AskDefine | Define mafia

Dictionary Definition



1 a crime syndicate in the United States; organized in families; believed to have important relations to the Sicilian Mafia [syn: Maffia, Cosa Nostra]
2 a secret terrorist group in Sicily; originally opposed tyranny but evolved into a criminal organization in the middle of the 19th century [syn: Maffia, Sicilian Mafia]
3 any tightly knit group of trusted associates [syn: maffia]

User Contributed Dictionary

see mafia


Alternative spellings


, originally meaning "bragging"; see the Wikipedia article for greater discussion of the origin of the word


the Mafia
  1. An international criminal organization of Sicilian origin operating in Italy and the United States.
  2. A coverall term used to describe any organized criminal syndicates, individually or collectively, specifically those operating internationally in high level organized crime including drug smuggling and cultivation, fraud, loan sharking and prostitution.


Derived terms


international criminal organisation of Sicilian origin
organized criminal syndicate



la mafia
  1. The Mafia



  1. Mafia



Sicilian dialect, originally meaning "bragging"


la Mafia
  1. The Mafia

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

The Mafia (also known as Cosa Nostra) is a Sicilian criminal secret society which is believed to have first developed in the mid-19th century in Sicily. An offshoot emerged on the East Coast of the United States and in Australia during the late 19th century following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian emigration (see also Italian diaspora). In North America, the Mafia often refers to Italian organized crime in general, rather than just traditional Sicilian organized crime. According to historian Paolo Pezzino: "The Mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory..."
The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is a loose confederation of about one hundred Mafia groups, also called cosche or families, each of which claims sovereignty over a territory, usually a town or village or a neighborhood of a larger city, though without ever fully conquering and legitimizing its monopoly of violence. For many years, the power apparatuses of the single families were the sole ruling bodies within the two associations, and they have remained the real centers of power even after superordinate bodies were created in the Cosa Nostra beginning in the late 1950s (the Sicilian Mafia Commission).
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: "Mafia is the consciousness of one's own worth, the exaggerated concept of individual force as the sole arbiter of every conflict, of every clash of interests or ideas."
Many Sicilians did not regard these men as criminals but as role models and protectors, given that the state appeared to offer no protection for the poor and weak. As late as the 1950s, the funeral epitaph of the legendary boss of Villalba, Calogero Vizzini, stated that "his 'mafia' was not criminal, but stood for respect of the law, defense of all rights, greatness of character. It was love." Here, "mafia" means something like pride, honour, or even social responsibility: an attitude, not an organization. Likewise, in 1925, the former Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando stated in the Italian senate that he was proud of being mafioso, because that word meant honourable, noble, generous.


There are several theories about the origin of the term. The Sicilian adjective mafiusu may derive from the Arabic mahyas, meaning "aggressive boasting, bragging", or marfud 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.
According to the Sicilian ethnographer Giuseppe Pitrè, the association of the word with the criminal secret society was made by the 1863 play I mafiusi di la Vicaria (The Beautiful (people) of Vicaria) by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaetano Mosca, which is about criminal gangs in the Palermo prison. The words Mafia and mafiusi (plural of mafiusu) are never mentioned in the play, and were probably put in the title because it would add local flair.
The association between mafiusi and criminal gangs was made by the association the play's title made with the criminal gangs that were new to Sicilian and Italian society at the time. Consequently, the word "mafia" was generated from a fictional source loosely inspired by the real thing and was used by outsiders to describe it. The use of the term "mafia" was subsequently taken over in the Italian state's early reports on the phenomenon. The word "mafia" 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": "the term mafia found a class of violent criminals ready and waiting for a name to define them, and, given their special character and importance in Sicilian society, they had the right to a different name from that defining vulgar criminals in other countries." He 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.
According to popular myth, the word Mafia was first used in the Sicilian rebellion - the Sicilian Vespers - against the oppressive Anjou rule on March 30, 1282. Mafia is the acronym for "Morta Alla Francia, Italia Anela" (Italian for "Death to France. This is Italy's cry"). However, this version is discarded by most serious historians nowadays.

The real name: Cosa Nostra

According to some mafiosi, the real name of the Mafia is "Cosa Nostra" ("Our thing"). Many have claimed, as did the Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, that the word "mafia" was a literary creation. Other Mafia defectors, such as Antonio Calderone and Salvatore Contorno, said the same thing. According to them, the real thing was "cosa nostra". To men of honour belonging to the organization, there is no need to name it. Mafiosi introduce known members to other known members as belonging to "cosa nostra" (our thing) or la stessa cosa (the same thing), meaning "he is the same thing, a mafioso, as you". Only the outside world needs a name to describe it, hence the capitalized form "Cosa Nostra".
Cosa Nostra was first used, in the early 1960s, in the United States by Joseph Valachi, a mafioso turned state witness, during the hearings of the McClellan Commission. 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 an article to the term, calling it 'La Cosa Nostra'. In Italy the article 'la' is never used when the term refers to the Mafia.
The Mafia has used many other names to describe itself throughout its history, such as The Honoured Society. Mafiosi are known among themselves as Men of Honour.

