicides would happen over the next few months in my time in La Ciudad, for logistical reasons, this would be the only suicide investigation I would be able to attend. A few months after Don Matias’ death, I finally tracked down the crime scene investigation report. Unsurprisingly, the paper version of events differed significantly from what I witnessed first hand (see Table 1, Table 2).

Table 1

Table 2

In this post, I analyze a particular genre of bureaucratic documents in La Ciudad: crime scene investigation reports of suicides that took place between 2006-2008. How do law enforcement documents showcase the interactions between law enforcement agents and citizens? In what way can ethnographic analysis highlight and supplement the strengths and limitations of law enforcement documents as prisms of social reality?

Bureaucracy and the Bureaucratic Register

The concept of bureaucracy is among one of the most heavily studied and theorized in social scientific literature since the time of Weber (c.f. Blau, 1956; Niskanen, 1971; Dandeker, 1990; Peters, 2002; Wender 2008) and thorough review of the large and diverse body of work on this topic is beyond the scope of this article. The theoretical focus of this article is rather on one particular aspect of bureaucracy evident in the data set used for this analysis: the bureaucratic register – commonly known as “Bureaucratese,” the specialized language used in government organizations characterized by jargon, convoluted sentences, and general impenetrability—and its relationship to documents.The bureaucratic register manifested in the genre of the crime scene investigation report is the mechanism by which bureaucracy lives, operates, and reproduces itself through the voices and lives of the people who inhabit it. Documents –in this case, the crime scene investigation report—are constitutive of rules, knowledge, ideologies, subjectivities, and institutions themselves (Hull 2012, p. 253). William Lutz (1988) once identified Bureaucratese as a form of doublespeak, language that pretends to communicate but really does not communicate anything. The literature on the bureaucratic register in Mexico is scant, though some publications advocating the use of lenguage común, common language, exist (Barzelay, 2001; Barzelay, Armajani & Marínez, 1998; Boiero and Estrada, 2003) and have accompanied a recent shift in Mexican legal proceedings from “paper” to “oral” trials (García, Lacalle, and Pérez-Marquez, 2006; Carbonell and Reza, 2007; Carbonell, 2010).

Significantly, the bureaucratic register, with its impenetrability and absence of clear agents, functions to erase the voices of individual subjects.

I do not assume that the bureaucratic register is doublespeak or gobbledygook, though I am inclined to agree with Lutz’ assertion that bureaucratese is purposefully obscure and impenetrable. Most analyses of the bureaucratic register focus primarily on how it limits and hinders communication, with the exception of the work of Charrow and colleagues (Charrow & Crandall; Charrow, 1982; Charrow, Crandall, and Charrow, 1982) who published several linguistic descriptions and analyses of “legalese” and “bureaucratese” in the English language. Significantly, the bureaucratic register, with its impenetrability and absence of clear agents, functions to erase the voices of individual subjects. Theoretically, the dehumanizing elements of the bureaucratic register, reminiscent of Weber’s Iron Cage (2002[1905]), trap both the citizenry and the representatives of the bureaucratic order itself within an efficient mechanism of rational control. The sample of bureaucratic documents analyzed in this article demonstrates, however, that documents written in the dehumanizing voice of this genre reveal a nuanced picture of the ways in which citizens and agents produce a socially meaningful, analyzable text. A complete linguistic analysis of the bureaucratic register in Mexican Spanish is beyond the scope of this piece; however, this analysis assumes that the bureaucratic register indeed does communicate information both about particular events in time and place and about the preoccupations, contradictions, and complexity of interactions between the people who write these reports and the multiple voices they attempt to channel.

Crime scene investigation reports are interesting because they are linked to action and thus necessitate the translation of experience –of either the agent or the witness—into the bureaucratic register.

Bureaucracies, the documents they produce and circulate, and the people who create these documents, are not seamlessly functioning entities. The work of institutional ethnographers like Hull (2003), Anjaria (2011), and Matthews (2008), documents the way bureaucracies are undermined by the irregular routing of documents, contradictory instructions, and the volume of required documents. The sociocultural context of organizations and the documents they produce are key to understanding the workings of these organizations in their societies. Crime scene investigation reports are interesting because they are linked to action and thus necessitate the translation of experience –of either the agent or the witness—into the bureaucratic register. Understanding the role of law enforcement representatives and their relationship to bureaucracy is central to this task.


Description of the Data

This research is based on two distinct sets of data. The first set is the field note excerpt and autopsy room report presented above. The second is comprised of a sample of 13 suicide investigation report transcripts spanning from 2006-2008. Each record contains the file number, date, name of the deceased, official cause of death, and transcripts of the contents of each file. These contents varied by file, but generally included at least one type of report called a diligencia (field report), witness statements, and a toxicology report. These clauses were categorized as either third person clauses or first person clauses and appear in Tables 3 and 4.

