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Princeton University Press
Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

by Diego Gambetta


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691119373
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/16/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Diego Gambetta is Official Fellow of Nuffield College and professor of sociology at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection and editor of Making Sense of Suicide Missions.

Read an Excerpt

Codes of the Underworld

How Criminals Communicate
By Diego Gambetta

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11937-3

Chapter One

Criminal Credentials

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 are unable to identify each other, there being severe penalties in the event that either should declare his intentions to someone who proved not to have identical interests." Identifying partners and, correspondingly, advertising as bona fide denizens of the underworld are indispensable means to carrying out criminal activities. And they are much more complicated than the parallel operations are for ordinary business. Even before worrying about their partner's trustworthiness or competence as a criminal, people who want to commit a crime need first of all to identify who is potentially prepared to cooperate with them in breaking the law.

When contemplating straying from the lawful path, people whose main business is not criminal are even more hindered than professional criminals by the problems of identification. A building contractor once told me that he would have been delighted to pass on a brown envelope to end his long wait for a planning permission if only he knew whom to approach. Identification mistakes can cost dearly, but while the risks deter many they do not deter all. George Fallows, a property landlord of Llangernyw, near Abergele, north Wales, was determined to avoid paying his wife a large divorce settlement and tried to have her killed by a hit man, who was supposed to crash a lorry head-on into her car as she drove down a country lane. The contract killer he sought to hire, however, turned out to be an undercover policeman posing as a criminal. The policeman recorded the negotiations, and in 2003 Fallows was sentenced to five years in prison, lucky to have found a lenient judge.

In 2000, a member of a Sicilian gang, who was planning a monumental robbery by setting up a website imitating the online services of the Banco di Sicilia, contacted the director of a branch of the Banco di Roma to enlist his assistance in the fraud. He failed to realize that the director was an undercover policeman, and his mistake led to his arrest and to that of twenty-two others, including members of a Palermo mafia family.

The hotter the trade, the more daunting are the problems of identification. How do you go about, for instance, finding a black-market buyer for eight bars of enriched uranium? This question taxed the brains of eleven Italian mobsters, an unholy coalition of Sicilian mafiosi and Roman and Calabrian organized criminals, who had the bars in their hands for some time. These bars have a troubled history. They are 90-centimeter-long cylinders, wrapped in steel, each containing 200 grams of uranium, and designed for peaceful uses. They were produced in the labs of General Atomics in San Diego and sent to the Congo as a gift in February 1971, where they were to be used as nuclear fuel in the labs of the experimental reactor Mark II, in Kinshasa. The gift program was known, ironically, as "Atoms for Peace." However, if blown up by means of an ordinary explosive, they can serve as "the poor man's nuclear bomb," spreading deadly nuclear radiation. In the words of Captain Roberto Ferroni of the Italian customs police in Rome, "If they were blown up in Villa Borghese, the center of Rome would become uninhabitable for a century." From the labs in Kinshasa the bars mysteriously disappeared. In 1997, when Mobutu's regime was overturned and he left for France, where he died of cancer, the bars apparently traveled with him. They surfaced once in France and were the cause of a gunfight between French police and a group of criminal merchants who were trying to sell them.

A year later they reemerged in the hands of the Italian mobsters, whose telephone communications were intercepted by the Italian customs police in the course of investigating them for other crimes. The police were amazed to hear the mobsters speak of unspecified "nuclear stuff" and were initially unsure what that meant. In the spring of 1998, the mobsters finally thought they had found a buyer, an emissary of an Arab country. The buyer, who introduced himself as "the Accountant," was in reality an undercover agent for whom the police had created a whole new identity. They gave him false penal and prison records for fencing, and fabricated a nonexistent relationship between him and an Arab country and the Islamic Jihad, which the agent mentioned as the ultimate buyer. "Our sellers," says Captain Ferroni, who led the operation, "did not lose their composure. On the contrary, the credibility of the Arab world, which is always hunting for nuclear material, convinced them that [our man] was not a trap." The agent brought with him an associate, an engineer, who was allowed to test one of the bars and found that it did indeed contain uranium. The police then transferred a virtual sum of 20 billion lire on a Swiss Bank account, bargaining down the requested price that was twice as much. The brilliant operation, however, was only a partial success. As in the best crime stories, the mafiosi cheated twice over. On the agreed day for completing the transaction, they showed up with only one bar, a different one from the one that had been tested, and failed to deliver the other seven. At that point, however, the cover was blown, and the police had to arrest them. The bars' current location remains unknown. Captain Ferroni says: "The man who could have taken us to those bars, Domenico Stilitano, refuses to speak. It is not in his interest. On the 11th of October [2001] he was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months as the new antiterrorism laws are not yet applicable and the traffic of strategic material is still considered, as it were, a minor crime."

