- 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 Sicily 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" itself comes from an Arabic word for "refuge". Soon the group turned to vigilante law enforcement. This confederation 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. 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.
Origins and history
Main article: History of the Mafia
Contrary to popular opinion, the mafia is not an ancient medieval organisation, in fact the mafia had its origin at roughly the time of the birth of the new nation of Italy during the latter half of the 19th century, thus the mafia and this new nation were born together. The mafia emerged from an area of Sicily which is still its heartland; it was developed where Sicily's wealth was concentrated, in the dark green coastal strip, among the modern capitalist export businesses based in the idyllic orange and lemon groves just outside Palermo.
Palermo was the nucleus of this somewhat backward island (in the eyes of Italy's ruling classes), its power and wealth were both concentrated here, and it was among the citrus groves and estates that the mafia developed its methods: protection rackets, murder, territorial dominance and collaboration between gangs. Therefore, slowly but surely, the mafia began to assert its position as an instrument of local government. Partnerships and protection rackets between the mafia and the land owners were common. The mafia needed the land owners, but likewise the landowners needed the mafia. Local government was also often complicit in this arrangement. The mafia would be the gangmasters, the people who controlled who worked where in the estates, and thus their powerbase grew with the international trade which eminated from this region: citrus fruit.
See: Cosa Nostra: A history of the Sicilian mafia, by John Dickie for more information.
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 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 took advantage of the circumstances, and utilised the Sicilian connections of American mafiosi 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 the fight against Fascism. As a new American ally, Luciano was pardoned and went to Sicily in 1946 to continue his activities.
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.
In recent decades, one of the most famous figures in Italy in the context of Mafia has been Toto Riina, who supposedly 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 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.
Other known Mafiosi and associated individuals
- William "Big Billy" D'Elia
- Russel Bufalino
- Santo Volpe
- Frank Sheeran
- Andre Arcilesi
- James Colletti
- Clarence Smaldone
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.
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.
- 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 , 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 game by Gathering and Illusion, portrays the last 8 years of a gangster in the 30's in the fictious city of Lost Heaven (amalgamation of several reallife cities). Follows Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver whose life was changed by a car accident which leads him into the Salieri 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 mob hitman (Tom Hanks)'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'