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The Mafia (sometimes referred to as La Cosa Nostra, or "our thing" in Italian) was originally the name of a loose confederation of people in Sicily centuries ago joined for the purposes of protection and vigilante law enforcement, and later engaged in organized crime. A member of the mafia is a "mafioso", or a "man of honor". The Mafia spread to the United States through immigration by the 20th century. 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.

The term "mafia" has now been extended to refer to any large group of people engaged in organized crime (compare 'Russian mafia[?]' and the Japanese yakuza), or in suspicious activity (compare the "trenchcoat mafia" of Columbine High School). When unqualified, "mafia" still usually refers to the original Sicilian/American organizations.

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Origins and History The Sicilian mafia originated hundreds of years ago as a kind of protection society during the Spanish occupation of Sicily. The locals felt they could not trust the Spanish law-enforcement officials, and so formed their own protection societies, which developed into the mafia.

This role as protector extended to the early 20th century mafias in the United States, where newly arrived Italian immigrants often spoke no English and settled in the same districts of American cities. Many Americans were suspicious and mistrustful of recent immigrants, especially those with a limited command of English. Some Italians felt that they could not rely on the often corrupt and prejudiced local law-enforcement officials for protection, and turned to the mafiosi instead.

The mafia's fundraising activities have included legitimate business endeavors as well as many illegal activities such as extortion (obtained through such means as subverting trade unions), smuggling of alcohol during prohibition, prostitution, drug smuggling, illegal gambling, as well as simple theft. Las Vegas was transformed from a sleepy desert town into a gambling capital of the world through mafia investment, notably through the efforts of Bugsy Siegel.

The Mafia in Italy In Italy, organizations like 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.

There are also thought to be extensive links between the Mafia and Italian masonic institutions, such as P2. These first came to light in the wake of the murder of "God's Banker", Roberto Calvi found hanging in a masonic ritual murder beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London in June 1982.

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. Others claim, however, 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. The mafia did not become powerful in Italy again until after the country's surrender in the Second World War.

Many of the mafiosi who escaped fled to the United States. Among them was Joseph Bonanno, who eventually dominated the US branch of the Mafia. The Americans took advantage of the circumstances, and used connections of Mafia in Sicily during the invasion in 1943. Lucky Luciano and other members of Mafia, imprisoned during this time in USA, suddenly become valuable patriots and joined the US in fight against Fascism. The new American ally Lucky Luciano was pardoned and went to Sicily in 1946 to continue his activities.

Law enforcement and the Mafia Throughout the 20th century, attempts by governments to eliminate their activities have been made difficult by the sophisticated, hands-off nature of their operations, bribery and blackmail of law enforcement officers, judges, and politicians, and a tradition (enforced through violence) of not providing information to police to reduce one's own punishment. Mafia members hold to omerta, a strict code of silence whereby members do not reveal any information about the group's activities to outsiders, even if doing so would bring more favorable treatment from law enforcement. In exchange, the organization would take care of members' families while they were incarcerated. Conversely, members who broke omerta and revealed information to law enforcement were subject to assasination. Omerta provided powerful protection against law enforcement attempts to topple the organization for many years, with very few members willing to break the code.

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 has been rare, largely out of fear of the backlash that would result. The mobster Dutch Schultz[?] was reported 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 seem 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 many so-called pentiti (Mafia members who dissociated for a milder judicial treatment), like Tommaso Buscetta. The Mafia allegedly retains strong financial influence, and recent investigations usually research the economic movements of suspected members.

In recent decades, one of the most famous figures in Italy in the context of mafia has been Toto Riina, supposed to have ordered the murder of the judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino[?].

Recently, former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti[?] (Democrazia Cristiana) stood judicially accused of relationships with Mafia, but was finally cleared.

Society 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 boss, who was insulated from actual operations by several layers of authority. The boss' closest and most trusted advisor was referred to as the consigliere, or "counselor" in Italian, and possibly an underboss 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.

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 assasination, 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 rival family members.

The Five New York Mafia Families

Other Mafiosi and associated individuals

Countries with suspected mafia activity

Movies and Books Portraying the Mafia

See Also

Mafia[?] is also an island of Tanzania, Africa.

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