The Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra, is a secret organized crime society that first developed in mid-nineteenth century Sicily, spread to the East Coast of the United States following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian emigration during the late nineteenth century, and grew in the twentieth century to be the strongest organized crime society in the country. The Mafia operations ascended from street-level extortion of shopkeepers forced to make regular payments to avoid violence to corporate-level monopoly control over criminal markets maintained through the use of or threat of violence and by corruption of law enforcement and the political system.
Prominent in such criminal activities as prostitution, drugs, gambling, and alcohol during the Prohibition on alcohol (United States) Prohibition era in the United States, the Mafia has expanded to additionally exercise significant influence or control over such diverse legitimate enterprises as sea ports, fresh fish distribution, building construction, trucking, and labor unions. While apparently arising from bands that in Sicily at times served as protectors and even as role models of bravery and honor, the Mafia in the U.S. comprises powerful organized crime "families" whose big money makers of gambling and drugs are closely tied with loan sharking operations that often rely on violence, just as does another big money maker, extortion. The Mafia also engages in such traditional crimes as hijacking, air cargo theft, and murder.
The Mafia operates according to a strict code requiring obedience to the hierarchy of command and adherence to the pledge not to assist authorities investigating crimes committed by the organization. The Fascist regime dominant in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s prosecuted Mafia crime families, which led to a further emigration of Mafiosi to the United States. Mafiosi remaining in Sicily after the landing of Allied forces became collaborators of the Allies based on shared impulses to be anti-communist. While the Mafiosi's commitment to loyalty and family is a positive feature of their community, their criminal activities, including a tendency to use violent means including murder, separate them from the acceptable norms of society as a whole.
The word Mafia is taken from the old Sicilian adjective mafiusu meaning "aggressive," "boasting," or "bragging." Roughly translated, the term means "swagger," but can also be interpreted as "boldness" or "bravado."
According to the Sicilian ethnographer Giuseppe Pitrè, the association of the word Mafia with the criminal secret society was made in 1863 by the play I mafiusi di la Vicaria, or "The Beautiful People of Vicaria." The play, by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaetano Mosca, was about criminal gangs in the Palermo prison. Though the term is never mentioned throughout the performance, it was most likely put into the title to add local flair. The term was subsequently taken over in the Italian state's early reports on the gangs’ proceedings, making its first official appearance in 1865 in a report by the prefect of Palermo, Filippo Antonio Gualterio.
According to some members of the Mafia, the original term used to describe the organization was Cosa Nostra, meaning "our thing." Many have claimed, as did the Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, that the word "Mafia" was a literary creation. Other Mafia defectors, such as Antonio Calderone and Salvatore Contorno, agreed. To men of honor belonging to the organization, there remains no need to name it. Members often introduce other members to each other as belonging to cosa nostra or la stessa cosa, meaning “the same thing.”
The term Cosa Nostra was first used publicly in the early 1960s during the U.S. McClellan Commission by Joseph Valachi, a former member of the Mafia turned state witness. At the time, it was understood as the proper name of the organization, fostered by the FBI and disseminated by the media. The designation gained widespread popularity, almost replacing the term Mafia.
According to historian Paolo Pezzino: "The Mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions—normally belonging to public authorities—over a specific territory."
Many early Sicilians did not regard men belonging to the Mafia as criminals but rather as role models and protectors, given that mid-nineteenth century Sicily appeared to offer no protection for the poor and the weak. As late as the 1950s, the funeral epitaph of the legendary boss of Villalba, Calogero Vizzini, stated that "his 'Mafia' was not criminal, but stood for respect of the law, defense of all rights, greatness of character [and] love." Under these connotations, "Mafia" is often associated with pride, honor, or social responsibility. In 1925, former Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando stated in the Italian senate that he was proud of being Mafioso, because of its extreme honor, nobility, and generosity.
It has long been debated whether the Mafia has medieval origins. It is possible that the "original" Mafia formed as a secret society sworn to protect the Sicilian population from the threat of Catalan marauders in the fifteenth century. However, there is very little historical evidence to suggest this. It is also feasible that this was only a myth perpetuated by the earliest known Mafiosi as a means of gaining goodwill and trust from the Sicilian people.