The identification problem is further intensified by the fact that, contrary to a widespread belief, criminal groups are unstable. In the underworld, people have a higher rate of mobility (and mortality) than in most professions: "most adult co-offending does not arise from participation in groups.... the typical co-offending relationship appears to be transitory and there is a continual search for co-offenders." And "the life of most of the mobs," said a professional thief, "is comparatively short." This is partly because criminals are chased by law enforcers and have to keep moving and hiding, and because they are more inclined to use violence against each other than regular businessmen are. It could also be for "endogenous reasons. The more lucrative the business, the more potential entry it will attract, resulting in (literally) cutthroat competition and short expected life for an incumbent."

The difficulties of identifying partners keep much potential crime at bay. Making identification hard is arguably the most powerful deterrent against crime that the force of the law brings about, by discouraging the countless dormant criminals who refrain from acting unlawfully for fear of being caught when searching or advertising. A blessing for society, identification constraints are a serious hindrance for criminals, who dearly wish they could use the Yellow Pages. How do they solve the problem?


When trying to identify partners, criminals can make two types of mistakes. First, they can miss opportunities, failing to see through the disguises that genuine potential partners adopt in order to pass themselves off as law-abiding citizens and avoid being caught (the false-negative mistake). In this case, both parties have the same interests but miss the opportunity for a fruitful partnership. Notice that the failure of one to identify reflects the failure of the other to advertise. Mimicking a law-abiding citizen, which sometimes simply means keeping a low profile, is something most criminals have to do. This, however, can succeed too well, and one can fail to advertise when it would be in one's interest to do so.

Second, searchers may approach a law-abiding citizen or, worse, an undercover agent, mistaking them for potential partners in crime (the false-positive mistake). Law-abiding citizens are not a cause of great concern for criminals. True, if approached they may inform the authorities. But ordinary people do not have an interest in passing themselves off as criminals. If anything they are careful to avoid looking like one. Only utter carelessness in approaching others or some inane misunderstandings can lead to confusing law-abiding citizens for criminals-such as that of the forty-seven-year-old Canadian woman who in 1991 did use the Yellow Pages and contacted a firm in Phoenix, Arizona, called "Guns for Hire" seeking to put a contract on her husband's life. She failed to notice that the firm specialized in putting on "Wild West theatrical shows for conventions, private parties and the like." After handing $2,000 to an undercover detective posing as a hit man, the woman was arrested and later sentenced to four and a half years in jail. Before calling Guns for Hire, the detective later explained, she had considered calling motorcycle clubs and an Italian-American association. If contract killers and people seeking them really could advertise openly, one wonders how many more murders there would be.

The real worry concerns undercover agents or informers who have an active interest in pretending to be a genuine partner and deceiving the searching criminal. In this case, which I consider here, the criminal's failure to identify correctly a law-and-order agent reflects the latter's mimicking success. In particular, I consider the case of two individuals who are in asymmetrical positions. A already knows that B is a criminal (and B knows that A knows that). B, however, does not know whether A is a criminal. Regardless of whether A is truly a criminal or an undercover agent posing as one, A wants to persuade B that he is a real criminal. B, at the same time, is looking for evidence of the type that A is. The question is, what kind of evidence can satisfy B?

The probability of making identification mistakes is "frequency dependent": the higher the proportion of criminals in the search environment, the lower the risk of approaching the wrong people. Where corruption is known to be widespread, for instance, corrupting others or signaling one's willingness to accept bribes is not much of a problem. If the probability of encountering a corrupt agent is correctly believed to be high, criminals will rationally try more and bolder approaches, and will easily uncover corrupt partners. In Russia, which may have approached this state of affairs in recent times, the values of corruption "fees" for different positions of authority were openly reported in the press. Identification mistakes are also less likely to occur or to be consequential wherever law enforcement is feeble. Where laws are enforced, there is always a greater probability that a criminal will make acquaintances of the wrong kind while searching for partners.

So our question is: what do criminals look for, what kind of signs do they attend to, in order to identify their kindred spirits or catch the undercover agents? The little we can find in the literature explicitly discussing the identification problem suggests that criminals claim to possess a special ability that enables them to identify other crooks by "gut feelings," "a look in the eyes," "vibrations." Nowhere could I find any theory that unpacks those feelings, that predicts what criminals can be expected to look for. But, carefully scrutinized, the evidence we can gather from the many ethnographic accounts of criminals' activities strongly suggests that they do not go about it erratically. Criminals systematically look for signs that identify another agent as a genuine criminal type and, at the same time, they try just as systematically (and carefully) to advertise by sending signals that only another genuine criminal type will pick up.

