The Mafia (also known as Cosa Nostra, in English “Our Thing”) is a criminal syndicate that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century inSicily, Italy. It is a loose association of criminal groups that share a common organizational structure and code of conduct, and whose common enterprise is protection racketeering. Each group, known as a “family”, “clan”, or “cosca“, claims sovereignty over a territory, usually a town or village or a neighbourhood (borgata) of a larger city, in which it operates its rackets. Its members call themselves “men of honour”, although the public often refers to them as “mafiosi”.
According to the classic definition, the Mafia is a criminal organization originating in Sicily. However, the term “mafia” has become a generic term for any organized criminal network with similar structure, methods, and interests.
The Mafia proper frequently parallels, collaborates with or clashes with, networks originating in other parts of southern Italy, such as theCamorra (from Campania), the ‘Ndrangheta (from Calabria), the Stidda (southern Sicily) and the Sacra Corona Unita (from Apulia).Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia judge murdered by the Mafia in 1992, however, objected to the conflation of the term “Mafia” with organized crime in general:
While there was a time when people were reluctant to pronounce the word “Mafia” … nowadays people have gone so far in the opposite direction that it has become an overused term … I am no longer willing to accept the habit of speaking of the Mafia in descriptive and all-inclusive terms that make it possible to stack up phenomena that are indeed related to the field of organized crime but that have little or nothing in common with the Mafia.
—Giovanni Falcone, 1990
The American Mafia arose from offshoots of the Mafia that emerged in the United States during the late nineteenth century, following waves of emigration from Italy. There were similar offshoots inCanada among Italian Canadians. The same has been claimed of organised crime among Italians in Australia.
There are several theories about the origin of the term “Mafia” (sometimes spelled “Maffia” in early texts). The Sicilian adjective mafiusu (in Italian: mafioso) may derive from the slang Arabicmahyas (مهياص), meaning “aggressive boasting, bragging”, or marfud (مرفوض) meaning “rejected”. 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 feminine-form adjective “mafiusa” means beautiful and attractive.
Other possible origins from Arabic:
- maha = quarry, cave
- mu’afa = safety, protection
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.
According to 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 Avanti” (Italian for “Death to France, Italy Forward!“), or “Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela” (Italian for “Death to France, Italy Begs!“). However, this version is now discarded by most serious historians.
According to Mafia turncoats (pentiti), the real name of the Mafia is “Cosa Nostra” (“Our thing”). When the Italian-American mafioso Joseph Valachi testified before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1963 (known as the Valachi hearings), he revealed that American mafiosi referred to their organization by the termcosa 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 la to the term, calling it La Cosa Nostra (in Italy, the article la is not used when referring to Cosa Nostra).
Italian investigators initially did not take the term seriously, believing it was used only 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 Antonino 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”), meaning “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”. The Mafia was also known by another term, La Mano Nera (“The Black Hand”). Mafia crimes were often sealed by a black handprint at the scene.
Cosa Nostra should not be confused with other mafia-type organizations in Italy such as the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Campania, or the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia.
Modern scholars believe that its seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily’s transition out of feudalism in 1812 and its later annexation by mainland Italy in 1860. Under feudalism, the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies. After 1812, the feudal barons steadily sold off or rented their lands to private citizens. Primogeniture was abolished, land could no longer be seized to settle debts, and one fifth of the land was to become private property of the peasants. The oldest reference to Mafia groups in Sicily dates back to 1838, in a report of the General Prosecutor of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, although the term “mafia” was not used. The report described the phenomenon rather than the name: “In many villages, there are unions or fraternities – kinds of sects – which are called partiti, with no political colour or goal, with no meeting places, and with no other bond but that of dependency on a chief.”
After Italy annexed Sicily in 1860, it redistributed a large share of public and church land to private citizens. The result was a huge boom in landowners: from 2,000 in 1812 to 20,000 by 1861. The nobles also released their private armies to let the state take over the task of law enforcement. However, the authorities were incapable of properly enforcing property rights and contracts, largely due to their inexperience with free market capitalism. Lack of manpower was also a problem: there were often less than 350 active policemen for the entire island. Some towns did not have any permanent police force, only visited every few months by some troops to collect malcontents, leaving criminals to operate with impunity from the law in the interim. With more property owners came more disputes that needed settling, contracts that needed enforcing, and properties that needed protecting. Because the authorities were undermanned and unreliable, property owners turned to extralegal arbitrators and protectors. These extralegal protectors would eventually organize themselves into the first Mafia clans.
