Codes of the Underworld

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

Diego Gambetta
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Codes of the Underworld
    Book Description:

    How do criminals communicate with each other? Unlike the rest of us, people planning crimes can't freely advertise their goods and services, nor can they rely on formal institutions to settle disputes and certify quality. They face uniquely intense dilemmas as they grapple with the basic problems of whom to trust, how to make themselves trusted, and how to handle information without being detected by rivals or police. In this book, one of the world's leading scholars of the mafia ranges from ancient Rome to the gangs of modern Japan, from the prisons of Western countries to terrorist and pedophile rings, to explain how despite these constraints, many criminals successfully stay in business.

    Diego Gambetta shows that as villains balance the lure of criminal reward against the fear of dire punishment, they are inspired to unexpected feats of subtlety and ingenuity in communication. He uncovers the logic of the often bizarre ways in which inveterate and occasional criminals solve their dilemmas, such as why the tattoos and scars etched on a criminal's body function as lines on a professional résumé, why inmates resort to violence to establish their position in the prison pecking order, and why mobsters are partial to nicknames and imitate the behavior they see in mafia movies. Even deliberate self-harm and the disclosure of their crimes are strategically employed by criminals to convey important messages.

    By deciphering how criminals signal to each other in a lawless universe, this gruesomely entertaining and incisive book provides a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of their actions.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3361-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxii)

    Not much is known, let alone understood, about how criminals communicate with one another. This is not just because the evidence is hard to gather. The storytellers of the underworld collect tales of crime and marvel at the variety of rituals, styles, and languages that criminals use, but seldom go beyond descriptive accounts. Criminologists focus on deviant actions, but they rarely seem to appreciate in full the information that actions themselves can convey in the underworld. Sociologists, who have given us fine ethnographies of gangs and racketeers, have not been interested in developing explicit theories linking the seemingly extravagant displays...

  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
    • CHAPTER 1 Criminal Credentials
      (pp. 3-29)

      Just like ordinary business, most criminal endeavors are not solo affairs. Thieves need fences; robbers rely on informants; drug dealers depend on producers and pushers; pushers and contract killers require customers; terrorists want arms dealers; and corrupt officials are lost without corrupters. Among the few economists to pay attention to criminal communications, Thomas Schelling wrote: “The bank employee who would like to rob the bank if he could only find an outside collaborator and the bank robber who would like to rob the bank if only he could find an inside accomplice may find it difficult to collaborate because they...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Power of Limits
      (pp. 30-53)

      The problem of trust faced by all kinds of businesses, intensified, haunts the underworld. How does one know whether to trust others, and, conversely, how does one persuade others that one is trustworthy (whether this is true or not)? Both questions are ceaselessly pressing for criminals, and if the reader takes a mental step into a criminal’s boots, it is not difficult to see why. First, criminals operate under greaterconstraintsthat can force them to default on their agreements even if they do not want to, simply because they end up in prison or have to go on the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Information as Hostage
      (pp. 54-77)

      When the aim is to force people to do what they do not want to do, criminals readily resort to the threat of violence, or so most of us think. Yet, quite often, even criminals find this option undesirable and resort to blackmail instead, namely the threat to reveal compromising information. Blackmail can be used either to force people to do what they never agreed or to make them comply with their agreements, especially when these, by being illicit, are unenforceable by law. The transgressions that, when disclosed, give blackmail its power include anything illegal or contrary to conventional mores...

    • CHAPTER 4 Why Prisoners Fight (and Signal)
      (pp. 78-110)

      Although by no means common to all criminal endeavors, violence is dramatically more common in the underworld than among ordinary citizens. It is used both to enforce contracts and to defy them. It is a means of aggression and a means of defense. It redresses some wrongs and perpetrates others. Though cunning can get one a long way, success in the underworld is often decided by violence, or by the credible threat of its use.

      One might expect that wherehomo homini lupusrules, aggression will obliterate communication. Brutes may well be as inarticulate as folk wisdom portrays them, yet...

    • CHAPTER 5 Self-harm as a Signal
      (pp. 111-146)

      As we have seen in the previous chapter, under conditions of intense competition over scarce resources, unenforceable property rights, and uncertain ranking in terms of toughness, prisoners are likely to fight with other prisoners, not just to defend themselves from immediate threat but also to establish a primitive hierarchy by signaling that they are tough enough not to be messed with. In the absence of credible alternative signals of toughness, not fighting would be taken as a license for abuse.

      Fighting, however, is not the only option for those who want to deter others from attacking or preying on them....

    • CHAPTER 6 Conventional and Iconic Signals
      (pp. 149-173)

      In part 1, I explored a class of signals the basic aim of which is to prove to a receiver that something which could be misrepresented is true, be it a criminal’s credentials, trustworthiness, or the toughness of the signaler. These signals typically consist of some “costly” action—killing, fighting, self-harming, taking risks, burning bridges, or disclosing incriminating information about oneself. The signaler, by engaging in such action, tries to persuade the receiver in one of two ways that he is truthful: by showing that he has constraints that would prevent him from being dishonest even if he wanted to...

    • CHAPTER 7 Protecting Easy-to-Fake Signals
      (pp. 174-194)

      “Each group has a signature,” Bob Levinson, FBI special agent from 1976 to 1998, said. “Some groups use a sniper rifle to take out their enemies, some use a machine gun, some use a pistol. The group with which Mr. Mogilevich [a Russian mobster] is associated, their signature is the car bomb.”¹ Analysts of criminal matters often confidently interpret certain acts as carrying a precise meaning, as does Levinson. In reality, they often risk overinterpretation, for it is never easy to establish to what extent criminals’ choices are intended as signals of anything, including of their identity. The choice of...

    • CHAPTER 8 Criminal Trademarks
      (pp. 195-229)

      “We miss something, Charlie”—Meyer Lansky once told Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, who was starting a new gang—“You’ve got to give the new setup a name; after all, what the fuck is any business or company without a name? A guy don’t walk into an automobile showroom and say, ‘I’ll take the car over there, the one without a name.’”² Renowned for his shrewdness, Lansky understood that criminals need names to advertise themselves as buyers or suppliers in their illegal trade.

      One of the most important functions that names and other conventional signs fulfill is to help reputations travel through...

    • CHAPTER 9 Nicknames
      (pp. 230-250)

      From school yards to professional sports, from politics to intimate relationships, nicknaming is practiced virtually worldwide.² The evidence, however, suggest that nicknames are more widespread among criminals than they are among ordinary citizens. Even in societies where nicknames have disappeared in other professions and are in decline among the general population, they are still used by criminals. “The criminal moniker,” wrote Maurer and Futrell, “is an international phenomenon and has been prevalent in Europe since the growth of professional crime during the early fifteenth century.”³

      Proper names are conventional signs associated with persons that are expressed orally through specific sounds...

    • CHAPTER 10 Why (Low) Life Imitates Art
      (pp. 251-274)

      Conventional signs and codes can evolve naturally, just as nicknames do, from within the underworld without any effort or explicit agreement on the part of the criminals. Other signs and codes arise by common consent from within groups of criminals, especially small ones in which members can interact face-to-face often enough to agree on their meanings. Yet others emerge from interaction between criminals and the outside world: signs that carry a clear meaning and are spread by institutions capable of reaching large audiences—such as religion, literature, or folk stories—are sometimes recycled by criminals for their own purposes even...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 275-312)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 313-326)
  10. Index
    (pp. 327-336)