Image Gallery: Public Enemies
Image Gallery: Public Enemies

FBI surveillance photo: Underboss Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano notoriously testified against the boss of the Gambino family, John "Dapper Don" Gotti. See more pictures of public enemies.

Photo courtesy FBI

Introduction to How the Mafia Works

The Mafia has controlled everything from the street corner drug trade to the highest levels of government. Glorified by movies and television, hounded by law enforcement officials, marked for death by their enemies, mobsters live violent and often brief lives. The Mafia at its core is about one thing -- money. Still, there are secret rituals, complicated rules and tangled webs of family loyalty.

In this article, we'll find out how people get into the Mafia, what the Mafia does and what law enforcement agencies have done to stop them. We'll also learn about the important people and events that have shaped this not-so-secret society.

Mafia: An Overview

Today, the word "mafia" is used to refer to almost any organized crime group, and in some cases is even used to describe groups completely unrelated to crime. In this article, we will focus on the traditional meaning of "mafia": org­anized criminal organizations of Italian or Sicilian heritage.

­In organized crime there is a hierarchy, with higher-ranking members making decisions that trickle down to the other members of the family. The Mafia is not a single group or gang -- it is made up of many families that have, at times, fought each other in bitter, bloody ga­ng wars. At other times, they have cooperated in the interest of greater profits, sometimes even serving on a "Commission" that made major decisions affecting all the families (more on the Commission later). Most of the time, though, they simply agree to stay out of each other's way.

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Mafia-dom is neither a political nor a religious affiliation. Because of their Italian roots, many Mafioso are Catholic, but part of the oath a mobster takes when he becomes a "made man" -- a member of a Mafia family -- is that the Mafia comes before birth family and God.

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The Structure of La Cosa Nostra

The structure described below refers specifically to La Cosa Nostra. Other groups have similar structures, but they may differ in some ways.

Each group is made up of several gangs, known as families. The number of families can range from fewer than 10 to more than 100. Sometimes, the emergence of a new family must be approved by the heads of other families, while in some cases a group can splinter off from another family and consolidate its power, becoming recognized as a new family over time. Each family has separate business dealings, but the dealings of the families can intermingle to a large extent depending on their proximity to one another and the commonality of their ventures.

The leader of each family is known as the boss, or don. All major decisions are made by the boss, and money made by the family ultimately flows to him. The boss's authority is needed to resolve disputes and keep everyone in line.

Sammy Gravano, notorious for turning state's evidence against Mafia boss John Gotti, was an underboss in the Gambino family.

Just below the boss is the underboss. The underboss is the second in command, although the amount of power he wields can vary. Some underbosses resolve disputes without involving the boss. Some are groomed to replace the boss if he is old or in danger of going to jail.

Beneath the underboss are several capos. The number of capos varies depending on the overall size of the family. A capo acts like a lieutenant, leading his own section of the family. He has specific activities that he operates. The capo's territory may be defined geographically (as in, "everything west of 14th Street belongs to Louie 'The Key' DiBartolo.") or by the rackets he operates ("Alfonze 'Big Al' Maggioli is in charge of illegal gambling."). The key to being a successful capo is making money. The capo keeps some of the money his rackets earn and then passes the rest up to the underboss and boss.

The "dirty work" is done by the soldiers. A soldier is the lowest rank among made men. They're part of the family, but they hold little power and make relatively little money. The number of soldiers that belong to any given capo can vary tremendously.

In addition to soldiers, the Mafia will use associates. Associates are not actual members of the Mafia, but they work with Mafia soldiers and capos on various criminal enterprises. An associate is simply someone who works with the mob, including anyone from a burglar or drug dealer to a lawyer, investment banker, police officer or politician.

There is one other position within the family that is somewhat legendary -- the consigliere. The consigliere is not supposed to be part of the family's hierarchy. He is supposed to act as an advisor and make impartial decisions based on fairness rather than personal feelings or vendettas. This position is meant to elected by the members of the family, rather than appointed by the boss. In reality, consiglieres are sometimes appointed and are not always impartial.

Mafia Divisions

The Mafia is not an actual organization itself. There is no head of the Mafia. Instead, the word Mafia is an umbrella term that refers to any of several groups of gangsters who can trace their roots to Italy or Sicily.

