The Mafia (also known as "Cosa Nostra") is a Sicilian criminal society which is believed to have emerged in late 19th century Sicily, and the first such society to be referred to as a mafia (although it is not the first organized criminal society to appear in Italy). It is a loose association of criminal groups that share a common organizational structure and code of conduct. Each group, known as a "family", "clan" or "cosca", claims sovereignty over a territory in which it operates its rackets – usually a town or village or a part of a larger city.
Offshoots of the Mafia emerged in the United States, Canada, and in Australia during the late 19th century following waves of Italian emigration (see Italian-American Mafia). However, outside Italy the term "Mafia" is also employed to name any organization operating under a similar structure, whether Sicilian or not; such as the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta or the Sacra Corona Unita, as well as foreign organized groups such as the Russian Mafia.
There are several theories about the origin of the term "Mafia" (sometimes spelled "Maffia" in early texts). The Sicilian adjective mafiusu may derive from the slang Arabic mahyas (مهياص), meaning "aggressive boasting, bragging", or marfud مرفوض meaning "rejected". Roughly translated, it means "swagger", but can also be translated as "boldness, bravado". In reference to a man, mafiusu in 19th century Sicily was ambiguous, signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud, according to scholar Diego Gambetta. In reference to a woman, however, the adjective "mafiusa" means beautiful and attractive.
The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was perhaps inspired by the 1863 play "I mafiusi di la Vicaria" ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaetano Mosca. The words Mafia and mafiusi are never mentioned in the play; they were probably put in the title to add a local flair. The play is about a Palermo prison gang with traits similar to the Mafia: a boss, an initiation ritual, and talk of "umirtà" (omertà or code of silence) and "pizzu" (a codeword for extortion money). The play had great success throughout Italy. Soon after, the use of the term "mafia" began appearing in the Italian state's early reports on the phenomenon. The word made its first official appearance in 1865 in a report by the prefect of Palermo, Filippo Antonio Gualterio.
Leopoldo Franchetti, an Italian deputy who travelled to Sicily and who wrote one of the first authoritative reports on the mafia in 1876, saw the Mafia as an "industry of violence" and described the designation of the term "mafia":
Franchetti saw the Mafia as deeply rooted in Sicilian society and impossible to quench unless the very structure of the island's social institutions were to undergo a fundamental change.
Some observers have seen "mafia" as a set of attributes deeply rooted in popular culture, as a "way of being", as illustrated in the definition by the Sicilian ethnographer, Giuseppe Pitrè, at the end of the 19th century:
According to urban legend, the word Mafia was first used in the Sicilian revolt – the Sicilian Vespers – against rule of the Capetian House of Anjou on 30 March 1282. In this legend, Mafia is the acronym for "Morte alla Francia, Italia anela" (Italian for "Death to France, Italy cries!"). However, this version is now discarded by most serious historians.
The Sicilian Mafia has no formal name, as members see no need for one. Nonetheless, in many Italian publications the term "Cosa Nostra" is used to distinguish the Sicilian Mafia from other criminal networks that are also sometimes referred to as "mafias" (such as the Camorra, the "Neapolitan Mafia").
When the American mafioso Joseph Valachi testified before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1962, he revealed that American mafiosi referred to their organization by the term cosa nostra ("our thing" or "this thing of ours"). At the time, it was understood as a proper name, fostered by the FBI and disseminated by the media. The designation gained wide popularity and almost replaced the term Mafia. The FBI even added the article to the term, calling it La Cosa Nostra (in Italy this article is not used when referring to the Sicilian Mafia).
Italian investigators did not take the term seriously, believing it was only used by the American Mafia. In 1984, the Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta revealed to the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the term was used by the Sicilian Mafia as well. Buscetta dismissed the word "mafia" as a mere literary creation. Other defectors, such as Antonio Calderone and Salvatore Contorno, confirmed the use of Cosa Nostra to describe the Mafia. Mafiosi introduce known members to each other as belonging to cosa nostra ("our thing") or la stessa cosa ("the same thing"), e.g. "he is the same thing, a mafioso, as you".
The Sicilian Mafia has used other names to describe itself throughout its history, such as "The Honoured Society". Mafiosi are known among themselves as "men of honour" or "men of respect".
Cosa Nostra is not a monolithic organization, but rather a loose association of groups known alternately as "families", "coscas", "borgatas" or "clans". Today, Cosa Nostra is estimated to have about 100 clans, with a total of at least 3,500 to 4,000 full members. Most are based in western Sicily, almost half of them in the province of Palermo,
In 1984, the mafioso informant Tommaso Buscetta explained to prosecutors the pyramidal command structure of a typical clan. A clan is led by a "boss" (capofamiglia), who is aided by a second-in-command (a sotto capo or "underboss") and one or more advisers (consigliere). Under his command are crews of about 10 "soldiers", each led by a capodecina (or sometimes caporegime).