After the Revolution of 1848 and the Revolution of 1860, the state of Sicily had fallen to complete disorder. The Mafiosi, mainly small bands of outlaws, offered their guns in revolt, hoping to burn official records and evidence, and to kill off police and pentiti in the chaos. According to author John Dickie, however, once a new government was established in Rome and it became increasingly clear that the Mafia would be unable to execute these actions, the small bands of men began refining their methods and techniques over the later half of the nineteenth century. Members sought to protect the large lemon groves and estates of local nobility; a lucrative but dangerous business. The town of Palermo was initially the main area of these activities, but the dominance of the Sicilian bands soon spread over all of western Sicily. Around the middle of the nineteenth century the gangs banded together in order to ensure greater profits and a safer working environment; thus the Mafia was formed.
In 1860, the new unified Italian state took over both Sicily and the Papal states. Church officials and the Pope, however, remained increasingly hostile to the state. In 1870, the Pope declared himself besieged by the Italian state and strongly encouraged Catholics to refuse to cooperate with them. The friction between the Church and the state gave a greater advantage to violent criminal bands in Sicily who could claim to peasants and townspeople that cooperating with the police of the new Italian state was an anti-Catholic activity. It was in the two decades following the 1860 unification that the term Mafia came to the attention of the general public, although it was considered to be more of an attitude and value system than an actual organization. Protection rackets, cattle rustling, and bribery of state officials were the main sources of income for early members of the Mafia.
During the Fascist period in Italy, Cesare Mori, prefect of Palermo, used special powers granted to him to prosecute the Mafia, forcing many members to flee abroad or risk being jailed. Many of the members who escaped fled to the United States, among them Joseph Bonanno, nicknamed Joe Bananas, who came to dominate the U.S. branch of the Mafia. Though the Fascist authorities proclaimed that the Mafia had been defeated, in actuality the organization was merely weakened. Despite his assault on their brethren, Mussolini maintained strong ties with the New York Mafia, notably Vito Genovese from Naples.
Following the country’s surrender in World War II and the subsequent U.S. occupation, the Sicilian Mafia gained significant power. During the Invasion of Italy and Sicily in 1943, the United States relied heavily upon the Italian connections of the American Mafia, notably Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano. Luciano and other American Mafiosi, who were at the time imprisoned in the U.S., provided valuable information for U.S. military intelligence as well as a strong influence in easing the way for advancing U.S. troops. Furthermore, Luciano's continued control of the Italian naval ports prevented sabotage by agents of the Axis Powers.
An alleged additional benefit, from the American perspective, was that many of the Sicilian–Italian Mafiosi were hard-line anti-communists. They were therefore seen as valuable allies by the anti-communist Americans, who allegedly used them to root out socialist and communist elements in the American shipping industry as well as wartime resistance movements and postwar local and regional governments in areas where the Mafia held sway.
According to drug trade expert Alfred W. McCoy, Lucky Luciano was permitted to run his crime network from his jail cell in exchange for his assistance. After the war, Luciano was rewarded by being released from prison and deported to Italy, where he was able to continue his criminal career unhindered. Luciano returned to Sicily in 1946 to continue his activities, going on to forge a crucial alliance with the Corsican Mafia which lead to the development of a vast international heroin trafficking network, initially supplied from Turkey and based in Marseille.
When Turkey began to eliminate its opium production, Luciano used his connections with the Corsican Mafia to shift to drug sources throughout South Vietnam. In collaboration with leading American mob bosses including Santo Trafficante Jr., Luciano and his successors took advantage of the chaotic conditions in Southeast Asia arising from the Vietnam War to establish an unassailable supply and distribution base in the "Golden Triangle," which was soon funneling huge amounts of Asian heroin into the United States, Australia, and other countries via the U.S. military.
