The Mafia, also referred to in Italian as La Cosa Nostra (variously translated as This Thing Of Ours or Our Thing), is the name for a secret, criminal organisation which evolved in mid 19th century Sicily, and led to an offshoot on the East-Coast of the United States emerging during the late 19th century with the waves of Italian immigration to that country. As opposed to the insular Sicilian Mafia, during the 20th century the American Mafia became more accomodating of Neapolitan criminals, and other Southern Italians among the sworn-in membership of 'made-men', and forged closer associations with gangsters of other nationalities, thus becoming distinct from the original organisation in Sicily.
The term "Mafia" describes a specific secret society in Sicily and their descendants in the USA, yet the word itself has no pin-pointed historical birthplace. In the original Palermo dialect the word 'mafioso' once meant 'beautiful', 'bold' or 'self-confident'. Anyone who was worthy of being described as a mafioso therefore had a certain something, an intangible attribute called 'mafia'. 'Cool' is about the closest modern English equivalent; a mafioso was someone who fancied himself. In fact it was the early Italian government which attached specific criminal connotations to the word and turned it into a subject of national debate. It was following the Prefect of Palermo, Filippo Gualterio's report to Rome in 1865, citing that "the so-called Mafia or criminal associations" had become more daring, that the word rapidly entered general usage as a descriptor of criminal activity. This
ties in with the theory that the word 'mafia' in Palermo dialect, came from an Arabic word adopted during the Arab occupation of Sicily, mahīya or similar meaning 'flashy'.
Today, a member of the Mafia is a "mafioso", a "manfias", or, Anglified, 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.
Today the Italian-American Mafia remains the most powerful criminal organization operating in the USA and uses this status to maintain control over the majority of both Chicago's and New York City's criminal enterprises. It also has links to the more established organisation from which it sprung, the original Sicilian Mafia.
Mafia power in Sicily is much more well established and complete. Corruption is widespread, and local government is almost an offshoot of the organisation itself. Mafia influence in the national legislature has long been suspected, but never proved outright.
The term "mafia" has now been extended to refer to any large group of people engaged in organized crime (such as the Russian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza, and the Chinese Triads). In fact, this is an Anglicisation, as many of these criminal organisations have their own names for the style of organised crime practiced by the Sicilian and American Mafia. When unqualified, however, 'Mafia' still usually refers to the original Sicilian and offshoot American organizations.
The Mafia in Italy
Contrary to popular legend, the Sicilian Mafia actually originated during the mid 19th century, at around the same time as the emergence of the new Italian state. Italy did not actually become a sovereign country until this time, and it was the industrialisation and trade that this event brought about that was the main driving force behind the development of the Sicilian Mafia. The Sicilian Mafia has always been at its strongest in the west of the island, and especially around the city of Palermo, its birthplace. Palermo was, and still is, the centre of trade, commerce and politics for the island of Sicily, and thus the Mafia made its base here, as opposed to the rural interior of the island which was backward and underdeveloped in economic terms. The main source of exports, and thus wealth of the island from which the Mafia sprung was the large estates of lemon and orange groves that rise from the walls of Palermo up into the hills surrounding the city.
The Mafia was initially involved in the protection of these estates, the landowners needing the Mafia for protection, and the Mafia needing the landowners' political connections to operate freely. Indeed, according to some sources, members of the ruling aristocracy were also members of the 'Sect' (as the Mafia was known in the 19th century) Baron Turrisi Colonna among them, who wrote the first ever account of the organised criminality that was going on in Sicily during this time in 1864. Colonna put the age of the 'Sect' at about 20 years old, or thereabouts. Colonna was well known as a political protector of members of the Sect and it is this kind of relationship with Government which has characterised the Mafia in Sicily. In the early days of the Italian state there were two main power groups: the landowners and the politicians, who were often synonymous. However, on the sidelines lay the Mafia, quietly infiltrating and corrupting. It is hard to say for sure, but it is highly likely that the Mafia initiated members of both other groups into its number.
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. Certainly many Mafia Historians such as John Dickie believe this view to be false. In actuality, Mussolini conducted the most successful anti-Mafia operation ever, albeit with severe losses of civil liberties.
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 for a time.
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 anti-communists, as the Mafia could not bear any other form of social organisation in its heartland of Sicily, being the monopolist of power and violence on the island. 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 Marseille — 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", a play on La Cosa Nostra) to refer to the revamped organization.