Rituals of Sicilian Cosa Nostra

The orientation ritual in most families happens when a man becomes an associate, and then, a soldier. As described by Tommaso Buscetta to judge Giovanni Falcone, the neophyte is brought together with at least three "men of honor" of the family and the oldest member present warns him that "this House" is meant to protect the weak against the abuse of the powerful; he then pricks the finger of the initiate and spills his blood onto a sacred image, usually of a saint. The image is placed in the hand of the initiate and lit on fire. The neophyte must withstand the pain of the burning, passing the image from hand to hand, until the image has been consumed, while swearing to keep faith with the principles of "Cosa Nostra," solemnly swearing "may my flesh burn like this saint if I fail to keep my oath." Joseph Valachi was the first person to mention that in court.
The Sicilians also have a law of silence, called omertà; it forbids the common man, woman or child to cooperate at all with the police or the government, upon pain of death.

History of Sicilian Cosa Nostra


It has long been debated whether the mafia has medieval origins. Deceased pentito Tommaso Buscetta thought so, whilst modern scholars now believe otherwise. It is possible that the "original" mafia formed as a secret society sworn to protect the Sicilian population from the threat of Catalan marauders in the fifteenth century. However, there is very little historical evidence to suggest this. It is also feasible that the "Robin Hood" origins, which are closely intertwined with the Sicilian outlaw Salvatore Giuliano, were perpetuated by the earliest known mafiosi as a means of gaining goodwill and trust from the Sicilian people. This origin states that the Mafia is a means for righteous rebels to defend the people against oppression, Roman and Northern Italian control, and outside invasion.
After the Revolution of 1848 and the revolution of 1860, Sicily had fallen to complete disorder. The earliest mafiosi (at that time separate small bands of outlaws) offered their guns in the revolt. Author John Dickie claims that the main reasons for this were the chance to burn police records and evidence, and to kill off police and pentiti in the chaos. However, once a new government was established in Rome and it became clear that the mafia would be unable to execute these actions, they began refining their methods and techniques over the latter half of the nineteenth century. Protecting the large lemon groves and estates of local nobility became a lucrative but dangerous business. Palermo was initially the main area of these activities, but the Sicilian mafia's dominance soon spread over all of western Sicily. In order to strengthen the bond between the disparate gangs and so ensure greater profits and a safer working environment, it is possible that the mafia as such was formed at this time in about the mid-19th century.

Mafia after the unification of Italy

From 1860, the year when the new unified Italian state first took over both Sicily and the Papal States, the Popes were hostile to the state. From 1870, the Pope declared himself besieged by the Italian state and strongly encouraged Catholics to refuse to cooperate with the state. Broadly speaking, in mainland Italy, this did not lead to violence. Sicily was strongly Catholic, but in a strongly tribal sense rather than in an intellectual and theological sense, and had a tradition of suspicion of outsiders. The friction between the Church and the state gave a great advantage to violent criminal bands in Sicily who could claim to peasants and townspeople that cooperating with the police (representing the new Italian state) was an anti-Catholic activity. It was in the two decades following the 1860 unification that the term Mafia came to the attention of the general public, although it was considered to be more of an attitude and value system than an organization.
The first mention in official law documentation of the 'mafia' came in the late 1800s, when a Dr. Galati was subject to threats of violence from a local mafioso, who was attempting to oust Galati from his own lemon grove in order to move himself in. Protection rackets, cattle rustling and bribery of state officials were the main sources of income and protection for the early mafia. Cosa Nostra also borrowed heavily from masonic oaths and rituals, such as the now famous initiation ceremony.

Fascist era

During the Fascist period in Italy, Cesare Mori, prefect of Palermo, used special powers granted to him to prosecute the Mafia, forcing many Mafiosi to flee abroad or risk being jailed. Many of the Mafiosi who escaped fled to the United States, among them Joseph Bonanno, nicknamed Joe Bananas, who came to dominate the U.S. branch of the Mafia. However, when Mori started to persecute the Mafiosi involved in the Fascist hierarchy, he was removed, and the Fascist authorities proclaimed that the Mafia had been defeated. Though the mafia was weakened, it had not been defeated as claimed. Despite his assault on their brethren, Mussolini had his admirers in the New York Mafia, notably Vito Genovese (although he was from Naples and not from Sicily).