In broad terms, there are five Mafia groups, defined mainly by the regions they operate in or the regions they originated in. All five groups have their hands in criminal operations that span the globe and have set up operatives in many different nations. The Sicilian Mafia originated on the island of Sicily. The Camorra Mafia began in Naples, and the Calabrian Mafia originated in Italy's Calabrian region. The Sacra Corona Unita is a more recent group based in the Puglia region of Italy. Finally, La Cosa Nostra is the American Mafia, although this group can trace its history back to Sicilian families as well as some of the other Italian groups.

There isn't a clear naming convention when it comes to Mafia families. Early families were named after the region or town in Italy where they came from. Sometimes, the name of the family would change to the name of the boss, especially if he was a powerful or long-standing boss. The five main New York City families had their names set semi-permanently by the testimony of informer Joe Valachi before a Senate subcommittee in 1962 and 1963. The families were named for the current bosses, although in one case, it was an earlier, more powerful boss whose name would be used. These five families were the Bonanno, Genovese, Gambino, Luchese and Profaci. The Profaci family was taken over by Joseph Colombo a few years later, and he became so famous that the family is now known as the Colombo family. The same thing nearly happened to the Gambino family when it was taken over by John Gotti -- but before it became the Gotti family, Gotti was arrested and convicted of racketeering and murder, based largely on the testimony of Mafia traitor Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

Vito Genovese (in his 1969 mugshot) began his career working under "Lucky" Luciano and ultimately became one of the most powerful bosses in American Mafia history.

Most of the other U.S. families are simply named for the city they operate in. Thus, you have the Philadelphia family, the Buffalo family, the Cleveland family and so on.

Joe Valachi at La Tuna Prison, TX

Mafia Induction

The details of a Mafia induction ceremony were a carefully kept secret for decades. But in the early 1960s, Joe Valachi's testimony before a Senate subcommittee shined a spotlight on the mob. The Mafia induction described here is the ceremony conducted by the Sicilian Mafia as well as most American Mafia families. Circumstances can alter some of the details of the ceremony, such as an induction in prison or a quick induction during a gang war.

First, the potential gangster is told simply to "dress up" or "get dressed." He is taken to a private place and seated at a long table, right next to the boss. Other Mafioso who are present will join hands and recite oaths and promises of loyalty. The inductee must then hold a burning piece of paper. In some families, the new soldier is paired with a more experienced mobster who will act as his "godfather," guiding him into Mafia life. The inductee must promise that he will be a member of the family for life, and then a drop of blood is drawn from his trigger finger.

It takes more than just an oath and a drop of blood to get into the Mafia, however. Only men of Italian heritage are allowed in. In some families, both parents must be Italian, while some only require an Italian father. The prospective mobster must also show a penchant for making money or at the very least a willingness to commit acts of violence when ordered to. Usually, the criminal must pass a test before he will be considered for induction, and this test is commonly rumored to be some sort of participation in an act of murder.

There is one last obstacle that some mobsters face when they try to become made men -- the Commission. In the 1920s and '30s, the Mafia families in the United States were almost constantly at war with one another. They would often recruit new soldiers by the dozens so rival families wouldn't recognize them as enemies. These new recruits could easily approach members of other families and assassinate them. To put a stop to this, the Commission began requiring all the families to make a list of their prospective members and circulate the list among the other families. In addition to eliminating unrecognizable family members, this also allowed the bosses to weed out prospectives that other families had problems with. If those prospectives became made men, individual disagreements could grow into violent wars between families.

"Dapper Don" John Gotti in his 1990 mug shot

Mafia Activities

The ultimate point of the Mafia is to make money. Families use a variety of activities to accomplish this. One of the most common is also one of the simplest -- extortion. Extortion is forcing people to give up their money by threatening them in some way. Mafia "protection rackets" are extortion schemes. They tell a shop owner that she needs to pay them $100 a week so they can "protect" her from criminals who might demolish the shop or hurt her family -- the implication being that the Mafia members themselves are these criminals.

The Mafia makes money by participating in virtually any activity that is illegal. Illegal goods are expensive, untaxed and unregulated. Over the years, mobsters have dealt in alcohol during Prohibition, illegal drugs, prostitution and illegal gambling.

