- This article is about the organized crime groups. For other meanings, see Mafia (disambiguation).
The Mafia, also referred to as La Cosa Nostra (Italian, variously translated as This Thing Of Ours or Our Thing), is the collective name of various secret organizations in Italy, Sicily, Corsica and the United States. The Mafia was originally the name of a loose confederation of people in Sicily, who, in the middle ages, joined for the purposes of protection from the Turks and Normans currently occupying the area. The word "mafia" comes from an Arabic word for "refuge". Soon the group turned to vigilante law enforcement. This confederation later engaged in organized crime.
There also is a theory that the word "mafia" came from an Arabic word mahīya or similar meaning "flashy", i.e. "the swank set" or similar; it was observed that in Sicily, for example, an unusually ornate and demonstrative cockerel can be described by the adjective "mafioso".
A member of the Mafia is a "mafioso", or a "man of honor".
Mafia power peaked in the United States in the mid-20th century, until a series of FBI investigations in the 1970s and 1980s somewhat curtailed the Mafia's influence. Despite the decline, the Mafia and its reputation have become entrenched in American popular culture, portrayed in movies, TV shows, and even product commercials.
The term "mafia" has now been extended to refer to any large group of people engaged in organized crime (compare the Russian Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza), or in suspicious activity (compare the Trenchcoat Mafia of Columbine High School). When unqualified, however, "Mafia" still usually refers to the original Sicilian/American organizations.
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An interesting etymological study  of the word "mafia" implies that it has been in use as an adjective (mafioso) since the eighteenth century, originally associated with the ideas of beauty, excellence and perfection. Like many words in any language, this eventually mutated into alternate meanings. Henner Hess, author of the book Mafia and Mafiosi (ISBN 0347010083), cites that "eventually the word mafia was used, above all, for organized crime, until sensation-hungry journalists, confused northern Italian jurists and foreign authors interpreted it as the name of an organization. The emergence of the word was, then, linked with the emergence of a secret society and thus gave rise to fantastic speculations."
Hess further cites the slogan "Morte alla Francia Italia anela!", meaning "Death to the French is Italy's cry!" as a possible origin of the word. Other acronyms, yet highly improbable, are slogans such as "Mazzini autorizza furti, incendi, avvelenamenti" ("Mazzini authorizes theft, arson, poisoning") and "mothers and fathers Italian association". Ultimately, he finds that the "theory which assigns the greatest antiquity to this society suggests that mafia is a corruption of the Arabic word mu afah, in which mu means something like inviolability, strength, vigour, refuge and afah something like to secure, to protect. Mu afah had therefore been an association which provided security for its members."
Former U.S. mob don Joseph Bonanno provided an origin that was a confused reference to the Sicilian Vespers, a patriotic uprising in Sicily against the French in 1282. Bonnano claimed that French soldiers had violated a Sicilan girl. The girl's distraught mother ran through the streets of Palermo crying "ma fia" ("my daughter"), causing the young men of Palermo to kill the French in response.
The Mafia in Italy
In Italy, organizations such as the Mafia have existed for centuries, and differ in different regions. Until the 1950s the Italian Mafia had mainly rural bases, but thereafter it spread to the cities (e.g. Palermo) and subsequently became more internationally oriented, concentrating on drugs and prostitution. The Italian Mafia is organized in families and cosche (clans) in Sicily; in other regions there exist other similar organisations: Ndrangheta in Calabria, Sacra corona unita in Apulia, Camorra in Naples.
During the Fascist period in Italy, Cesare Mori, the prefect of Palermo, utilised special powers to fight Mafia activities, and his work resulted in many mafiosi being jailed or forced to flee abroad.
It has been said that in reality, the most important leaders of the Sicilian Mafia were enrolled in the MVSN, the fascist Militia, and only low-level suspects were charged in Mori's campaign, mainly for propaganda purposes. However, others claim that this version is nothing but US propaganda trying to relativize the cooperation of the United States government and the Mafia during World War II.
Many of the mafiosi who escaped fled to the United States. Among them was Joseph Bonanno, nicknamed Joe Bananas, who eventually dominated the US branch of the Mafia.
The Americans cynically took advantage of the circumstances and they utilised the Italian connection of the American Mafiosi during the invasion of Italy and Sicily in 1943. Lucky Luciano and other members of Mafia, who had been imprisoned during this time in USA, suddenly become valuable patriots and US military intelligence used Luciano's influence to ease the way for advancing American troops.
