Discussing violence acts as ‘a stronger bond than blood ties’ for gang members

18 July 2013

Gang members trust one another more than their own family members if they have shared incriminating information about a violent act they are planning, says a new Oxford University study. Researchers analysed phone conversations between gangs wiretapped by the police in the 1990s. They found that the more contact two members had over the phone, the higher the level of cooperation they had on future tasks. The findings are published in the journal Rationality and Society.

The researchers set out to examine the mechanisms by which criminal gangs build up trust amongst their members. Gang members cannot resolve their differences through the police or the courts should someone renege on their part of the deal. Recruiting family members is one way of creating greater cooperation between law-breakers. However, this study reveals that sharing information about violence creates an even stronger bond between two members, increasing cooperation on further tasks, both violent and non-violent.

The researchers were given permission to analyse evidence prepared for historic court cases involving two Mafia gangs that had been based in Italy in the 1990s. An Italian gang operating near Naples and a Russian gang in Rome had been under surveillance for some time, unaware that the telephone conversations of key players were being tapped by the police. Transcripts were made of 1,400 contacts made by seven individuals in the Italian gang over seven months, while in the Russian Mafia case there was a total of 295 contacts between 19 people over nine months.

The Oxford researchers coded the information contained in the transcripts, tracking which individuals within the gang were in contact with each other and monitoring how often they were in touch with one another. They also coded the content of the conversations between two gang members. They were divided into tasks which revealed discussion about violent or non violent acts, such as money laundering, investing money, managing the internal conflicts of the group, or acquiring resources.

The researchers say the study does not show that the sole purpose of violence or employing family members is to foster cooperation within a criminal gang. Violent tactics are often employed to run protection rackets and punish misbehavior, and family members may be recruited because no other alternatives present themselves. However, significantly, the study concludes that this ‘by-product’ is a mechanism that creates deeper levels of cooperation between members of a criminal gang.

Dr Paolo Campana, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Criminal gangs face severe challenges when it comes to cooperating with one another as they cannot rely on the police and judiciary to right a wrong for them. They don’t know whether the person they are working with is going to turn out to be a police informant or undercover agent. Despite these challenges, illegal transactions take place because the mafia gangs have their own methods of cooperating amongst themselves. The saying “blood is thicker than water” does not necessarily apply here as while we found that kinship is still an important way of fostering cooperation among lawbreakers, criminal groups are more likely to trust someone who is in it as deep as they are and this building of trust does not depend on family ties.’

Professor Federico Varese, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The inhabitants of the underworld face special challenges in their day-to-day decisions to trust others, but they have found ways to overcome them. The obligations felt by gang members can be described as a form of ‘hostage-taking’ –.an important device for law-breakers who wish to keep their identity unknown to the authorities. If a gang member has relatives in the group, they are less likely to try to defect or inform on the others as they would be tracked down relatively easily and any disloyalty would risk the safety of other members of their immediate family who would become hostages of the larger criminal gang. Likewise, sharing compromising information about acts of violence binds members to one another as each gang member becomes a hostage to the others.’

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