Sometimes, burglaries and muggings generate income, but the capos know that their activities need a grander scale to ensure maximum profit. This is why they hijack trucks and unload entire shipments of stolen goods. Another method used by Mafioso is to pay off truck drivers or dock workers, who will "misplace" crates and shipments that later end up in Mafia hands. The stolen goods could be anything from stereo equipment to women's clothing (a favorite of John Gotti early in his career).

One of the most notorious Mafia schemes was the infiltration of labor unions. For several decades, it is believed that every major construction project in New York City was controlled by the Mafia. Mobsters paid off or threatened union leaders to get a piece of the action whenever a union group got a construction job, and they sometimes made their way into the ranks of leadership themselves. And once the Mafia had its grip firmly on a union, it could control an entire industry. Mafioso could get workers to slow or halt construction if contractors or developers didn't make the right payoffs, and they had access to huge union pension funds. At one point, the Mafia could have brought nearly all construction and shipping in the United States to a halt. But the last 20 years have seen the federal government crack down on Mafia-union connections to a great extent.

The current structure of the Mafia took centuries to develop. To learn about the history of the mafia and to see how law enforcement has dealt with organized crime over the years, read on.

History

The current structure of the Mafia took centuries to develop. It all began on the island of Sicily. Although there are major organized crime groups from other parts of Italy, the Sicilian Mafia is generally considered to be the blueprint for all other Mafia organizations.

Several unique factors contributed to the development of organized crime on Sicily. The island is located at an easily accessible and strategically important place in the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, Sicily was invaded, conquered and occupied by hostile forces many times. This led to an overall distrust of central authority and codified legal systems. The family, rather than the state, became the focus of Sicilian life, and disputes were settled through a system in which punishment was dealt beyond the limits of the law.

In the 19th century, the European feudal system finally collapsed in Sicily. With no real government or functioning authority of any kind, the island quickly descended into lawlessness. Certain landowners and other powerful men began to build reputations and eventually came to be seen as local leaders. They were known as capos. The capos used their power to extract tributes from farmers under their authority (much like the feudal lords before them). Their authority was enforced through the threat of violence. Their criminal activities were never reported, even by the victims, because of the fear of reprisal. This was the beginning of the Sicilian Mafia.

Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" trilogy has become the quintessential telling of the Mafia story.

Photo courtesy Amazon.com

The Development of the Mafia

Several elements of Mafia life that have lasted for centuries first developed during the transition from a feudal to a modern form of government in Sicily. The phrase cosa nostra -- "our way" -- was used to describe the lifestyle of a Mafioso in Sicily. The shroud of secrecy that surrounded Mafia activities in Sicily became known as omerta, the code of silence. Mafia bosses used this code to protect themselves from the activities of the criminals below them in the organization. The practice of recruiting young boys into the Mafia, culminating with a final test, also stems from Sicily.

In the early 1900s, organized crime had so thoroughly infiltrated Sicilian life that it was virtually impossible to avoid contact with the Mafia. Dictator Benito Mussolini cracked down on the Mafia using harsh, often brutal methods. But when U.S. troops occupied Sicily during World War II, they mistook the many jailed criminals for political prisoners and not only set them free, but also appointed many of them as mayors and police chiefs. Before long, the Mafia had a firm grasp on Italy's Christian Democrat party.

In the postwar years, the various competing Sicilian families realized that their constant fighting was costing them money. They called a ceasefire and formed a group called the Cupola that would oversee the operations of all the families and approve all major enterprises and assassinations. A similar system would be put in place by the American families in the 1950s. While these committees did succeed in stifling gang wars for a time, they also left the bosses vulnerable to prosecution because with the Cupola in place, bosses personally approved murders.

The fight against the Sicilian Mafia came to a head in the 1980s. Two very prominent government prosecutors who had done a lot of damage to the Mafia were assassinated in bombings. The public was outraged, and the government eventually responded with the so-called Maxi trial. More than 400 Mafioso were tried in a specially built bunker. Large cells in the back of the courtroom held the defendants, who would often scream and threaten witnesses as the trial went on. Ultimately, 338 were found guilty.

This wasn't enough to stamp out Sicily's Mafia, however. In 1992, the Italian government sent 7,000 military troops to Sicily. They occupied the island until 1998. The Sicilian Mafia still exists today and is still active, but it is quieter and less violent.

In the next section, we'll see how the Mafia came to the United States.

