Taking Hold of the Wheel: Automobility, Social Order, and the Law in Mexico's Public Registry of Vehicles (REPUVE)

Published date01 September 2013
Date01 September 2013
Taking Hold of the Wheel: Automobility, Social
Order, and the Law in Mexico’s Public Registry
of Vehicles (REPUVE)
Keith Guzik
Across the globe, governments are implementing electronic vehicle registra-
tion programs capable of locating automobiles instantaneously. In order to
understand the impact of such programs on contemporary governance, this
article draws upon the extant literature on automobility, law and society and
science and technology studies theory, and data collected from Mexico, where
the government has been implementing the Public Registry of Vehicles
(REPUVE). The central argument of the article rests on three concepts. First,
the automobile has recurrently served as a disruptive technology in modern
society, a technology whose adoption unsettles the social order by drawing
users away from their usual modes of social interaction. In response, state
authorities over the course of the twentieth century created a collection of
legal rules, actors, and institutions designed to take hold of the wheel. By
penetrating automobility with law, the state transformed the car into a legal
enactment device, a technology whose operation pushes people to enact the law
and, in so doing, constitutes the sociolegal order. In Mexico, a host of forces
have conspired to weaken the state’s hold on the wheel. The REPUVE prom-
ises to change this by “delegating” policing duties to radio-frequency identi-
fication stickers affixed to vehicles and scanners placed on roadways. Rather
than enforcing the law through corruptible humans sanctioning irresponsible
drivers, the REPUVE opens the possibility of doing so through a “surveillant
assemblage” denying roadway access to suspicious vehicles. In the REPUVE
then, the automobile passes from a legal enactment device, a technology whose
operation pushes users to enact the law, to a legal prescription device, a technol-
ogy whose operation requires them to do so. By demonstrating the role of
vehicular regulation in the “mutual becoming” of society and technology, this
study contributes to the growing research on the intersection of law and
technology and provides a glimpse into the changing nature of legal power in
the contemporary state.
On June 22, 2009, Mexican President Felipe Calderón inaugu-
rated the Public Registry of Vehicles (Registro Público Vehicular
The author would to thank William Rose and three anonymous reviewers for thought-
ful comments on earlier drafts of this article, the editors of Law & Society Review for their
patience and guidance in the revision process, Armando López Muñoz and Daiset Ruiz-
Sarquis for stimulating discussions on automobility and the law in Mexico, Nora López
Matta for her work in transcribing interviews, and the state and federal officials working
with the REPUVE who volunteered their time to explain the program to me. This research
was supported by a National Science Foundation Grant (1024469) awarded through the
Science, Technology, and Society and Law and Social Science programs.
Please direct all correspondence to Keith Guzik, Bloomfield College, 59 Fremont Street,
Room 204, Bloomfield, NJ 07003; e-mail: keithguzik@gmail.com.
Law & Society Review, Volume 47, Number 3 (2013)
© 2013 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
[REPUVE]) by placing the program’s first radio-frequency identi-
fication (RFID) sticker on the inside windshield of a Chevrolet
Suburban at the Puente de Ixtla toll booth outside Mexico City
(El Siglo de Torreón 2009). By applying RFID stickers to vehicles,
positioning RFID scanners at key transit points, and creating a
centralized database containing the identifying information of all
vehicles in the country, the REPUVE promises the federal govern-
ment more control over the circulation of automobiles. As such, the
program represents a critical tool in the state’s fight against orga-
nized crime, allowing it to more quickly respond to car thefts,
kidnappings, and drugs and weapons trafficking (Noticias Televisa
2008; Secretaría de Seguridad Pública 2009).