The post-war revival

After Fascism, the Mafia did not become powerful in Italy again until after the country's surrender in World War II and the U.S. occupation. The United States used Italian connections of American Mafiosi during the invasion of Italy and Sicily in 1943. Lucky Luciano and other Mafiosi, who had been imprisoned during this time in the U.S., provided information for U.S. military intelligence and used Luciano's influence to ease the way for advancing troops. Furthermore, Luciano's control of the ports prevented sabotage by agents of the Axis powers.
Some say that the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, deliberately allowed the mafia to recover its social and economic position as the "anti-State" in Sicily, and with the U.S.-mafia alliance forged in 1943, this became the true turning point of mafia history and the new foundation for its subsequent 60-year career. Others, such as the Palermitan historian Francesco Renda, have argued that there was no such alliance. Rather, the mafia exploited the chaos of post-fascist Sicily to reconquer its social base. The OSS indeed, in its 1944 "Report on the Problem of Mafia" by the agent W. E. Scotten, pointed to the signs of mafia resurgence and warned of its perils for social order and economic progress.
An alleged additional benefit (from the American perspective) was that many of the Sicilian-Italian Mafiosi were hard-line anti-communists. 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 as well as wartime resistance movements and 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 released from prison and 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 in Southeast Asia arising from the Vietnam War to establish an unassailable supply and distribution base in the "Golden Triangle", which was soon funneling huge amounts of Asian heroin into the United States, Australia and other countries.

Maxi Trial and war against the government

The Second Mafia War in the early 1980s was a large scale conflict within the Mafia that also led to the assassinations of several politicians, police chiefs and magistrates. Salvatore Riina and his Corleonesi faction ultimately prevailed in the war. The new generation of mafiosi 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 Cosa Nuova ("the new thing", a play on Cosa Nostra) to refer to the revamped organization.
The first major pentito (a captured mafioso who collaborated with the judicial system) was Tommaso Buscetta who had lost several allies in the war and began to talk to prosecutor Giovanni Falcone around 1983. This led to the Maxi Trial (1986-1987) which resulted in several hundred convictions of leading mafiosi. When the Italian Supreme Court confirmed the convictions in January 1992, Riina took revenge. The politician Salvatore Lima was killed in March 1992; he had long been suspected of being the main government connection of the Mafia (later confirmed by testimony of Buscetta), and the Mafia was clearly displeased with his services. Falcone and fellow anti-Mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino were killed a few months later. This led to a public outcry and a massive government crackdown, resulting in Riina's arrest in January 1993. More and more pentitos started to emerge. Many would pay a high price for their co-operation usually through the murder of relatives. For example, Cosa Nostra defector Francesco Marino Mannoia's mother, aunt and sister were murdered.
The Corleonesi retaliated with a campaign of terrorism, a series of bombings against several tourist spots on the Italian mainland: the Via dei Georgofili in Florence, Via Palestro in Milan, and the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano and Via San Teodoro in Rome, which left 10 people dead and 93 injured and caused severe damage to cultural heritage such as the Uffizi Gallery. Bernardo Provenzano took over as boss of the Corleonesi and halted this campaign and replaced it with a campaign of quietness known as pax mafiosi. This campaign has allowed the Mafia to slowly regain the power it once had. He was arrested in 2006, after 43 years on the run.

The modern Mafia in Italy

The main split in the Sicilian Mafia at present is between those bosses who have been convicted and are now imprisoned, chiefly Riina and capo di tutti capi Bernardo Provenzano, and those 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 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 deal that he says was alleged to have been made was a repeal of 41 bis, among other anti-Mafia laws in return for electoral deliverances in Sicily. Giuffrè's declarations have not been confirmed. The Italian Parliament, with the support of Forza Italia, extended the enforcement of 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.
In addition to Salvatore Lima, mentioned above, the politician Giulio Andreotti and the High Court judge Corrado Carnevale have long been suspected of having ties to the Mafia.
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. The mafia also have a strong business in extortion big companies as well as smaller ones. It estimates that 7% of Italy's output is filtered off by organised crime. The Mafia has turned into one of Italy's biggest business enterprises with a turnover of more than US$120bn a year.

Ten Commandments

In November 2007 Sicilian police reported to have found a list of "Ten Commandments" in the hideout of mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo. Similar to the Biblical Ten Commandments, they are thought to be a guideline on how to be a good, respectful honorable mafioso. The commandments are as follows:
  1. No one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
  2. Never look at the wives of friends.
  3. Never be seen with cops.
  4. Don't go to pubs and clubs.
  5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty - even if your wife's about to give birth.
  6. Appointments must absolutely be respected.
  7. Wives must be treated with respect.
  8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.
  9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
  10. People who can't be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn't hold to moral values.