Mug shot of Charles "Lucky" Luciano

American Mafia

Sicilians and other Italians began immigrating to the United States in the 1800s, but a major wave of them arrived on American shores early in the 20th century. While the vast majority of them worked hard at building a new life for their family through legal means, some of them brought the ways of the Sicilian Mafia with them.

The first major Mafia incident occurred in New Orleans in the 1890s. A Sicilian crime family was pressured by the local chief of police, who was then murdered. When the mobsters were tried, they bribed witnesses and were acquitted. Anti-Italian fervor erupted, and a lynch mob went to the jailhouse. The mob shot or hanged 16 men.

Mafia families spread through the country in the first half of the 20th century, emanating from New York City, where five families vied for control. The era of Prohibition poured vast amounts of money into Mafia coffers as they sold illegal alcohol in speakeasies around the country. Their power during this period grew exponentially, and wars between the families broke out. There was an epidemic of Mafia violence in the early 1930s -- bosses and underbosses were assassinated regularly, with few bosses ruling their families for more than a few months before they got killed. The Luchese family went through three or four bosses in 1930 alone.

In the middle of this bloodbath (and helping to orchestrate much of it) was a mobster named Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

Luciano attained a position of great power throughout La Cosa Nostra, and he threw his support behind an idea that had been floating around for some time -- the formation of a multi-family commission that would approve Mafia activities nationwide.

The Kennedy Rumors

Rumors of ties between the Kennedys and the Mafia go back to John F. Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy, who reportedly earned much of the family fortune as bootlegger and had connections to mobsters like Meyer Lansky. When JFK faced Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic primary in 1960, many claimed that the Kennedy clan called on their mob connections to ensure a favorable vote, and similar accusations were made during the presidential election against Richard Nixon, which Kennedy won by a slim margin.

Several theories tie JFK's assassination to the Mafia. Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK's accused assassin), was a known mob associate. One theory attributes motive to the Mafia through the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The Mafia reportedly hated that Cuba was in the hands of Fidel Castro, who had thrown them out of their lucrative Cuban casino businesses when he came to power. The invasion was an utter failure attributed by some to Kennedy's refusal to approve air support.

Another theory points to JFK's brother, Robert, whom JFK appointed to the position of attorney general after he was elected president. Once appointed, Robert Kennedy immediately began a Mafia crackdown. Robert also died from an assassin's bullet.

Another rumor plays on suggestions that JFK kept several mistresses and girlfriends, some of whom were known to associate with mobsters. Some evidence, including federal wiretaps, shows that mobster Sam Giancana may have set JFK up with various women, all the while recording proof of the President's extra-marital affairs. Conspiracy theorists have speculated that it was hit men sent by Giancana who murdered Marilyn Monroe, one of JFK's supposed girlfriends. Giancana himself was murdered shortly before he was due to testify on the Mafia/Kennedy connections.

The Commission

A meeting in Chicago cemented the formation of a multi-family Mafia committee. The seven-member Commission was initially made up of bosses from the five New York families along with Al Capone from Chicago and Stefano Maggaddino of the Buffalo family. The Commission members acted like senators for other families, bringing their concerns to the attention of the rest of the Commission. For example, the families in cities on the west coast were almost all represented by the Chicago boss. Large scale money-making activities, as well as murders and kidnappings, had to be approved by the Commission. Commission membership was determined at national Mafia meetings that were held every five years.

One of these meetings was the scene of a famous event in Mafia history -- the Apalachin Raid. On November 14, 1957, bosses (dons) from across the country met at a tiny town in New York State, near the Pennsylvania border. A suspicious state trooper led the raid and brought 58 mobsters into the spotlight -- and in many cases, brought them to trial. While the raid struck a serious blow to the Mafia, it had a more profound effect. The American public could no longer deny that the Mafia existed.

Since its formation, the Commission has shrunk -- some families have fallen out of power and no longer send representatives. Today, it is rumored to still exist, but mainly on the east coast, and it is nowhere near as powerful as it was in Lucky Luciano's day.

Bugsy Siegel's infamous mob hangout, the Flamingo Hotel

Photo courtesy Nevada State Museum and Historical Society

Vegas and the Mafia

La Cosa Nostra had always been involved in gambling, from numbers games to sports betting. They operated luxurious, illegal casinos through the United States, bribing local police officers to look the other way. When Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, mobsters were not the first ones to see the opportunity. The famous Strip was already developing, and a few fancy hotel/casinos were already in place by the time the Mafia arrived.