Many historians believe that the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, deliberately allowed the Sicilian Mafia to recover its social and economic position as the "anti-State" in Sicily, and that this alliance forged in 1943 became the turning point of Mafia history and the foundation for its success in organized crime in the following decades. Other historians, such as the Palermitan Francesco Renda, argue that no such alliance existed. Instead, he believed, the Mafia exploited the chaos of post-fascist Sicily to re-conquer its former social base. Indeed, in the 1944 "Report on the Problem of Mafia” published by the OSS, the organization alluded to the signs of Mafia resurgence and warned of its perils for social order and economic progress.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of internecine "gang wars" led to many prominent Mafia members being murdered, and the emergence of a new generation of Mafiosi which has placed more emphasis on white-collar crime. In reaction to these developments, the Italian press coined the phrase Cosa Nuova, meaning "the new thing," as a play on Cosa Nostra in reference to the revamped organization.
At the start of the twenty-first century, the main split in the Sicilian Mafia stood between incarcerated mob bosses, chiefly Salvatore 'Totò' Riina, and those affiliates on the run, or who had yet to be indicted. Incarcerated bosses are often subjected to harsh controls on their contact with the outside world, limiting their ability to run their organization’s operations from behind bars.
In modern-day Sicily, evidence suggests that law enforcement seems to be finally gaining the upper hand over the Mafia organizations through stronger laws and the breaking down of the Sicilian "code of silence." A significant help in fighting the military side of the Mafia has been provided by many so-called pentiti, or Mafia members who have dissociated for milder judicial treatment.
Known as the Honored Society among Mafiosi, the chain of command is organized in a pyramid style similar to a modern corporate structure.
The Capo di Tutti Capi, or the “Boss of All Bosses,” is the head of the entire Mafia organization. A senior or retired member of this position is given the title of Capo di Capi Re, meaning the “King Boss of Bosses.”
The title given to the crime boss of a family, also known as the “Don” or head of the crime family is Capo Crimine; this position follows the Capo di Tutti Capi. Capo Bastone, or the “Beat Head” or “Underboss,” assumes the position of second in command under the Capo Crimine. These positions are served by consiglieres, or “advisors” to the family.
The position of Caporegime, or “regime head,” is responsible for commanding a crew of generally ten sgarriste, or “soldiers.” These sgarriste serve the organization primarily as foot soldiers. This position outranks the picciotto, meaning “little man” which marks the lowest ranking member who often serves as enforcer.
In most Sicilian families belonging to the Mafia, the initiation ritual occurs when a member rises from the position of associate to soldier. As described by Tommaso Buscetta to judge Giovanni Falcone, the neophyte is brought together with at least three "men of honor" belonging to the family. The oldest member present warns the inductee that the organization, or the "House," is meant to protect the weak against the abuse of the powerful. The initiate’s finger is then pricked and his blood spilled onto a sacred image, often a saint.
The image is placed in the hand of the initiate and set on fire. The neophyte must withstand the pain of the burning, passing the image from hand to hand, until the image has been consumed, all the while swearing to keep faith with the principles of "Cosa Nostra." According to Joseph Valachi, the initiate is to solemnly swear, "may my flesh burn like this saint if I fail to keep my oath." Members of the Mafia also uphold a law of silence, known as the omertà, which forbids the common man, woman, or child to cooperate at all with the police or the government, upon punishment of death.
The Italian Mafia also dominates organized crime throughout the United States. It uses this status to maintain control over much of both Chicago's and New York City's organized criminal activity, as well as criminal activity in other cities across the Northeastern United States and elsewhere, including Philadelphia, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and many others. The Mafia and its reputation have become entrenched in American popular culture, being portrayed in movies, television shows, commercial advertising, and even video games.
The American Mafia, specifically the Five Families of New York, has its roots in the Sicilian Mafia, but has been a separate organization in the United States for many years. At the start of the twentieth century, American Cosa Nostra organized various criminal activities with the different Italian organized crime groups, such as the members of Camorra, who are headquartered in Italy. In 1986, according to U.S. government reports, it was estimated that there were more than 1,700 members of "La Cosa Nostra" throughout the U.S., and thousands more associate members. These reports also identified the Italian–American Mafia as the largest organized crime group in the United States that continues to hold dominance over the National Crime Syndicate, despite the increasing numbers of street gangs and other organizations of neither Italian nor Sicilian descent.