I present two English translations made with the assistance of the Oxford Spanish English Dictionary: the first closely follows the syntax and semantics of the original Spanish, the second (labeled ‘plain English’) attempts to render the meaning of the clauses not readily apparent in the translations that closely follow the syntax and semantics of the bureaucratic register. Certain phrases are not translatable to English, and have been bracketed and left inside the English text.

Table 3: 3rd Person Clauses

Table 4: 1st Person Clauses

My analysis of the data, discussed at length in my forthcoming article [**Update** you can find the published article here], “Creating Order in the Bureaucratic Register” in the journal Critical Discourse Studies, uses ethnographic analysis and Critical Discourse Analysisis techniques to identify patterns emerging from the textual and ethnographic data. In summary, these are:

The Bureaucratic Register

The Bureaucratic register in these documents is dense. For example, in Clause 2 of Table 1, the time noted is military time, not used in civilian settings. The language is impenetrable, dense for the non-expert reader: ‘the proper authority,’ referring to the director of the local ministry, ‘constituted itself fully,’ in a reading that is difficult to understand in English. Del conocimiento, which was left un-translated in the transcript, translates as “of the knowledge,” but it is unclear whether this refers to the “authority’s” particular knowledge or to the physical place over which the “authority” has jurisdiction. Moreover, the autoridad del conocimiento is further accompanied by the secretary who authorizes (although precisely what is being authorized by the secretary remains unclear).  This sentence certainly seems to fit Lutz’ definition of gobbledygook: language that appears to say something without saying anything.

However, the language certainly conveys information. First, it gives detailed information about when and where the events described take place, and who was present. In fact, the sentence is using highly descriptive language to convey information lacking the opinion, motivations, or emotions of an author. The narrative voice is flat and descriptive, and so convoluted it effectively severs the text’s connection to reality.

The bureaucratic register removes all traces of affect, presenting a scientific, rational description of the crime scene. It is heavy in details, but these details pertain to the physical descriptions of the spaces where the suicide took place, of the physical appearance of the body, which now, as evidence, is property of the state. As Clauses 3 and 5 (Table 3) show, the description of the suicide scene and the suicida contrast with the lack of descriptions of witnesses, who are not physically described.

Finally, the cadaver described has ceased its existence as a citizen and thus becomes state’s evidence.

In effect, the description hides more than it reveals, giving no clues as to the identity of the writer or the body described. Based on the description, the room appears to be empty. Finally, the cadaver described has ceased its existence as a citizen and thus becomes state’s evidence. The description of the cadaver is, in this sense, a taking of inventory. The suicidal body ceases to be property of the state only when the death certificate is signed. The body becomes the limited property of the immediate family, compelled to bury its loved one within 24 hours. In this initial analysis, then, the bureaucratic register conveys a narrative that is missing the presence of human beings. The descriptive, impersonal writing style presents facts, objective information answering the questions what, where, and when, without concerning itself with who, how, or why.

Civilian voices, translated

These last questions –who, how, and why—are addressed more directly in witness statements that are included in the case files. These documents, which are included in the investigation record, are first-person narratives containing detailed information about the deceased from the point of view of a family member, usually a parent or a partner. Written in the bureaucratic register, the witness statement is marked by the de-personalized voice of the genre. Although the statement is narrated in the first person, the opening clause, usually something akin to either ‘the witness, speaking through an interpreter, made the following statement:’ or ‘the witness made the following statement:’, frames the statement as an alleged recording of someone else’s words translated into the bureaucratic register. The statement conveys information about the events leading up to the death, but lacks the emotional dimension that marked the actual event. Through this silencing of affect the suicide is de-personalized and converted into the rational account of death demanded by the state as it takes ownership of the body.

De Peso, “Cat´astrofes en Tizim´ın,”

De Peso, “Cat´astrofes en Tizim´ın,” January 21, 2008.

First-person witness statements are framed with a clause that states ‘Responde el [date] el/la [relationship to deceased], natural y vecino de [hometown], [marital status], [age], y con domicilio en [address]’ (‘The [relationship to deceased] responds [to the summons] on [date], a natural and vecino of [hometown], [marital status], [age], and who resides at [address.]’  followed by the first-person statement. The statement is closed with one or two third-person descriptive observations such as ‘the witness clarified that the deceased was a drug addict’ and the statement ‘Manifestó [name of ministry official].’ These texts appear more personal: they convey the individual stories of people who have a connection to the events. Unlike the previous texts, these texts convey presence of human beings missing from the descriptive third-person reports. The first-person narrations are based on statements given by witnesses, but cleaned up and revised into a distinct pseudo-bureaucratic register. In table 4, bolded statements exemplify the ‘bureaucratization’ of civilian language. Each bolded expression is neither grammatically incorrect nor particularly unusual in written Spanish. However, these words are absent in the everyday spoken language of civilians. Moreover, the biographical information recorded in these reports suggests that many of the witnesses who are cited were native speakers of an indigenous language, making them more unlikely to incorporate these clauses into their everyday speech. Some grammatical errors are evident in some statements, for example statement three in Table 4.


