The author explains why public displays of violence are a rational act for organized crime.
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The primary rule of the underworld is that the cartel (or the mafia or the warlord) makes the rules, and disobedience is a capital crime. Public displays of death convey the cartel’s power to impose the kind of lethal punishment typically reserved for the state. The public setting in Uruapan symbolizes that the Mexican government no longer has jurisdiction over matters of criminal justice in this municipality. Through these practices, the cartel reanimates the dead and compels them to speak to the living one last time: “Obey, or you will end up like us.”
These draconian rules are necessary because underworld organizations subsist by trafficking in illicit commodities. When products are illegal they are scarce, so prices remain high and profits can be enormous. It is easy to make big money by manufacturing, distributing, and selling drugs, guns, or other forms of contraband. The hard part is holding on to that money once it has been made. As Italian social scientist Diego Gambetta astutely observed in hisstudies of the Sicilian Mafia, thieves do not like to be robbed any more than the rest of us.
This is a problem because thieves like to rob other thieves. Arnold Rothstein, a famous bootlegger in the 1920s, allegedly made a fortune when he sold his entire fleet of rum-running ships to rival gangsters and then repeatedly hijacked their cargoes of contraband liquor. In other words, he successfully offloaded the maintenance and overhead expenses of his shipping fleet to rivals and then turned around and stole their profits.
For an underworld enterprise to be economically successful, it must protect itself from internal theft and external raiding. Gangsters can’t call the police to help defend their property, so they create their own armies to protect cargo, punish stealing, and enforce contracts. Thievery is typically punished with extreme violence and, oftentimes, public humiliation.
Gus Tyler, editor of the 1962 book Organized Crime in America, described public spectacles of violence as a form of Mafia “branding.” “The killing of a person would be a great waste,” he wrote, “unless it were established publicly that this particular individual was killed because he defied the demands of the underworld. And so the gang leaves its trademark on the victim. … The underworld has found that it pays to advertise.”
This is not the violence of anarchy. Such killings are purposeful, deliberate, and theatrically staged to achieve specific organizational goals. One objective is to deter employee theft; another is to give pause to rival cartels considering a raid; and a third objective, illustrated perfectly by the display of bodies in Uruapan, is to reassure residents of the community that they are now under the protection of the cartel. By staging public displays of death branded with the cartel’s signature weapon (in this case, ice picks), the underworld broadcasts its laws and signs its orders.