Mafia groups in the United States first became influential in the New York City area, gradually progressing from small neighborhood operations to citywide and eventually international organizations. They started with the La Mano Nera, meaning the "The Black Hand,” or “black mail." Members of the organization often used blackmailing to extort various Italians and other immigrants around New York City to act for their benefit. Black Hand gangsters would threaten subjects by mail if their extortion demands were not met. As more Sicilian gangsters immigrated to the U.S., they expanded their criminal activities from extortion to loan-sharking, prostitution, drugs and alcohol, robbery, kidnapping, and murder.
Giuseppe Esposito was the first known Sicilian Mafia member to emigrate to the United States. He and six other Sicilians fled to New York after murdering 11 wealthy landowners as well as a chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province. He was arrested in New Orleans in 1881 and extradited to Italy.
New Orleans was also the site of the first Mafia incident in the United States that received both national and international attention. On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessey was murdered execution-style. Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested, and 19 were eventually indicted for the murder. An acquittal followed and with it came rumors of bribed and intimidated witnesses. The outraged citizens of New Orleans organized a lynch mob and proceeded to kill 11 of the 19 defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped.
Mafia activities were generally restricted across the United States until 1920, when they greatly increased because of the U.S. Prohibition of alcohol. During this period, Al Capone's syndicate ruled the Chicago area.
By the end of the 1920s, two factions of organized crime had emerged, causing the Castellamarese war for control of organized crime in New York City. With the murder of Joseph Masseria, the leader of one of the factions, the war would end by uniting the two sides back into one organization now dubbed Cosa Nostra. Salvatore Maranzano, the first leader of American Mafia, was himself murdered within six months, with Charles "Lucky" Luciano becoming the new leader. Under Maranzano, the organization had established a code of conduct, set up the "family" divisions and structure, and established various procedures for resolving disputes. Under Luciano the organization also set up the "Commission" to rule their activities. The Commission included bosses from six or seven families.
The American Mafia expanded to 26 crime families throughout the major cities of the United States, with the center of organized crime based in New York. After many turf wars, the Five Families ended up dominating New York, named after prominent early members: the Bonanno family, the Colombo family, the Gambino family, the Genovese family, and the Lucchese family. These families held underground conferences with other Mafia notables like Joe Porrello from Cleveland, and other gang leaders, such as Al Capone.
In 1957, the New York State Police uncovered a meeting of major American Cosa Nostra figures from around the country in the small upstate New York town of Apalachin. This gathering has become known as the Apalachin Conference. Many of the attendees were arrested; this event was the catalyst that changed the way law enforcement battled organized crime.
In 1963, Joseph Valachi became the first American Cosa Nostra member to provide a detailed look at the inside of the organization. Having been recruited by FBI Special Agents, and testifying before the U.S. Senate McClellan Committee, Valachi exposed the name, structure, power bases, codes, swearing-in ceremonies, and members of this organization.
Modern-day Cosa Nostra activities involve a broad spectrum of illegal activities. These include murder, extortion, drug trafficking, corruption of public officials, gambling, labor racketeering, loan sharking, prostitution, pornography, tax fraud, and most notably today, stock manipulation.
The way the American Mafia was controlled and the system of the Mafia was created by Salvatore Maranzano, who became the first "capo di tutti capi" in the United States. Maranzano was killed after holding the position for only six months by Lucky Luciano, who became his successor.
The Boss is often the head of the family, usually reigning as a dictator, and is sometimes called the don or "godfather." The Boss receives a cut of every operation taken on by every member of his family. Depending on the family, the Boss may be elected by a vote from other prominent members of the family. In the event of a tie, the Underboss must decide. In the past, all the members of a family voted on the Boss, but by the late 1950s, any gathering such as that attracted too much attention.
