The Mafia, at its core, is about one thing: money.
Throughout its history, the Mafia has controlled everything from the street-corner drug trade to the highest levels of government. Its members operate outside the law, yet become accepted and sometimes feared parts of the neighborhoods and cities they inhabit. Glorified by movies and television, hounded by law enforcement, marked for death by their enemies, these mobsters live violent and often brief lives.
The Mafia is, in its own right, a family. To become a family member means to accept secret rituals, complicated rules and tangled webs of loyalty. Those who run afoul of the family risk being ostracized ... and worse. Many mobsters who have turned against the Mafia have met an untimely, often gruesome death.
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.
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 and 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.
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.
La Cosa Nostra - The term cosa nostra, which is sometimes translated from Italian to mean "our thing" or "this thing of ours," originally referred to the general lifestyle of organized criminals in Sicily. When the Mafia moved to the United States, FBI agents listening in on wiretaps heard the term. They began using the term La Cosa Nostra (which is grammatically incorrect) to refer to the Mafia. In time, La Cosa Nostra referred specifically to American members of the Mafia, differentiating them from "Old World" mobsters.
Omerta - The Mafia code of silence.
Made man - A man who has been officially inducted into a Mafia family.
Capo - The capo was originally the head of a family in Sicily. Now, the capo is more like a lieutenant who serves the family boss.
Family - Each individual gang within the Mafia is known as a family. Not everyone within a family is actually related, although it is common for relatives of mobsters to be inducted into the same family as their brothers or fathers.
Wiseguy - Someone who is involved with the Mafia.
The Structure of La Cosa Nostra
The structure described below refers specifically to La Cosa Nostra. Other crime organizations have similar structures, but may differ in some ways.
Each Mafia gang is known as a family. 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 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 don, and money made by the family ultimately flows to him. The boss's authority is used to resolve disputes and keep everyone in line.
Just below the boss is the underboss. The underboss is the second in command, although the amount of power he wields varies. 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 the 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 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. Soldiers are part of the family, but they hold little power and make relatively little money. The number of soldiers under any given capo can vary tremendously.
In addition to soldiers, the Mafia uses associates. They're not actual members of the Mafia, but they work with Mafia soldiers and capos on various criminal enterprises. An associate can include anyone from a burglar or drug dealer to a lawyer, investment banker, police officer or politician.
One other position within the family 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 adviser and make impartial decisions based on fairness and logic rather than personal feelings or vendettas. This position is meant to be elected by the members of the family, not appointed by the boss. In reality, consiglieres are sometimes appointed and are not always impartial. The position was made famous with Robert Duvall's portrayal of lawyer Tom Hagen, fictional consigliere to the Corleone family in two of "The Godfather" movies and the Mario Puzo novel upon which they were based.
The Mafia is not an actual tax-paying, stock-selling organization. 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 original 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 countries. The Sicilian Mafia originated on the island of Sicily. The Camorra (or Neopolitan) Mafia began in Naples, and the Calabrian Mafia (also known as 'Ndrangheta) originated in Italy's Calabria region. The Sacra Corona Unita (which means United Sacred Crown) is a more recent group based in the Puglia region of Italy. Finally, La Cosa Nostra is a name most often connected to the American Mafia, although this group can trace its history back to Sicilian families as well as some other Italian groups.
No clear naming convention exists when it comes to Mafia families. Early families were named after the region or town in Italy where they originated. 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 1963. The families were named for the current bosses, although in one case, it was an earlier, more powerful boss whose name was used. Those five families are 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. Before it became the Gotti family, though, Gotti was arrested and convicted of racketeering and murder, based largely on the testimony of Mafia traitor Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. That family continues to be known by law enforcement officials as the Gambino crime family.
Most of the other U.S. families are simply named for the city where they operate. Thus, you have the Philadelphia family, the Buffalo family, the Cleveland family and so on.