This is what is at stake in the bureaucratic paradox: the way in which Agent R, in trying to fulfill his duties as a bureaucratic agent… was forced to transcend his role to connect with the people he needed to convince.

In the ethnographic anecdote presented in Table 1, Agent R thought on his feet when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation, relying on instinct to achieve his goal of safely retrieving the body and taking it back to the antiseptic reality of the medical examiner’s office. He was thinking of his own physical-well being in his role as an agent of the state. Nevertheless, the ambivalence and internal conflict experienced by the MP agents in their role as bureaucratic agents is effectively silenced when translated into the bureaucratic register in the investigation report. The agent’s personhood is effectively erased. This erasure is evident when the phenomenological experience of the investigation is compared to the corresponding report (see Table four). This is what is at stake in the bureaucratic paradox: the way in which Agent R, in trying to fulfill his duties as a bureaucratic agent (the corpse must be removed and autopsied) was forced to transcend his role to connect with the people he needed to convince.

However, the documents themselves present hints of this paradox as well. For example, in clause six of table two, a sixteen-year-old girl whose boyfriend had committed suicide states that she never had sexual intercourse with him. The statement stands out because this information is irrelevant to the investigation.  Nowhere else in the sample is a similar statement about the nature of a witnesses’ relationship with the deceased made, nor is there as much contradictory information about a witness present. In the first declaration, made by deceased’s mother (Table 1, Clause 6), the mother stated that her son had been depressed because a girl he had brought to their home had left him. When the young woman in question specifically states that she ‘did not have sexual relations with the deceased,’ the statement has a particular, personal purpose: the young woman is salvaging her honor and her marriageability, with the help and compliance of the report’s author.


Discursive silences are evident in both in the morphology of the documents themselves and in the structure of the investigation report files. The diligencia documents, profiled in Table 3, are marked by the silence of absent civilian voices as well as by the presentation of detailed data that appears to present everything inside a crime scene save for the presence of living people. Civilian statements are marked by the absence of the voice of the agent who must ask questions in order to write his report. The civilian statement is in fact created dialogically, through a conversation between the agent and the witness, yet the statement itself only contains the translated words of the witness’ account. One can often only infer an interaction between an agent and a witness based on the length of a statement or on its content.

The report file, with its frequent irregularities, also presents a different kind of silence, the silence of missing files, lab reports, and incomplete statements. Don Matias’ file, which only contained a witness statement made by his wife, was hardly an exception. In the sample of 13 reports, 10 were missing some kind of document. Having witnessed the series of events that took place following Don Matias’ death, one might surmise that the missing file pieces tell a story about the difficulties and unexpected obstacles faced by agents in the performance of their duties.


The suicide crime scene investigation report is an imperfect ordering process. The regularity in its discourse, demonstrated by examples of the ‘bureaucratic register,’ is betrayed by the irregularity in each report’s morphology: the unpredictability of the contents found in individual and the at times illogical stylistic jumps from first to third person in the text. Beyond a reading of the texts themselves, the disorder underlying the entire bureaucratic exercise becomes evident the ethnographic eye turns to the praxis of crime scene investigation. Moreover, although the role of bureaucratic agents in social dominance becomes clear though the ethnographic analysis, the imperfect and incomplete nature of the report acquires a third, more human, dimension when contrasted with the chaotic turn of events in el pueblito. Without acquitting the actions of a bureaucratic agent caught between the grief-stricken rage of a family and his mandate to comply with the law, the ethnographic account highlights the complex relationships and interactions that take place in the silent spaces between the practical realities of life on the ground and the version of reality created in the bureaucratic register.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster is assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida. Although her research focus lies in Medical Anthropology, particularly the cultural interactions between medical systems and the people who use them, her previous work on suicide in Southern Mexico afforded her the opportunity to work with the local police force and study the management of deaths by suicide. Her current research interests focus on birth and breastfeeding in Central Florida, specifically the cultural politics of vaginal birth after cesarean section (vbac) and peer milk sharing. Dr. Reyes-Foster earned her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011.  


Dr. Jennifer Sandoval, Dr. Kevin Karpiak, and two anonymous reviewers provided feedback on this work.


1. In accordance with anthropological ethics, the sensitive nature of the material presented in this article demands the protection of my research subjects’ anonymity. As such, I have disguised the exact location and names of all people involved in this research.


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2 thoughts on “Order by the Books: Suicide crime scene investigations in southern Mexico

  1. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of April 6 | Savage Minds

  2. **Update: you can find the published article CREATING ORDER IN THE BUREAUCRATIC REGISTER: An analysis of suicide crime scene investigations in Southern Mexico , which Dr. Reyes-Foster refers to above and which further develops the ideas in this post, here in the latest issue of Critical Discourse Studies


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