Prominent Sicilian mafiosi

see also List of Sicilian mafiosi

Structure of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra

Known as the Honored Society among Mafiosi, the chain of command is organized in a pyramid similar to a modern corporate structure.

Traditional terminology

  1. Capo di Tutti Capi (the "Boss of All Bosses", namely Matteo Messina Denaro for the Sicilian Mafia and Renato Gagliano for the Sacra Corona Unita)
  2. Capo di Capi Re (a title of respect given to a senior or retired member, equivalent to being a member emeritus, literally, "King Boss of Bosses")
  3. Capo Crimine ("Crime Boss", known as a Don - the head of a crime family)
  4. Capo Bastone ("Club Head", known as the "Underboss" is second in command to the Capo Crimine)
  5. Consigliere (an advisor)
  6. Caporegime ("Regime head", a captain who commands a "crew" of around ten Sgarriste or "soldiers")
  7. Sgarrista or Soldato ("Soldier", made members of the Mafia who serve primarily as foot soldiers)
  8. Picciotto ("Little man", a low ranking member who serves as an "enforcer")
  9. Giovane D'Onore (an associate member, usually someone not of Italian ancestry)

Italian Mafia structure

  1. Capofamiglia - (Don/Boss)
  2. Consigliere - (Counselor/Advisor/Right-hand man)
  3. Sotto Capo - (Underboss/Second-in-command)
  4. Capodecina - (Captain/Capo)
  5. Uomini D'onore - ("Men of Honor"/Made men/Soldiers)

American Cosa Nostra

The American Mafia (also known as La Cosa Nostra) is an offshoot of the Sicilian Mafia that emerged on the East Coast of the United States during the late 19th century following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian emigration (see also Italian diaspora). In North America, the Mafia often refers to Italian organized crime in general, rather than just traditional Sicilian organized crime.

Australian Cosa Nostra

The Australian Mafia is another offshoot of the Sicilian Mafia that emerged in Australia during the late 19th century following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian emigration. Unlike the American Mafia the Australian offshoot remained rural like it's Sicilian counterpart, and the organization has only started urbanizing itself in recent decades.


  • Arlacchi, Pino (1988). Mafia Business. The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-285197-7
  • Chubb, Judith (1989). The Mafia and Politics, Cornell Studies in International Affairs, Occasional Papers No. 23.
  • Dickie, John (2004). Cosa Nostra. A history of the Sicilian Mafia, London: Coronet ISBN 0-340-82435-2
  • Gambetta, Diego (1993).The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection, London: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-80742-1
  • Servadio, Gaia (1976), Mafioso. A history of the Mafia from its origins to the present day, London: Secker & Warburg ISBN 0-436-44700-2
mafia in Arabic: مافيا
mafia in Bosnian: Mafija
mafia in Bulgarian: Мафия
mafia in Catalan: Màfia
mafia in Czech: Mafie
mafia in Danish: Mafia
mafia in German: Mafia
mafia in Modern Greek (1453-): Σικελική μαφία
mafia in Spanish: Mafia
mafia in Esperanto: Mafio
mafia in Basque: Mafia
mafia in Persian: مافیا
mafia in French: Mafia
mafia in Irish: Mafia
mafia in Korean: 마피아
mafia in Croatian: Mafija
mafia in Indonesian: Mafia
mafia in Italian: Mafia
mafia in Hebrew: מאפיה (פשע מאורגן)
mafia in Georgian: მაფია
mafia in Lithuanian: Mafija
mafia in Hungarian: Maffia
mafia in Macedonian: Мафија
mafia in Malay (macrolanguage): Mafia
mafia in Dutch: Maffia
mafia in Japanese: マフィア
mafia in Norwegian: Mafia
mafia in Polish: Mafia
mafia in Portuguese: Máfia
mafia in Romanian: Mafia (organizaţie)
mafia in Russian: Мафия
mafia in Sicilian: Mafia
mafia in Simple English: Mafia
mafia in Slovak: Mafia
mafia in Slovenian: Mafija
mafia in Serbian: Мафија
mafia in Finnish: Mafia
mafia in Swedish: Maffia
mafia in Tamil: மாஃப்பியா
mafia in Thai: มาเฟีย
mafia in Vietnamese: Mafia
mafia in Turkish: Mafya
mafia in Ukrainian: Мафія
mafia in Venetian: Mafia
mafia in Yiddish: מאפיא
mafia in Chinese: 黑手党

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Black Hand, Cosa Nostra, black market, bootlegging, gambling, gangdom, gangland, gray market, illegal commerce, illegal operations, illegitimate business, illicit business, loan-sharking, moonshining, narcotics traffic, organized crime, prostitution, protection racket, racket, shady dealings, the Mafia, the mob, the rackets, the syndicate, the underworld, traffic in women, usury, white slavery
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