Other than its members, Cosa Nostra makes extensive use of "associates". These are people who work for or aid a clan (or even multiple clans) but are not treated as true members. These include corrupt officials and prospective mafiosi. An associate is considered nothing more than a tool; "nothing mixed with nil."
The most powerful boss is often referred to in the media as the capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses"), who allegedly commands all the clans of Cosa Nostra. Calogero Vizzini, Salvatore Riina, and Bernardo Provenzano were especially influential bosses who have each been described by the media and law enforcement as being the "boss of bosses" of their times. However, such a position does not formally exist, according to Mafia turncoats such as Buscetta.
Membership and rank in the Mafia are not hereditary. Most new bosses are not related to their predecessor. The Commission forbids relatives from holding positions in inter-clan bodies at the same time.
A mafioso's legitimate occupation, if he has any, generally does not affect his prestige within Cosa Nostra. Historically, most mafiosi were employed in menial jobs, and many bosses did not work at all, but in recent times professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been found among them.
A prospective mafioso is carefully tested for obedience, discretion and ruthlessness. He is almost always required to commit murder as his ultimate trial.
For many years, the power apparatuses of the individual clans were the sole ruling bodies within the association, and they have remained the real centers of power even after superordinate bodies were created in Cosa Nostra beginning in the late 1950s (the Sicilian Mafia Commission also known as Commissione or Cupola).
The Commission is a body of leading Cosa Nostra members who decide on important questions concerning the actions of, and settling disputes within the organization. It is composed of representatives of a mandamento (a "district" of three geographically contiguous Mafia families) that are called capo mandamento or rappresentante. The Commission is not a central government of the Mafia, but a representative mechanism for consultation of independent families who decide by consensus. "Contrary to the wide-spread image presented by the media, these superordinate bodies of coordination cannot be compared with the executive boards of major legal firms. Their power is intentionally limited. And it would be entirely wrong to see in the Cosa Nostra a centrally managed, internationally active Mafia holding company," according to criminologist Letizia Paoli.
The jurisdiction extends over a province; each province of Sicily has some kind of a Commission, except Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa. Beyond the provincial level, details are vague. According to Buscetta, a commissione interprovinciale – interprovincial commission – was set up in the 1970s, while Calderone claims that there had been a rappresentante regionale in the 1950s even before the Commissions and the capi mandamento were created.
After his arrest, the mafioso Giovanni Brusca described the ceremony in which he was formally made a full member of Cosa Nostra. In 1976 he was invited to a "banquet" at a country house. He was brought into a room where several mafiosi were sitting around a table upon which sat a pistol, a dagger and an image of a saint. They questioned his commitment and his feelings regarding criminality and murder (despite his already having a history of such acts). When he affirmed himself, Salvatore Riina, then the most powerful boss of Cosa Nostra, took a needle and pricked Brusca's finger. Brusca smeared his blood on the image of the saint, which he held in his cupped hands as Riina set it alight. As Brusca juggled the burning image in his hands, Riina said to him: "If you betray Cosa Nostra, your flesh will burn like this saint."
A mafioso is not supposed to introduce himself to another mafioso. If he wants to establish a relationship, he must ask a third, mutually-known mafioso, to introduce them to each other. This intermediary can vouch that neither of the two is an impostor. This tradition is upheld very scrupulously: when the mafioso Indelicato Amedeo returned to Sicily following his initiation in America, he could not introduce himself to his own mafioso father, but had to wait for an intermediary from America who knew of his induction to come to Sicily.
In November 2007 Sicilian police reported to have found a list of "Ten Commandments" in the hideout of mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo. They are thought to be guidelines on how to be a good, respectful and honourable mafioso.
Omertà is a code of silence that forbids mafiosi from betraying their comrades to the authorities. The penalty for transgression is death, and relatives of the turncoat may also be murdered. To a degree, Cosa Nostra also imposes this code on the general population, persecuting any citizen who aids the authorities.
It is estimated that the Sicilian Mafia costs the Sicilian economy more than €10 billion a year through protection rackets. Roughly 80% of Sicilian businesses pay protection money to Cosa Nostra. Monthly payments can range from €200 for a small shop or bar to €5,000 for a supermarket. Targets who refuse to buy protection are usually harassed, often through property damage; physical assault is rare. In Sicily, protection money is known as pizzo; the anti-extortion support group Addiopizzo derives its name from this.