The Underboss, usually appointed by the Boss, is the second in command of the family. The Underboss is in charge of all of the Capos, who are controlled by the Boss. The Underboss is usually first in line to become the acting Boss if the Boss is imprisoned, dies, or is murdered.
A Consigliere is an advisor to the family. They are often low profile gangsters that can be trusted, and are often used as a mediator of disputes, or representatives in meetings with other families. Often Consiglieres act as lawyers or stock brokers, are generally trusted, and have a close friendship or relationship with the Don. Though they do not have a crew of their own, they still wield a great amount of power within the family. They may also serve as a liaison between the Don and important “bought” figures, such as politicians or judges.
A Caporegime, Capo, or Captain is in charge of a crew. There are usually four to six crews in each family, possibly even seven to nine crews, each one consisting of up to ten Soldiers. Capos run their own small family, but must follow the limitations and guidelines created by the Boss, as well as pay him his cut of their profits. Capos are nominated by the Underboss, but typically chosen by the Boss himself.
A Soldier is often a member of the family, and can only be of Italian background. Soldiers start as Associates that have proven themselves. When an open spot exists in the family, a Capo may recommend an up-and-coming Associate to be a new member. In the case that there is only one slot and multiple recommendations, the Boss must decide. The new member usually becomes part of the Capo's crew that recommended him.
An Associate is not a member of the mob, but more of an errand boy. They usually serve a go-between or drug trafficker to keep the attention off of the actual members. In other cases, an associate might be a corrupt labor union delegate or businessman.
Each faction of the American Mafia is headed by a Caporegime, who reports directly to the Boss. When the Boss makes a decision, he never issues orders directly to the Soldiers who would carry it out, but instead passes instructions down through a chain of command. In this way, the higher levels of the organization are effectively insulated from incrimination if a lower level member should be captured by law enforcement. This structure is depicted in Mario Puzo's famous novel The Godfather.
Most recently there have been two new positions in the family leadership, the "family messenger" and the "street boss." These positions were created by former Genovese leader Vincent Gigante.
The initiation ritual emerged from various sources in mid-nineteenth century Sicily. The Mafia's rituals and much of the organization's structure were based "largely on those of the Catholic confraternities and even Freemasonry, colored by Sicilian familial traditions and even certain customs associated with military–religious orders of chivalry like the Order of Malta" and has hardly changed to this day. The ceremony is thought to follow the same procedure used by the Sicilian Mafia.
In several Mafia families, killing a state authority is forbidden due to the possibility of extreme police retaliation. In some rare cases, conspiring to commit such a murder is punishable by death. The Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz was reportedly killed by his Italian peers out of fear that he would carry out a plan to kill New York City prosecutor Thomas Dewey. However, in its early history, the Mafia had been known to carry out hits on various members of U.S. law enforcement.
The RICO Act, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in the 1960s made it a crime to belong to an organization that performed illegal acts. The act also created programs such as the witness protection program. This legislation severely hurt the Mafia during the 1970s, with various members breaking the code of silence when caught by the authorities due to the stricter laws passed against association. However, the small decline in Mafia power was followed by a strong resurgence in the late 1980s into the 1990s as the Mafia found ways around RICO and sought out new avenues of revenue.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Mafia was reputed to have infiltrated many labor unions in the United States, notably the Teamsters union whose president Jimmy Hoffa mysteriously disappeared; Hoffa is widely rumored to have been killed by Matteo Bari, an enforcer for the Mafia. In the 1980s, the United States federal government made a determined effort to remove Mafia influence from labor unions.
Evidence has shown that the Mafia continues to remain the dominant organized crime group in the United States, despite the aggressive FBI investigations in the late 1990s. According to author Selwyn Raab, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI has redirected most of its attention to finding terrorists, which has contributed to a resurgence of Mafia activity throughout the U.S.
Lucky Luciano (1896–1962) was a prominent member of both the Sicilian Mafia as well as the American Mafia. After immigrating to New York in 1906, Luciano became heavily involved in organized crime, eventually earning the name “Lucky” by eluding arrests and winning at craps. In the 1920s Luciano managed the Masseria crime family’s bootlegging, drug trafficking, and prostitution operations. In 1931 Luciano ordered the murders of both Joe Masseria and rival Salvatore Maranzano, assuming the title “Boss of all Bosses” for the next 30 years. Jailed in 1936, and deported back to Italy, Luciano continued crime operations from his home in Naples until his death in 1962.
