Review: Codes of the Underworld

I met Diego Gambetta back in 2005 when I was a student at a summer school on organized crime. I am still interested in crime and corruption, so I bought this 2009 book awhile back.

So what are criminal codes, and how do they work? At their best, they allow communicating and signalling in a way that non-criminals do not notice, wanna-be criminals cannot counterfeit, and real criminals can understand easily and accurately.

Good codes might be a tattoo that indicate what gang you’re in, a nickname that friends can use but the law cannot, or sexual slang that sounds like a grocery list. In many cases, codes are associated with criminals or terrorists, but they are also used by forbidden groups (gays, prostitutes, activists) whose existence is illegal or forbidden.

Gambetta is a smooth, fluid writer. His elaborate prose sometimes seems too measured for the topics, but his citations, caveats, and hypotheses provided enjoyable, cautious perspectives on the forms behind the shadows.

Chapters are organized into two parts: Costly Signals (e.g., putting yourself at risk to gain trust, fighting for respect, or self-harming to empower) and Conventional Signals (“Fat Tony”, [the organization that shall not be named], and messy dressing).

Here are some notes I made as I read…

  • Prison time is valuable for criminal skills and contacts, but time also strengthens one’s reputation as someone who “has been inside.”
  • There’s no honor among thieves, so they find creative ways to build trust. One is incompetence, i.e., being gangster enough to provide protection for 10% of revenues but not smart enough to take over your business.
  • Corrupt power-brokers promote the most incompetent to show their power surpasses objections. Caligula appointed his horse as senator. Trump hired his son-in-law (and many other incompetent scoundrels).
  • KGB operatives had experience laundering money abroad to fund shell companies pursuing political, economic or military goals. When the USSR fell apart, ex-KGB officers (including Putin) used their skills to entrench their power and wealth. (Listen to this podcast I suggested last month.)
  • If someone knows you have broken a law, then they have power over you. Italy has over 100,000 laws (Germany has 6,000) so Italians have a lot of power over each other. That power can ensure conformity or good behavior. It can also help people evade prosecution.
  • Prison fights increase when prison populations have high turn-over and few opportunities to communicate. “Lifers” have time (and reason) to establish order and reduce violence. A jail of itinerant young men will have many fights, as each new arrival needs to be “put in place.”
  • Women fight more than men.
  • Many threats are bluffs. Prisoners want rank, not injuries. Rape threats and robberies are often directed at rankings.
  • If you do get in a fight, then fight to win, or suffer the long-term consequences. A weaker reputation means abuse.
  • Here, I was annoyed that prisoners were fighting instead of organizing to overcome authorities and escape. Then, Gambetta explained how Polish prisoners organized themselves to improve their conditions. They did not escape, but ex-cons can use their organizational skills outside to become bigger and badder.
  • Psychologists and civilians assume self-harm means self-hatred, since many people think the goals of life are maximum happiness and minimum pain. Self harm can deliver gains — in attention, protection, or respect from others afraid of “that crazy mothafucka.”
  • Mafia are very careful about their body language. A wrong signal can get someone (even the signaler) killed.
  • Gays don’t really use colored handkerchiefs to advertise sexual preferences.
  • Underworld types will use a signal until the general public catches on, then it’s abandoned to posers (who occasionally get killed over confusion about the legitimacy of their signaling).
  • Trademarks retain customer loyalty and pricing power. Heroin stamps mattered on the East Coast of the US because users bought white powder. On the West Coast, “tar” heroin was easier to identify. Stamps are easy to counterfeit, so gangs either switch stamps quickly or kill anyone using their mark. 
  • Mob dads are proud when their sons are inducted into another gang. They prefer an outside confirmation of quality over nepotism (unlike Trump). “The Godfather” got this wrong as “families” are not usually made of blood-relatives but those worthy of becoming “men of honor.”
  • Most of the book focusses on the Italian (and American) mafias, but Gambetta includes examples from prisons, Russia, Japan, and a sprinkling of European countries. I just heard a podcast explaining how law enforcement has trouble decoding minority languages, which also means that scholars have a hard time learning about the criminals that use them. Even so, I would have liked to hear more about the Latin American underworld, which is probably more violent (in murders) and successful (in revenue) than Italy’s mafia.
  • When a family grows larger than the Dunbar number (~150), then they need safe ways to identify each other. The safest way for two wiseguy strangers to meet is to find a made man they both know, who can then introduce them.
  • It’s hard to jail “Ciapudda” (Onion) as a gang boss if the guy you’re holding is named Salvatore Bondino.
  •  Gangsters love to see themselves in movies. They adapt habits (and strategies) from movies. If they are dangerous and nasty in movies, so much the better: It’s easier to intimidate the public, and gangsters make easier money from “protection” than they do on drugs, gambling or prostitution.

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is a fun read for anyone who wants to think about communication — or start a gang. Five Stars.


Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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