"On the street"-wrote FBI special agent Joseph Pistone, who infiltrated the Colombo and later the Bonanno mafia families of New York under the name of Donnie Brasco-"everybody is suspicious of everybody else until you prove yourself." If someone says, "I am ready to deal with you, pal," or sports some item of clothing that conventionally indicates he is a criminal, such as a pair of dark glasses, these signals are hardly sufficient to prove that he is a criminal. As a professional thief put it, "language is not in itself a sufficient means of determining whether a person is trustworthy, for some people in the underworld are stool pigeons and some outsiders learn some of the language." Proving oneself requires tougher tests than cheap talk.


Just how tough should these tests be? The general property for a signal, including an identifying signal, to be persuasive is the cost-discriminating condition: a given signal, s, can convince a rational receiver of a signaler's criminality if, given the expected benefits, a rational mimic who could gain by posing as a criminal finds s too costly to produce or to display. In other words, a convincing signal of a criminal type is that which only a true criminal can afford to produce and to send. That does not mean that such signaling will necessarily be very costly for a real criminal. In the course of his career he may have acquired much raw material that can be displayed at little extra cost. It suffices that the signal be too costly for the mimic to afford.

Selective Environments

A good, indeed the best, sign of a criminal type consists, of course, of observing someone committing a crime. This is not likely to occur, though, for people do not normally wish to be seen engaging in villainous acts. This is a constraint that ordinary businessmen do not face, as they can show what they do to third parties without fear of the law. By contrast, criminals have to resort as much as possible to indirect methods.

A common strategy that allows criminals in search of one another to exchange signals consists of frequenting places where noncriminals are not likely to be found, which is like patronizing a "singles bar" when searching for a mate. "To search for accomplices and to dispose of illegal goods ... adult offenders patronise the same places, make the same kinds of transactions, and often reside in the same area." They hang out in bars, gambling dens, boxing gyms, and social clubs full of other men during normal working hours or late at night, at times, that is, when a common person is otherwise occupied. Or they live in rough neighborhoods for the same reason well-to-do citizens move out of them-both dread making encounters of the wrong sort. In his research on crime in New York City, Sullivan (1989) found that much recruitment occurs in neighborhoods, where people know about one another and check each other out in the natural course of their daily interactions. Environments selected for their criminality, those which "regular guys" find more costly or less attractive to patronize than criminals do, make identification and advertising easier. There is a natural sorting and mixing activity in such places that takes care of the problem of identification.

By itself, though, this strategy works only up to a point. It saves criminals from dealing by mistake with law-abiding citizens. However, if the cost of hanging around in such environments is not very high for a noncriminal, they may become very dangerous places for criminals, precisely the places where undercover agents will converge when attempting to infiltrate criminal networks. Singles bars increase the probability of meeting single people, but they do not eliminate the probability of meeting patrons who, while married, go there merely pretending to be single. In the underworld, where the stakes of mistaken identity are higher, if someone just shows up in a bar full of criminals he is not likely to go far without further credentials. To be reassured, criminals need signs the cost of which a law-enforcement agent or a spy would find harder to pay. Rather than being reliable signs in themselves, selective environments merely offer better opportunities to gather further evidence, directly and indirectly.


Excerpted from Codes of the Underworld by Diego Gambetta Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Criminal Credentials....................3
2. The Power of Limits....................30
3. Information as Hostage....................54
4. Why Prisoners Fight (and Signal)....................78
5. Self-harm as a Signal....................111
6. Conventional and Iconic Signals....................149
7. Protecting Easy-to-Fake Signals....................174
8. Criminal Trademarks....................195
9. Nicknames....................230
10. Why (Low) Life Imitates Art....................251

What People are Saying About This


Codes of the Underworld persuasively answers new and provocative questions raised from Gambetta's extensive experience in the study of criminal behavior. He introduces and illuminates a vast field of strategic communication where trust cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing comparable in print, and the book's interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime.
Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Prize-winning economist

From the Publisher

"Codes of the Underworld looks at the fascinating array of signals that criminals use to recognize each other, validate their claims of toughness, and induce trust or fear. This comprehensive picture of underworld communication will make a serious impact on further studies of organized crime."—Marek Kaminski, University of California, Irvine

"Codes of the Underworld persuasively answers new and provocative questions raised from Gambetta's extensive experience in the study of criminal behavior. He introduces and illuminates a vast field of strategic communication where trust cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing comparable in print, and the book's interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime."—Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Prize-winning economist

Jon Elster

This innovative book shows Gambetta's nimble and subtle mind at its best. He combines striking analytical insights with rich ethnographic descriptions.
Jon Elster, Columbia University

Marek Kaminski

Codes of the Underworld looks at the fascinating array of signals that criminals use to recognize each other, validate their claims of toughness, and induce trust or fear. This comprehensive picture of underworld communication will make a serious impact on further studies of organized crime.
Marek Kaminski, University of California, Irvine

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