Criminal culture and methods of operation vary from place to place. While there are some aspects which are somewhat universal, there is also a great deal of specificity based on location. Understanding these aspects for location where you are living and operating is a key component of personal security. This knowledge allows you to better identify potential threats in your environment and take proactive steps to mitigate or counter them. Instructor and Mexican criminal culture specialist Ed Calderon describes these as criminal “endemics”: culture, tactics and techniques that are endemic to a particular location. This intelligence is very important for threat identification and mitigation.
This course of study can cover a variety of different topics:
Iconography: Clothing, tattoos, graffiti and other visible signs that are chosen by the criminal element. This can be very specific to a location. Sometimes it can be subtle, but it is always deliberate. Knowing and recognizing iconography can allow you to identify potential threats early and at a distance and avoid them or otherwise adjust to account for them.
Behavior: This aspect is somewhat more universal, although there may be regional nuances. This can include pre-attack behavior like checking for exits and witnesses, concealing weapons, tactical positioning, signaling, etc. Much of this behavior is visible immediately prior to an attack or the commission of some other crime.
Etiquette: Even criminal societies tend to have rules governing behavior and interaction. Nowhere is this more evident that in the prison system (any prison system). These unwritten rules typically come with harsh punishments for violators. Understanding this etiquette and these rules can help prevent you unwittingly violating them.
Mindset: Criminals and other violent actors think differently than we do and view the world differently. Their thresholds for violence and other antisocial behavior are typically much lower than the normal person.
Tactics and Methods of Operation: These tend to vary, or at least trend differently from place to place. In some locations it may be bump and rob carjackings, follow-home robberies, push-in home invasions, express kidnappings from ATMs, etc. Knowing what types of crimes are typical in your area of operations and the specific tactics used to carry them out can be extremely useful in developing preventative measures.
How do we learn about this? There are a number of ways of learning more about the criminal culture and methodology. None of the ways we are going to discuss include interacting first hand with the criminal element. That is also a way, but it comes with considerable risk. Here are some other options:
Newspaper articles: This is the most basic way of learning about criminal trends in a location provided there is a semblance of a free press in the location in question and incidents are reported. As with all these methods, a critical mind is necessary. Some reports may be sensationalized, and some may be lacking detail.
Police Reports and Statistics: This is valuable only in locations where this information is published and reliable, but it is useful in the US and some other western nations. Sheriff’s blotters and similar reporting systems give basic information and allow the reader to detect trends over time.
Local Sources: Local sources will knowledge of the security situation, such as law enforcement officers, security professionals and sometimes others such as aid workers or social workers can provide valuable insight and often a greater level of detail than can be found in open source reporting. The caveat is that these sources must be truly knowledgeable about criminal activity in the particular area.
Memoirs, Biographies & Autobiographies: Many members of different criminal groups have collaborated with authors to detail accounts of their criminal activity. In these accounts there is often detailed information about tactics used to surveil and assess victims, carry out ambushes, assassinations and other crimes and so forth. These are also often a good window intro criminal mindset and lifestyle. Again, however there is a caveat. These accounts are often biased and self-serving with the criminal in question seeking to portray themselves in the best possible light. They should be read with a critical mind and with an eye towards taking what is useful and discarding the rest. Victim accounts can also be very informative – particularly in the case of kidnappings. Kidnap victims can often recount the pre-incident indicators and steps leading up to their abduction although they may not have recognized and acted upon them at the time. Victims also have often spent a great deal of time in close proximity to their abductors and have therefore been able to observe and gather information on their lifestyle, behavior and so forth.
Documentaries & Interviews: The current trend of television shows that cover incarceration and prison life also provide a window into the criminal world. Interviews with offenders can provide a view into their mindset and their outlook on the world, and in some cases the tactics and techniques they use. Again, be forewarned that many of these interviews are self-serving and criminals tend to be masters of manipulation and professional liars. Also given the nature of film and television, much of the material ends up on the editing room floor and the result can often be less comprehensive than other sources of information.
These are some methods for learning more about criminal culture and methodology, but they are not the only ones. As with any intelligence gathering effort, multiple sources and multiple types of sources should be used to help create as full and robust an understanding as possible.