Protection from theft is one service that the Mafia provides to paying "clients". Mafiosi are generally forbidden from comitting theft. Instead, mafiosi make it their business to know all the thieves and fences operating within their territory. If a protected business is robbed, the clan will use these contacts to track down and return the stolen goods and punish the thieves. Thieves are usually not forced to give a cut of their takings, as the money involved in small thefts is not worth the trouble.
Sicily is a major hub in the international drugs trade. In 2003, the Sicilian Mafia is estimated to have made over €8 billion through drug trafficking.
In 2003, the Sicilian Mafia is estimated to have made a turnover of €1.5 billion through weapons trafficking.
In a 2007 publication, the Italian small-business association Confesercenti reported that about 25.2% of Sicilian businesses are indebted to loan sharks, who collect around €1.4 billion a year in payments.
The Sicilian Mafia in Italy is believed to have a turnover of €6.5 billion through control of public and private contracts. Mafiosi use threats of violence and vandalism to muscle out competitors and win contracts for the companies they control. They rarely manage the businesses they control themselves, but take a cut of their profits, usually through payoffs (pizzo).
Certain types of crimes are forbidden by Cosa Nostra, either by members or freelance criminals within their domains. Mafiosi are generally forbidden from committing theft (burglary, mugging, etc). Kidnapping is also generally forbidden, even by non-members, as it attracts a great deal of public hostility and police attention. These rules have been violated from time to time, both with and without the permission of senior mafiosi.
The genesis of Cosa Nostra is hard to trace because of its secretive nature and lack of historical record-keeping. It is widely believed that its seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily's transition from feudalism to capitalism in 1812 and its later annexation by mainland Italy in 1860. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies couldn't fully enforce law and order, and many groups, from bandits to artisan guilds, used violence to plunder or settle disputes.
In 1864, Niccolò Turrisi Colonna, leader of the Palermo National Guard, wrote of a "sect of thieves" that operated across Sicily. This "sect" had special signals to recognize each other, had political protection in many regions, and a code of loyalty and non-interaction with the police known as umirtà ("humility"). The sect was mostly rural, comprising plantation wardens and smugglers, among others. Colonna warned in his report that the Italian government's brutal attempts to crush unlawfulness only made the problem worse by alienating the populace. An 1865 dispatch from the prefect of Palermo to Rome first officially described the phenomenon as a "Mafia".
Much of the Mafia's early activity centered around the lucrative citrus export industry around Palermo, whose fragile production system made it quite vulnerable to extortion. What is probably the earliest detailed account of Mafia activity comes from the memoirs of a citrus plantation owner named Gaspare Galati in the 1870s. After firing his warden for stealing coal and produce, Galati received threatening letters demanding that he rehire this "man of honour". Two successive replacements he hired were shot by hitmen, but the police failed to find any evidence implicating the "man of honour". Galati's own inquiries led him to believe the "man of honour" was part of a group known as a cosca, based in a nearby village and led by a local landowner and former revolutionary. Many such groups existed that disrupted citrus plantations to either extort money or buy them at low prices. Worse still, these groups appeared to have allies in the police and local government. Galati gave up and fled home to Naples.
The accounts of Galati and others alarmed politicians in Rome. One described the Mafia as "an instrument of local government", given its level of collusion with Sicilian officials. Throughout the late 1870s, the government ordered numerous authoritarian crackdowns in which entire towns were encircled and suspects deported en masse. The crackdowns failed, however, to deal with the political corruption, and many well-connected mafiosi escaped the dragnet.
Mafiosi meddled in politics early on, bullying voters into voting for candidates they favoured. At this period in history, only a small fraction of the Sicilian population could vote, so a single mafia boss could control a sizeable chunk of the electorate and thus wield considerable political leverage. Mafiosi used their allies in government to avoid prosecution as well as persecute less well-connected rivals. The highly fragmented and shaky Italian political system allow cliques of Mafia-friendly politicians to exert a lot of influence.
In an 1898 report to prosecutors, the police chief of Palermo identified eight Mafia clans operating in the suburbs and villages near the city. The report mentioned initiation rituals and codes of conduct, as well as criminal activities that included counterfeiting, ransom kidnappings, robbery, murder and witness intimidation. The Mafia also maintained funds to support the families of imprisoned members and pay defense lawyers.
In the 1920s, Benito Mussolini initiated a campaign to destroy the Mafia and its political allies. In doing so, he would suppress many political opponents on the island and score a great propaganda coup for Fascism. In October 1925, he appointed Cesare Mori prefect of Palermo and gave him special powers to attack the Mafia. Like previous crackdowns, it involved massive round-ups of suspected criminals; over 11,000 arrests were made over the course of the campaign. Wives and children of mafiosi were sometimes taken hostage to force their surrender. Many were tried en masse. More than 1,200 were convicted and imprisoned, and many others were internally exiled without trial.