An alleged additional benefit (from the American perspective) was that many of the Sicilian-Italian Mafiosi were hardline right-wingers, if not openly facsist, and many are known to have collaborated with the Mussolini regime. 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, the wartime resistance movements, and in many postwar local and regional governments in areas where the Mafia held sway.
According to drug trade expert Dr Alfred W. McCoy, 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 deported to Italy, where he was able to continue his criminal career unhindered. He went to Sicily in 1946 to continue his activities and according to McCoy's landmark 1972 book The Politics of Heroin in South-East Asia, Luciano went on to forge a crucial alliance with the Corsican Mafia, leading to the development of a vast international heroin trafficking network, initially supplied from Turkey and based in Marseilles — the so-called "French Connection".
Later, when Turkey began to eliminate its opium production, he used his connections with the Corsicans to open a dialogue with expatriate Corsican mafiosi in South Vietnam. In collaboration with leading American mob bosses including Santo Trafficante Jr, Luciano and his successors, took advantage of the chaotic conditions of the Vietnam War to establish an unassailable supply and distribution base in the "Golden Triangle", which was soon funnelling huge amounts of Asian heroin into the United States, Australia and other countries via the U.S. military.
The Mafia did not become powerful in Italy again until after the country's surrender in the Second World War. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, a series of internecine "gang wars" led to many prominent Mafia members being murdered, and a new generation of mafiosi has placed more emphasis on "white-collar" criminal activity as opposed to more traditional racketeering enterprises. In reaction to these developments, the Italian press has come up with the phrase La Cosa Nuova ("the new thing") to refer to the revamped organization.
Law enforcement and the Mafia
In Italy in particular, there has been a long history of police prosecutors and judges being murdered by the Mafia in an attempt to discourage vigorous policing. In the United States, murders of state authorities have been rare, largely out of fear of the backlash that would result. The mobster Dutch Schultz was reportedly killed by his peers out of fear that he would carry out a plan to kill New York City prosecutor Thomas Dewey.
In the United States, the Mafia began a steep decline in the late-1970s and early 1980s due in part to laws such as the RICO Act, which made it a crime to belong to an organization that performed illegal acts, and to programs such as the witness protection program. These factors combined with the gradual dissolution of the distinct Italian-American community through death, intermarriage, the lack of continued Italian migration, and cultural assimilation.
In the mid-20th century, the Mafia was reputed to have infiltrated many labor unions in the United States, including the Teamsters whose president Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and is believed to have been killed by the Mafia. In the 1980s the United States federal government made a determined and, it believed, successful attempt to remove Mafia influence from labor unions.
There is some evidence that in Italy law enforcement seems to be finally gaining the upper hand over the Mafia organisations, through stronger laws and the breaking down of the "code of silence". A huge help in fighting the military side of Mafia has been provided by many so-called pentiti (Mafia members who dissociated for a milder judicial treatment), like Tommaso Buscetta. The Mafia allegedly retains strong financial influence. Thus, recent investigations usually research the economic movements of suspected members.
Recently, former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti (Democrazia Cristiana) stood judicially accused of relationships with Mafia, but was finally cleared because the trial was out of the prescription period.
Mafia in the United States
Mafia groups in the United States first became influential in the New York City area, gradually progressing from small neighborhood operations to citywide and even international organizations. Five families dominated, named for prominent early members – the Bonanno family, the Colombo Family, the Gambino family, the Genovese family, and the Lucchese family.
Each family was ultimately controlled by a Don, who was insulated from actual operations by several layers of authority. According to popular belief, the Don's closest and most trusted advisor was referred to as the consigliere ("counselor" in Italian). In reality, the consigliere was meant to be something of a "hearing officer" who was charged with mediating intra-family disputes. An underboss was possible as well. There were then a number of regimes with a varying number of soldiers who conducted actual operations.
Each regime was headed by a caporegime, who reported to the boss. When the boss made a decision, he never issued orders directly to the soldiers who would carry it out, but instead passed instructions down through the chain of command. In this way, the higher levels of the organization were effectively insulated from incrimination if a lower level member should be captured by law enforcement. This structure is immortalised in Mario Puzo's famous novel The Godfather.
Initiation rituals were secret and passed down via oral tradition, though they are rumoured to involve burning a card with the picture of a saint on it and tossing the flaming pieces from hand to hand. Members initiated into this organization were referred to as made men and were under the protection of their family. A hit, or assassination, of a made man had to be preapproved by the leadership of his family, or retaliatory hits would be made, possibly inciting a war. In a state of war, families would go to the mattresses – rent vacant apartments and have a number of soldiers sleeping on mattresses on the floor in shifts, with the others ready at the windows to fire at members of rival families.