The main split in the Sicilian Mafia at present is between those bosses who have been convicted and are now in jail, chiefly Salvatore 'Toto' Riina and Leoluca Bagarella the capo di tutti capi from 1993 to 1995, and those such as Bernardo Provenzano, who are on the run, or who have not been indicted. The incarcerated bosses are currently subjected to harsh controls on their contact with the outside world, limiting their ability to run their operations from behind bars under the Italian law 41 bis. Antonio Giuffrè, a close confidant of Provenzano, turned Pentiti shortly after his capture in 2002. He now alledges that in 1993, Cosa Nostra had direct contact with representatives of Silvio Berlusconi while he was planning the birth of Forza Italia. The deal that was alledged to have been made was a repeal of 41 bis, among other anti-Mafia laws in return for electoral deliverances in Sicily. Whilst Forza Italia currently holds all 61 Sicilian seats in Parliament, no one openly suggests a link between Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra directly. Even if the allegations are proved to be baseless, Cosa Nostra feels let down by a Government it imagines, rightly or wrongly, to contain elements sympathetic towards it. A banner was recently unfurled at a Palermo Football match which read "We are united against 41 bis. Berlusconi has forgotten Sicily". These are worrying days for the Mafia's enemies, but whether Provenzano's restructuring efforts will succeed in appeasing or isolating the interned bosses, and thus uniting Cosa Nostra once again, remains to be seen.
Prominent Sicilian Mafiosi
* Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, former 'Superboss' of the Corleonesi and thus the entire Sicilian Mafia, now in jail. Succeeded by Bernardo Provenzano (see below).
* Tommaso Buscetta, the first Sicilian Mafiosi to become an informant during the 1970s. Generally known as the 'Supergrass' whose evidence was used to great effect during the Maxi-Trials.
* Bernardo Provenzano, Current 'capo di tutti capi' or Boss of Bosses of the Sicilian Mafia, a fugitive from justice for over 40 years. He is said to have been recently spotted in a medical clinic in the south of France. The authorities have reportedly been 'close' to capturing him for the past 10 years, since he took over from Salvatore Riina.
* Giovanni 'lo scanncristianni' Brusca, who personally murdered Giovanni Falcone, the investigating judge who started the first and only real fightback against the Sicilian Mafia.
Other Criminal Organisations in Italy
The Sicilian Mafia is organized into cosche (clans) in Sicily; in other regions there exist other similar organisations: Ndrangheta in Calabria, Sacra corona unita in Apulia, Camorra in Naples and the Mala del Brenta in Venice. Although the different crime empires do business with each other, these are seperate and distinct organisations from the Sicilian Mafia, which is by far the most powerful.
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 eventually 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.
The Initiation ritual emerged in Sicily in the mid-19th century and has hardly changed to this day. The Chief of Police of Palermo in 1875 reported that the man of honour to be initiated would be led into the presence of a group of bosses and underbosses. One of these men would prick the intiate's arm or hand and tell him to smear the blood onto a sacred image, usually a saint. The oath of loyalty would be taken as the image was burned and scattered, thus symbolising the annihilation of traitors.
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.
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. Suspicions, however, still remain.
Known as the Honored Society among Mafiosi the chain of command is organized in a pyramid similar to a modern corporate structure.
1. Capo di Tutti Capi (The "Boss of Bosses", currently Bernardo Provenzano for Sicilian Mafia; N/A for the American Mafia)
2. Capo di Capi Re (a title of respect given to a senior or retired member, equivalent to being a chairman emeritus.)
3. Capo Crimini (A "Super Boss" known as a Don or "Godfather" of a crime family)
4. Capo Bastone (Known as the "Underboss" is second in command to the Capo Crimini)
5. Consigliere (Advisor)
6. Contabile (Financial advisor)
7. Caporegime or Capodecina (A Lieutenant who commands a "crew" of around ten or more Sgarrista or "soldiers")
8. Sgarrista or Soldati ("Made" members of the Mafia who serve primarily as foot soldiers)
9. Picciotto (A low ranking member of the Mafia who serve as "Enforcers" or "button men")
10. Giovane D'Onore (An associate member of the Mafia, usually a non-Italian or Sicilian)
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