When they did arrive, it wasn't the usual suspects. Instead, many of the early Vegas casinos were financed by Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. It cost a lot of money to build casinos, and these men offered shady loans to prospective developers. Some of these loans happened out in the open, with the mob-controlled Teamsters union using its pension fund to finance casino and hotel construction projects. This stopped in 1975, when federal officials took notice.

Mug shot of Meyer Lansky

Casinos generate huge profits on their own, so it didn't take much creativity on the part of the wiseguys to figure out a way to get their cut. They skimmed cash from casinos they partly owned or simply extorted payoffs from casino managers. Many mob bosses were "business partners" with casino owners, whether the owners wanted them as partners or not.

Since the 1970s, the government has been very strict about keeping the mob out of the Vegas casinos. Today, it is believed that the major casinos are not influenced by the Mafia, and any hint of an organized crime connection is enough for a casino to lose its gambling license.

Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, a boss of the Genovese family, in an FBI mugshot taken after his arrest on racketeering charges

Photo courtesy

Fighting the Mafia: Law

One of the government's most important tools in the fight against organized crime is RICO. RICO isn't a mob informant -- it's a law, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1961-1968. It was passed in 1970 specifically to help fight the Mafia. It does this by allowing prosecutors to go after entire organizations. Racketeering (a crime that was invented with the law and is based on the word for Mafia schemes, or "rackets") is making money through an unlawful enterprise that shows a pattern of such illegal moneymaking activity.

Almost any felony falls under racketeering; two or more such crimes must take place with a 15-year period for a conviction to occur. The result is extra jail time if multiple crimes are committed in pursuit of the same general scheme -- that is, bribing a union representative, murdering an uncooperative business owner and extorting money from construction contractors add up to racketeering, a designation that adds decades to the bribery, murder and extortion sentences. Furthermore, members of the criminal enterprise can be prosecuted for racketeering even if they weren't specifically involved in individual crimes. This removed one of the most common defense tactics of Mafia dons -- sending low-level criminals to commit the actual crimes so they could never be prosecuted.

Today, RICO has been used by civil attorneys to get large lawsuit awards from corporations and other groups and is used less and less against organized crime.

FBI photo: Donnie Brasco (left) and "Sonny Black" Napolitano in Florida

Photo courtesy FBI

Fighting the Mafia: Undercover

For legal officials to arrest and prosecute organized criminals, they need to find out what's going on in the organization. They can bust drug dealers or truck hijackers, but the family will just find new ones. They need to reach the top to really crack a family. And the best way to do that is by sending someone into the family undercover.

An FBI agent working undercover as a mob associate is an incredibly dangerous job. This is the life that FBI agent Joseph Pistone led for six years, working deep undercover as mob associate Donnie Brasco.

In an interview for the Web site Mafia-International.com, Pistone described how he became an undercover agent:

I grew up around wiseguys on the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, but I never got involved with them. I always worked all kinds of blue-collar jobs: in construction, in bars, driving tractor trailers. So before I went to college, I saw a lot of things and learned a lot. My first government job was with the Office of Naval Intelligence, investigating drug, theft, and espionage cases. I passed the FBI's entrance exams and became a special agent in 1969. Because of my background and training it became clear that my specialty was undercover.

Pistone was so effective that even when the operation put dozens of mobsters behind bars, his Mafia friends still thought he was a mobster-turned-informant, rather than an actual FBI agent. His story was made into the film "Donnie Brasco."

Undercover work continues to be an important part of the FBI's fight against the mob. A sting orchestrated by an undercover agent in Cleveland netted more than 40 corrupt cops in 1998. However, you will never hear of most undercover work -- the very nature of the job means that undercover agents use assumed names, refuse to be photographed and hide their very existence from the public eye.

For more information on the Italian mafia and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great Links

Sources

  • About Organized Crime, FBI.gov
  • Albanese, Jay S. Organized Crime in America. Anderson, 1996. 0-87084-028-2
  • Capeci, Jerry. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia. Alpha, 2002. 0-02-864225-2
  • Joseph Pistone Interview, Mafia-International.com
  • The Mafia, BestOfSicily.com.
  • Mannion, James. The Everything Mafia Book. Adams Media, 2003. 1-58062-864-8
  • Torr, James D., editor. Organized Crime. Greenhaven, 1999. 1-56510-890-6