Known as the Honored Society among Mafiosi the chain of command is organized in a pyramid similar to a modern corporate structure.
- Capo Crimini (A "Super Boss" known as a Don)
- Consigliere (Advisor)
- Capo Bastone (Known as an "Underboss" is second in command to the Capo Crimini)
- Contabile (Financial advisor)
- Caporegime or Capodecina (A Lieutenant which commands a "crew" of around ten or more Sgarrista or "soldiers")
- Sgarrista ("Made" members of the Mafia who serve primarily as foot soldiers)
- Picciotto (A low ranking member of the Mafia who serve as "Enforcers" or "button men")
- Giovane D'Honore (An associate member of the Mafia usally a non-Italian member)
Other known Mafiosi and associated individuals
- William "Big Billy" D'Elia
- Russel Bufalino
- Santo Volpe
- Frank Sheeran
- Tony Accardo
- Joseph Aiuppa
- Al Capone
- James Colosimo
- John DiFronzo
- Vincent Drucci
- Joseph Lombardo
- James Marcello
- Bugs Moran
- Jack McGurn
- Frank Nitti
- Dean O'Banion
- Paul Ricca
- John Roselli
- Anthony Spilotro
- Michael Spilotro
- Johnny Torrio
- Hymie Weiss
- Frankie Yale
- James Colletti
- Clarence Smaldone
- Stephen LoSasso
- Gaspare Arcilesi
Countries with suspected Mafia activity
The following is a list of countries that are suspected, or documented, to have formed their own Mafia groups, Usually, each Mafia group makes associations with groups from other countries to keep their business running. Many of the groups from other countries have ties with the Italian Mafia.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Dominican Republic
- Peru (see Aeroperu)
- Serbia and Montenegro
- United Kingdom
- United States (Including the insular area of Puerto Rico)
Media portrayal of the Mafia
- The Godfather, series of novels by Mario Puzo; later made into films by Francis Ford Coppola which are probably the most influential depictions of the Mafia on pop culture. The Corleone family is an amalgamation of several real life Mafia families.
- La Piovra, Italian TV series by Luigi Perelli after stories by Sandro Petraglia is the most vast and dramatic Italian series on the Mafia spawning over 9 series and 60 hours.
- Goodfellas, a film directed by Martin Scorsese based on the life of Henry Hill.
- Bugsy, a film about Bugsy Siegel starring Warren Beatty.
- Donnie Brasco, a film about the first FBI agent to infiltrate the Mafia.
- Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag, a comedy about a Mafia hit-man (Joe Pesci), who accidentally exchanges his duffel bag with eight gangsters' heads inside with one that belonged to a family of tourists.
- Mafia, a video game by Gathering of Developers and Illusion, portraying 8 years in the life of a gangster during the 30's. The game is set in the fictious city of Lost Heaven (amalgamation of several real cities) and follows Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver who through certain circumstances becomes a part of the Salieri mafia family.
- The Untouchables, film portrayal of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, a group of law enforcers organized to fight Al Capone's organization.
- Casino, film portrayal of Sam "Ace" Rothstein, general manager of a Las Vegas casino starring Robert De Niro and directed by Scorsese.
- Gotti, an HBO feature on the recently deceased former Gambino family chieftain.
- Mafia, A satire
- Road to Perdition, a film about a mob hitman (Tom Hanks) who's family is killed. Hanks flees the city with his only surviving son, and tries to get revenge.
- The Sopranos, an HBO series featuring a Mafioso and his two families.
- Married to the Mob, a comedy about a FBI agent (Matthew Modine) who falls in love with a Mafia boss' wife.
- A Bronx Tale, story about a mob boss (Chazz Palminteri) in the Bronx who befriends the son of a working class Italian father (Robert De Niro).
- Raging Bull, true story about boxing great Jake LaMotta amidst an atmosphere of Mob influence, also starring Robert De Niro.
- Dinner Rush
- Once Upon a Time in America from Italian director Sergio Leone.
- Analyze This, comedy starring Robert De Niro, and it's sequel Analyze That also with Robert De Niro.
- The Whole Nine Yards and its sequel, The Whole Ten Yards, comedies with Bruce Willis.
- The Italian Job, the Russian Mafia is involved in this movie; first and last scenes.
- The Simpsons, a comedy TV show features a mafia which represents a negative Italian-American stereotype.
- Ghost Dog, director Jim Jarmusch late 90's film on American mafia and 'button men'.
See Also: List of Mafia movies