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 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, next to the boss. Other Mafioso who are present will join hands and recite oaths and promises of loyalty. The inductee may 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 require only an Italian father. The prospective mobster must also show a penchant for making money or at the least a willingness to commit acts of violence when ordered to do so. Usually, the criminal must pass a test before he will be considered for induction, and this test is commonly rumored to be participation in an act of murder.
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 helping to ID family members, these lists also allowed the bosses to weed out prospects that other families had problems with. If the prospects became made men, individual disagreements could grow into violent wars between families.
Families use a variety of activities to accomplish the Mafia's main goal of making money. One of the most common is one of the simplest: extortion. Extortion is forcing people to pay money by threatening them in some way. Mafia "protection rackets" are extortion schemes. Mobsters demand that a shop owner pay $100 a week, for example, to "protect" the businessperson from criminals. The twist is that the Mafia members themselves are the criminals who threaten the business.
The Mafia has made money through a wide variety of illegal activities over the years. Mobsters have dealt in alcohol during Prohibition, illegal drugs, prostitution and illegal gambling, to name a few.
Sometimes, burglaries and muggings generate income, but the capos know that their activities need a grander scale to ensure maximum profit. That's 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 to "misplace" crates and shipments that later end up in Mafia hands. The stolen goods could be anything from stereo equipment to 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 union leadership. Once the Mafia had its grip 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. In the last few decades, the federal government has cracked 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 of the Mafia
The current structure of the Mafia took centuries to develop. It 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 godfather of all other Mafia organizations.
Several unique factors contributed to the development of organized crime in 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. The family, rather than the state, became the focus of Sicilian life, and disputes were settled through a system in which punishment often went 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.
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," or "this thing of ours" — 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 relied on this code — in which no one spoke about Mafia activities to anyone outside the family — to protect themselves and the family from the law. 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. Italian 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 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 succeeded 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 in Italy 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 Italian 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, and 19 sentenced to life in prison.
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. "At the macro level, the Sicilian Mafia is no longer a player in international drug-trafficking and is now buying drugs for the local market from Neapolitan dealers," reported the BBC in 2021. Nevertheless, the article mentioned that many Sicilians still turn to the Mafia to "recover stolen goods, claim unpaid debts and manage economic competition."
In its place, another mob, the 'Ndrangheta syndicate, has emerged. In early 2021, Italian authorities brought charges against 355 people associated with the Calabria-based organization, which has used billions of dollars made from the drug trade to expand its operation into Europe, Australia, North and South America, and Africa.
In the next section, we'll see how the Mafia came to the United States.
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 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.
Anti-Italian sentiment, much of it growing from resentment of the Mafia, was at its peak in the late 1800s. In New Orleans in 1891, a Sicilian crime family was pressured by the local chief of police, who was then murdered. After the mobsters were tried and acquitted, a lynch mob went to the jailhouse. The mob shot or hanged 11 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 was a huge money-maker for the Mafia , which sold illegal alcohol in speakeasies around the country. The Mafia's 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 were killed. The Luchese family went through three or four bosses in 1930 alone.
In the middle of this bloodbath, helping to orchestrate much of it, was a mobster named Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Born in Sicily in 1897 as Salvatore Lucania, Luciano became the first boss of the Genovese crime family
Luciano 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 Commission that brought together mob bosses from all over the country was initially composed of bosses from the five New York families, along with Al Capone from Chicago and Stefano Magaddino of the Buffalo family. The Commission members acted as representatives for other families, too, 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 — a raid of the Apalachin Meeting. On Nov. 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 a raid on the meeting 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.
Several theories tie JFK's assassination to the Mafia. Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK's accused assassin), had some minor ties to the mob. One story 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 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 and recorded proof of the President's extra-marital affairs. Conspiracy theorists have speculated hit men sent by Giancana 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 Kennedy/Mafia connection is built on a lot of rumor, but the Vegas/Mafia connection is more factual. Almost from its start, the American Mafia 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 to see the opportunity. The famous Strip was already developing, and a few fancy hotels/casinos were already in place by the time the Mafia arrived.