Mori's campaign ended in June 1929 when Mussolini recalled him to Rome. Although he did not totally crush the Mafia as the Fascist press proclaimed, his campaign was nonetheless very successful. In 1986, the mafioso defector Antonino Calderone said of the period:
The music changed. Mafiosi had a hard life. [...] After the war the mafia hardly existed anymore. The Sicilian Families had all been broken up.—Antonio Calderone, 1986
In 1943, nearly half a million Allied troops invaded Sicily; the crime rate soared in the upheaval and chaos. Many inmates escaped from their prisons, banditry returned and the black market thrived. During the first six months of Allied occupation, party politics in Sicily was banned. As Fascist mayors were deposed, the Allies simply appointed replacements. Many turned out to be mafiosi, such as Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo. They could easily present themselves as political dissidents, and their anti-communist position made them further desirable.
The changing economic landscape of Sicily would shift the Mafia's power base from the rural to the urban. The Minister of Agriculture – a communist – pushed for reforms in which peasants were to get larger shares of produce, be allowed to form cooperatives and take over badly used land, and remove the system by which leaseholders (known as "gabelloti") could rent land from landowners for their own short-term use. Owners of especially large estates were to be forced to sell off their excess land. The Mafia, which had connections to many landowners, murdered many socialist reformers. In the end, though, they couldn't stop the process, and many landowners chose to sell their land to mafiosi, who offered more money than the government.
After the war, the Italian government poured public money into rebuilding Sicily, leading to a big construction boom. In 1956, two Mafia-connected officials, Vito Ciancimino and Salvatore Lima, took control of Palermo's Office of Public Works. Between 1959 and 1963, about 80% of building permits were given to just five people, none of whom represented major construction firms and were probably Mafia frontmen. Construction companies unconnected with the Mafia were forced to pay protection money. Many buildings were illegally constructed before the city's planning was finalized. In 1982, the antimafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone noted:
Mafia organizations entirely control the building sector in Palermo – the quarries where aggregates are mined, site clearance firms, cement plants, metal depots for the construction industry, wholesalers for sanitary fixtures, and so on.—Giovanni Falcone, 1982
In the 1950s, a crackdown in the United States on drug trafficking led to the imprisonment of many American mafiosi. Furthermore, Cuba, a major hub for drug smuggling, fell to Fidel Castro. This prompted the American mafia boss Joseph Bonanno to return to Sicily in 1957 to franchise out his heroin operations to the Sicilian clans. Anticipating rivalries for the lucrative American drug market, he negotiated the establishment of a Sicilian Mafia Commission to mediate disputes.
The First Mafia War was the first high-profile conflict between Mafia clans in post-war Italy (the Sicilian Mafia has a long history of violent rivalries).
In December 1962 some heroin went missing from a shipment to America. When the Sicilian Mafia Commission could not decide who was to blame, one of the clans involved – the La Barbera clan – took matters into its own hands. They murdered a mafioso from the Greco clan whom they suspected of stealing the heroin, triggering a war in which many non-mafiosi would be killed in the crossfire. In April 1963, several bystanders were wounded during a shootout in Palermo. In May, Angelo La Barbera survived a murder attempt in Milan. In June, six military officers and a policeman in Ciaculli were killed while trying to dispose of a car bomb.
The fact that the conflict spread outside Sicily and claimed innocent lives provoked national outrage and a crackdown in which nearly 2,000 arrests were made. Mafia activity fell as clans disbanded and mafiosi went into hiding. The Commission was dissolved; it would not reform until 1969. 117 suspects were put on trial in 1968, but most were acquitted or received light sentences.
When heroin refineries operated by the Corsican Mafia in Marseilles were shut down by French authorities, morphine traffickers looked to Sicily. Starting in 1975, Cosa Nostra set up heroin refineries across the island. As well as refining heroin, Cosa Nostra also sought to control its distribution. Sicilian mafiosi moved to the United States to personally control distribution networks there, often at the expense of their U.S. counterparts. Heroin addiction in Europe and North America surged, and seizures by police increased dramatically. By 1982, the Sicilian Mafia controlled about 80% of the heroin trade in the north-eastern United States. Heroin was often distributed to street dealers from Mafia-owned pizzerias, and the revenues could be passed off as restaurant profits (the so-called Pizza Connection). Through the heroin trade, Cosa Nostra became wealthier and more powerful than ever.
