Violence as a Source of Trust in Mafia-type Organizations

Criminals have great difficulty in trusting each other – they often have conflicting interests (and may sometimes have incentives to inform on each other) but have no very good equivalent of the state to enforce contracts. One traditional solution is to rely on family members, who are presumably more trustworthy.

But there are others – scholars such as Thomas Schelling and Diego Gambetta have speculated that shared information about violent acts might help to cement cooperation. If I know that you have committed a violent act, and you know that I have committed a violent act, we each have information on each other that we might threaten to use if relations go sour (Schelling notes that one of the most valuable rights in business relations is the right to be sued – this is a functional equivalent). Of course, it’s difficult to establish this empirically – as Gambetta notes in his classic book on the Sicilian mafia, active mafiosi make poor interview subjects – at the very best they are likely to be reticent about their activities.

Paolo Campana and Federico Varese have a very nice new article in Rationality and Society which tests how both traditional sources of trust such as family ties, and less conventional sources such as shared information about violence, might work among real criminals.

This article relies on two unique datasets we have collected on two Mafialike organizations: a Neapolitan Camorra clan based some 50 kilometres north of Naples, and a Russian Mafia group operating in Rome. … Both groups had been under extensive police surveillance, during which investigators were able to monitor all the telephone lines used by the key players, and listen to their conversations. … In both instances we had access to the files prepared by the police for the Prosecutor Office to be used as evidence in court; they include the transcripts of the wiretapped phone conversations. … The network of contacts between the core members of the Neapolitan Camorra clan amounts to 1370 while the core members of the Russian group have exchanged a total of 295 contacts among them.
Kinship does indeed have a statistically significant effect in the Camorra clan: the frequency of contacts between two associates increases when both are near-relatives of the boss. This finding confirms the importance of kinship within this particular Mafia. Extended kinship appears to play a role in the case of the Russian–Italian group. Rather more surprisingly, in both models violence does have an impact on tie formation between two actors. Having shared information about violent acts increases the frequency of contacts occurring among two actors. The ‘violence effect’ is fairly strong, and greater than that recorded for kinship in both cases, including the Camorra. This would suggest that even in clans made of relatives, having discussed violence is a better predictor of cooperation than kinship itself. This further suggests that there is nothing ontological in the role of kinship in organized crime. When better and more reliable mechanisms to increase commitment are available, criminals will use them, just as organizations in advanced societies tend to rely on merit rather than kinship when recruiting employees.
There is additional, non-statistical evidence of the use of violence as a form of credible commitment. The boss of the Camorra clan discussed here would instruct all his men to shoot together at the same time when committing a murder. Everybody in the firing squad had to fire at least one shot. … Each perpetrator is made ‘a hostage’ to all the others, in order to reduce his incentives to defect and/or inform on his fellow associates.

3 Responses to Violence as a Source of Trust in Mafia-type Organizations

  1. Dave Blair July 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    Great post.

    Tragically, Gambetta’s theories (Codes of the Underworld) in this regard prove correct in online exploitation – in order to gain trust of the illicit network, one must provide information that implicates the user. This allows better use of flows-based spaces such as the internet (to steal Castells’ idea,) and proves more flexible, and less traceable, than kinship. In the game of identity chicken inherent in a Sting, this tactic creates a threshold very difficult to either meet or counter.

  2. Peter T July 15, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    There is a small but valuable anthropological literature on criminality. I am familiar with that on drug trading. One thing that stood out for me is that violence is mostly not instrumental – it’s about personal standing or personal grudges. Another was that drug dealers – and particularly successful ones – avoid violence. They make little or no effort to enforce contracts or punish bad behaviour. They just walk away.- sometimes after throwing some hard words. A third is that, although most career criminals cheerfully and regularly shop each other to the police, there is mostly no comeback for this. It’s an accepted part of the scene that you can trust other dealers until you can’t, and then you run or do the time. One clue is that criminality is parasitic, and therefore reliant on the norms and services of the larger society. They tend to take these for granted except for some bits (like the justice system) that they cannot use. These bits they just ignore.

  3. Dan T July 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Shared personal experience of traumatic events tend to increase human bonds, even between those perpetrating the trauma.

    Military veterans who have fought together against a common enemy have had a bond recognized throughout history, whether they were the invaders or the invaded.

    Disaster victims share a similar bond, even though they didn’t perpetrate their trauma.

    It should come as no surprise that criminals also share a bond after a shared personal experience of violence.

    Was the shared information isolated from the shared personal trauma in the studies? If not, they drew the wrong conclusion.