Vito Genovese (1897–1969) was a member of the American Mafia who rose to power during the Castellammarese War. After emigrating from Naples, Genovese would eventually become the leader of the Genovese crime family, serving as mentor to future mob bosses including Vincent Gigante, Michael Genovese, and Carlo Gambino. While working under Joe Masseria in the early 1920s, Genovese was heavily involved in both bootlegging and extortion, and was known for maintaining a strong propensity for violence. Genovese maintained a complex relationship with fellow mobster Lucky Lucinano that lasted for more than 40 years.
Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899–1947) was a prominent member of the American Mafia operating in and around the Northeastern United States throughout the mid-1920s. Slashed across the face as a young gangster, Capone earned the nickname “Scarface”; he later joined Chicago gangster Johnny Torrio’s crime organization where he helped run prostitution operations. Upon Torrio’s retirement in 1925, Capone assumed the position of crime boss in which he organized all gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution operations; he expanded operations by ordering the murder of various rivals in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually imprisoned in 1931 for tax evasion, Capone was sentenced to 11 years at California’s Alcatraz Prison. Capone died powerless at his Florida estate in 1947.
Carlo Gambino (1902–1976) was a member of the American Mafia and boss of the Gambino crime family. Sicilian-born, Gambino was expelled from Italy under Benito Mussolini who waged a successful war against organized crime throughout Italy. Working for the American organization of his Sicilian “Honored Society,” Gambino began carrying out murders for the organization, eventually becoming a “made-man” at age 19. Unlike many modern Mafiosi, Gambino served relatively little time in prison. He died of a heart attack while sleeping in his home in 1976.
Constantino Paul Castellano (1915–1985) was an American Mafia boss throughout the New York area who rose to power in the mid-twentieth century. Castellano succeeded Carlo Gambino as the head of the Gambino crime family, the largest of New York’s Mafia families. In early 1985, he was one of many Mafia bosses arrested on charges of racketeering, which was to result in the Mafia Commission Trial; in December of that year, while out on bail, Castellano and an associate were shot to death outside a restaurant in Manhattan on the orders of John Gotti.
Salvatore “Toto” Riina (b. 1930), one of the most infamous members of the Sicilian Mafia, rose to power in the early 1980s. Nicknamed “The Beast” due to his violent nature, Riina ruled the Sicilian Mafia with an iron hand until his arrest in 1993. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Riina and his Mafia faction the Coreonesi, conducted a ruthless campaign of violence against both rival mobsters and the state, which culminated in the assassination of two judges. This caused widespread public revulsion of the Mafia and led to a major crackdown by the authorities, resulting in the capture and imprisonment of Riina and many of his associates. During his lifelong career in crime Riina is believed to have personally killed more than forty people and to have ordered the deaths of more than one thousand.
Bernardo Provenzano (b. 1933), member of the Sicilian Mafia, is believed to be the head of the Corleonesi crime family, a Mafia faction that originated in the Sicilian village of Corleone. Provenzano was believed to serve as the facto “capo di tutti capi” of the entire Sicilian Mafia until his arrest in 2006 after more than four decades on the run. Nicknamed Binnu u tratturi, or "Bennie the tractor" because of his propensity to “mow people down,” Provenzano is also known for his apparently subtle and low-key approach to running his crime empire. Before his capture, authorities had reportedly been “close” to capturing him for ten years.
John Joseph Gotti, Jr. (1940–2002), was a prominent member of the American Mafia and boss of the Gambino crime family throughout much of the later half of the twentieth century. Known for an outspoken personality and unique style, Gotti personified the image of the glorified gangster. After convicted of 13 counts of murder in 1992, in addition to other offenses, Gotti was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Upon imprisonment, Gotti appointed his son, John Gotti Jr. as the family’s acting boss.
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