And when mobsters finally 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 the 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.
Casinos generate huge profits, 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; any hint of an organized crime connection is enough for a casino to lose its gambling license.
Fighting the Mafia: Law
One of the government's most important tools in the fight against organized crime is RICO. The law, officially, is 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 allows 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 money making 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.
Fighting the Mafia: Undercover
For officials to arrest and prosecute high-level criminals as part of a crime family, they need to find out what's going on throughout 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 to infiltrate 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 now-defunct website 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.
Today, the American Mafia doesn't hold nearly the sway over illegal activities as it once did. But the famed five families of New York still exist — Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese and Luchese — as do other mobs in New Jersey, New England, Chicago and other places. And what is left of the Mafia remains active.
"Organized crime families believe their way of life is acceptable and continue to show through their criminal behavior that they don't plan to stop," FBI assistant director-in-charge William F. Sweeney said after several members of the Luchese family were charged with murder and racketeering and other crimes in 2017. "Their crimes aren't victimless, and this case proves they're willing to use murder and many other violent tactics to enforce their dominance. The FBI/NYPD Joint Organized Crime Task Force and our other law enforcement partners, who have done exceptional work in this case, don't plan to stop our pursuit of these crime families because they have a direct negative impact on communities and neighborhoods where they operate."
For more information on the Italian mafia and related topics, check out the links that follow.
How does the Mafia make money?
The Mafia has various means to make money. However, drugs are one of the highest-paying ways they make their money. Drug manufacturing, transpiration, smuggling and distribution all generate billions of dollars every year.
Who are the bosses of the five families today?
As of 2021, Michael "The Nose" Mancuso is the head of the Maranzo family; Domenico Cefalù is the head the Mangano family; Liborio Salvatore Bellomo is currently the boss of the Luciano family; Michael "Big Mike" DeSantis is the head of the Gagliano family and the Profaci family's boss is unknown.
Is the Mafia still active today?
Italy has been the hub of all criminal activities since the 19th century. The Mafia continues to defeat Italian law enforcement, proving that they’re still very active today. The Mafia is also very active in other parts of the world, including the United States.
What are the rules of the Mafia?
Some of the non-negotiable rules of the Mafia include: No direct contact with another Mafia member’s friends (use a third party to introduce you); friends' wives are off-limits; don’t be seen with to befriend a cop; always be available for Cosa Nostra and always be on time for appointments (it’s about respect).
Who was the biggest Mafia boss ever?
Vito Genovese and Al Capone are considered to be the biggest Mafia bosses of all time, both who rose in power during prohibition. Genovese is known for his empowerment of the American mafia and Capone, for his extreme violence and bootlegging operation
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Library of Congress. "Under Attack" (July 30, 2021) https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/italian/under-attack/
The Mob Museum: National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement. "Did the Chicago Outfit elect John F. Kennedy president?" (July 28, 2021) https://themobmuseum.org/blog/did-the-chicago-outfit-elect-john-f-kennedy-president/
Mannion, James. The Everything Mafia Book. Adams Media, 2003. 1-58062-864-8
Roos, Dave. "How Joseph Kennedy Made His Fortune (Hint: It Wasn't Bootlegging)" Oct. 26, 2018 (July 30, 2021). History.com https://www.history.com/news/joseph-kennedy-wealth-alcohol-prohibition
Torr, James D., editor. Organized Crime. Greenhaven, 1999. 1-56510-890-6
U.S. Dept. of Justice. "Organized Crime Statement" 1963. (July 30, 2021). https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2011/01/20/09-25-1963.pdf
Varese, Federico. "Viewpoint: Why Sicilians still turn to Mafia to settle scores." BBC. June 6, 2021. (July 30, 2021) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57357311
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