In the early 1970s, Luciano Leggio, boss of the Corleone clan and member of the Sicilian Mafia Commission, forged a coalition of mafia clans known as the Corleonesi, with himself as its leader. He initiated a campaign to dominate Cosa Nostra and its narcotics trade. Because Leggio was imprisoned in 1974, he acted through his deputy, Salvatore Riina, to whom he would eventually hand over control. The Corleonesi bribed cash-strapped Palermo clans into the fold, subverted members of other clans and secretly recruited new members. In 1977, the Corleonesi had Gaetano Badalamenti expelled from the Commission on trumped-up charges of hiding drug revenues. In April 1981, the Corleonesi murdered another member of the Commission, Stefano Bontate, and the Second Mafia War began in earnest. Hundreds of enemy mafiosi and their relatives were murdered, sometimes by traitors in their own clans. In the end, the Corleonesi faction won and Riina effectively became the "boss of bosses" of the Sicilian Mafia.
At the same time the Corleonesi waged their campaign to dominate Cosa Nostra, they also waged a campaign of murder against journalists, officials and policemen who dared cross them. The police were frustrated with the lack of help they were receiving from witnesses and politicians. At the funeral of a policeman murdered by mafiosi in 1985, policemen insulted and spat at two attending statesmen, and a fight broke out between them and military police.
In the early 1980s, the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino began a campaign against Cosa Nostra. Their big break came with the arrest of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafioso who chose to turn informant in exchange for protection from the Corleonesi, who had already murdered many of his friends and relatives. Other mafiosi followed his example. Falcone and Borsellino compiled their testimonies and organized the Maxi Trial, which lasted from February 1986 to December 1987. It was held in a fortified courthouse specially built for the occasion. 474 mafiosi were put on trial, of which 342 were convicted. In January 1992 the Italian Supreme Court confirmed these convictions.
The Mafia retaliated violently. In 1988, they murdered a Palermo judge and his son; three years later a prosecutor and an anti-mafia businessman were also murdered. Salvatore Lima, a close political ally of the Mafia, was murdered for failing to reverse the convictions as promised. Falcone and Borsellino were killed by bombs in 1992. This led to a public outcry and a massive government crackdown, resulting in the arrest of Cosa Nostra's "boss of bosses", Salvatore Riina, in January 1993. More and more defectors emerged. Many would pay a high price for their cooperation, usually through the murder of relatives. For example, Francesco Marino Mannoia's mother, aunt and sister were murdered.
After Riina's arrest, the Mafia began a campaign of terrorism on the Italian mainland. Tourist spots such as the Via dei Georgofili in Florence, Via Palestro in Milan, and the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano and Via San Teodoro in Rome were attacked, leaving 10 dead and 93 injured and causing severe damage to cultural heritage such as the Uffizi Gallery. When the Catholic Church openly condemned the Mafia, two churches were bombed and an antimafia priest shot dead in Rome.
After Riina's capture, leadership of the Mafia was briefly held by Leoluca Bagarella, then passed to Bernardo Provenzano when the former was himself captured in 1995. Provenzano halted the campaign of violence and replaced it with a campaign of quietness known as pax mafiosi.
Under Bernardo Provenzano's leadership, murders of state officials were halted. He also halted the policy of murdering informants and their families, with a view instead to getting them to retract their testimonies and return to the fold. He also restored the common support fund for imprisoned mafiosi.
The tide of defectors was greatly stemmed. The Mafia preferred to initiate relatives of existing mafiosi, believing them to be less prone to defection.
Provenzano was arrested in 2006, after 43 years on the run.
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 article 41-bis prison regime. Antonino Giuffrè – a close confidant of Provenzano, turned pentito shortly after his capture in 2002 – alleges that in 1993 Cosa Nostra had direct contact with representatives of Silvio Berlusconi who was then planning the birth of Forza Italia.
The alleged deal included a repeal of 41 bis, among other anti-Mafia laws in return for electoral support in Sicily. Nevertheless, Giuffrè's declarations have not yet been confirmed. The Italian Parliament, with the full support of Forza Italia reinforced the provisions of the 41 bis, which was to expire in 2002 but has been prolonged for another four years and extended to other crimes such as terrorism. However, according to one of Italy’s leading magazines, L'Espresso, 119 mafiosi – one-fifth of those incarcerated under the 41 bis regime – have been released on an individual basis. The human rights group Amnesty International has expressed concern that the 41-bis regime could in some circumstances amount to "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" for prisoners.
By the late 1990s, the weakened Cosa Nostra had to yield most of the illegal drug trade to the 'Ndrangheta crime organization from Calabria. In 2006, the latter was estimated to control 80% of the cocaine import to Europe.