On its surface, the REPUVE might appear to be an audacious
effort at governmental control. By allowing for the instantaneous
identification and localization of vehicles, and tying such automated
surveillance to the fight against organized crime, the registry would
seem to capture the new governmentality that responds to insecu-
rity by socially sorting suspicious persons, processes, and things
from trusted ones (see Lyon 2007). Conversely, the REPUVE can
also be seen to simply tie together devices (RFID tags such as the
E-Z Pass) and details (VINs, license plates, driver’s licenses) that are
already widely employed by governmental authorities across the
globe. In this sense, the registry would seem to offer little innova-
tive. To the extent that similar “electronic vehicle registration”
programs are being adopted in other countries as well, including
Brazil, India, and South Africa (Bacheldor 2008), understanding
the REPUVE in Mexico is central to comprehending a more
general trend in how governments are regulating the means by
which people conduct their daily lives.
The ambiguity in understanding the REPUVE underscores a
larger issue at the heart of Mexico’s car registry, which is the
relation of the law to the automobile in general. Surprisingly, aca-
demic research on the topic is sparse. While long an object of
interest for social historians, theorists of modernity, and scholars
interested in industrialization (see Miller 2001), the car has only
recently captured the attention of social scientists. Probably no one
has done more to define this growing field of research than John
Urry (2004), whose notion of automobility describes the system of
interrelated institutions, industries, historical processes, cultural
practices, and emotions that have arisen around the motor vehicle.
In modern and post-industrial society, Urry (2004) contends, the
car stands as “1. the quintessential manufactured object produced by
the leading industrial sectors and the iconic firms within 20th-
century capitalism”; “2. the major item of individual consumption
after housing which provides status to its owner/user through its
sign-values”; “3. an extraordinarily powerful complex constituted
524 Taking Hold of the Wheel
through technical and social interlinkages with other industries”
(car parts, road building, advertising, oil production); “4. the pre-
dominant global form of “quasi-private” mobility that subordinates
other mobilities of walking, cycling, travelling by rail and so on”; “5.
the dominant culture that sustains major discourses of what consti-
tutes the good life”; and “6. the single most important cause of
environmental resource-use” (25).
A growing number of studies have helped illuminate these
different dimensions of automobility. The best work in the field
sketches the distinct cultural practices surrounding the car, espe-
cially in transnational contexts, including how it reinforces people’s
relation to the land in Aboriginal communities in Australia (Young
2001), affords women a sense of abandon and escape from the
constraints of the domestic sphere in Norway (Garvey 2001), and
provides privacy for drivers to reclaim time and control of their
lives outside the restrictions of daily life (Bull 2001). Other works
emphasize the role of the automobile in deepening social inequali-
ties, such as enabling white flight away from urban areas in the
United States in the seventies (Garvey 2001), reinforcing gender
subordination by sexualizing the relation between women and cars
(Sanger 1995), extending the colonizing project in Australia (Stotz
2001), and privileging “certain mobilities [vehicular] over others
[pedestrian]” (Monahan 2007). In this mode, David Gartman’s
(2004) research on the different epochs of automobile production
reveals how the automobile has throughout its history thwarted
self-determinism and individual autonomy in service of elite inter-
ests. The automobile has also captured the attention of social
theorists, who underscore how the automobile deepens the “tech-
nization” or human dependency of humans on machines (Elias
1995, as cited in Dant 2006), allows for a new state of being in the
world—motility—which is the ability to be mobile without having to
perform movement (Beckmann 2004), and creates the conditions
of hyper-mobility, which has become a requirement for true par-
ticipation in contemporary society and a basis of power for the
global elite (Bauman 1998, as cited in Beckmann 2004).
Largely absent in this literature however is law. While it receives
some mention relative to responses to vehicular risk, law as a theme
is missing. Saying this, one does not find much written about cars
within the law and society (L&S) community either. Legal scholars
have addressed topics such as the legality of police searches of
vehicles, road blocks, and so forth (Blade 1991; Joh 2007; Sklansky
1997) and offered critical examinations of the law “in action” in
racial profiling cases (Harris 1997; Kennedy 1997; Russell 1999),
sexual assault cases involving vehicles (Sanger 1995), and judges’
application of drinking and driving statutes (Ross & Foley 1987).
But, apart from a single article written by Jonathan Simon (1997)
Guzik 525

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