Banditry was a serious problem at the time. Rising food prices, the loss of public and church lands, and the loss of feudal common rights pushed many desperate peasants to banditry. With no police to call upon, local elites in countryside towns recruited young men into “companies-at-arms” to hunt down thieves and negotiate the return of stolen property, in exchange for a pardon for the thieves and a fee from the victims. These companies-at-arms were often made up of former bandits and criminals, usually the most skilled and violent of them. Whilst this saved communities the trouble of training their own policemen, this may have made the companies-at-arms more inclined to collude with their former brethren rather than destroy them.
There was little Mafia activity in the eastern half of Sicily. This did not mean there was little violence; the most violent conflicts over land took place in the east, but they did not involve mafiosi. In the east, the ruling elites were more cohesive and active during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. They maintained their large stables of enforcers, and were able to absorb or suppress any emerging violent groups. Furthermore, the land in the east was generally divided into a smaller number of large estates, so there were fewer landowners and their large estates often required its guardians to patrol it full-time. This meant that guardians of such estates tended to be bound to a single employer, giving them little autonomy or leverage to demand high payments.
Mafia activity was most prevalent in the most prosperous areas of western Sicily, especially Palermo, where the dense concentrations of landowners and merchants offered ample opportunities for protection racketeering and extortion. There, the estates tended to be smaller than in the east, and thus did not require the total, round-the-clock attention of a protector. A protector could thus afford to serve multiple clients, giving him greater independence. The greater number of clients demanding protection also allowed him to charge high prices. The landowners in this region were also frequently absent and could not watch over their properties should the mafioso withdraw protection, further increasing his bargaining power.
The lucrative citrus orchards around Palermo were a favorite target of extortionists and protection racketeers, as they had a fragile production system that made them quite vulnerable to sabotage. Mafia clans forced landowners to hire their members as custodians by scaring away unaffiliated applicants. Cattle ranchers were also very vulnerable to thieves, and so they too needed mafioso protection.
In 1864, Niccolò Turrisi Colonna, leader of the Palermo National Guard, wrote of a “sect of thieves” that operated across Sicily. This “sect” was mostly rural, composed of cattle thieves,smugglers, wealthy farmers and their guards. The sect made “affiliates every day of the brightest young people coming from the rural class, of the guardians of the fields in the Palermitan countryside, and of the large number of smugglers; a sect which gives and receives protection to and from certain men who make a living on traffic and internal commerce. It is a sect with little or no fear of public bodies, because its members believe that they can easily elude this.” It had special signals to recognize each other, offered protection services, scorned the law and had a code of loyalty and non-interaction with the police known as umirtà (“humility”). Colonna warned in his report that the Italian government’s brutal and clumsy 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”. An 1876 police report makes the earliest known description of the familiar initiation ritual.
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 allowed cliques of Mafia-friendly politicians to exert a lot of influence.
In a series of reports between 1898 and 1900, Ermanno Sangiorgi, the police chief of Palermo, identified 670 mafiosi belonging to eight Mafia clans that went through alternating phases of cooperation and conflict. 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 1925, Benito Mussolini initiated a campaign to destroy the Mafia and assert Fascist control over Sicilian life. The Mafia threatened and undermined his power in Sicily, and a successful campaign would strengthen him as the new leader, legitimising and empowering his rule. Not only would this be a great propaganda coup for Fascism, but it would also provide an excuse to suppress his political opponents on the island, since many Sicilian politicians had Mafia links.
As prime minister, he visited Sicily in May 1924 and passed through Piana dei Greci where he was received by the mayor, Mafia boss Francesco Cuccia. At some point Cuccia expressed surprise at Mussolini’s police escort and whispered in his ear: “You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?” After Mussolini rejected Cuccia’s offer of protection, Cuccia instructed the townsfolk to not attend Mussolini’s speech. Mussolini felt humiliated and outraged.
Cuccia’s careless remark has passed into history as the catalyst for Mussolini’s war on the Mafia. When Mussolini firmly established his power in January 1925, he appointed Cesare Mori as the Prefect of Palermo in October 1925 and granted him special powers to fight the Mafia. Mori formed a small army of policemen, carabinieri and militiamen, which went from town to town, rounding up suspects. To force suspects to surrender, they would take their families hostage, sell off their property, or publicly slaughter their livestock. By 1928, over 11,000 suspects were arrested. Confessions were sometimes extracted through beatings and torture. Some mafiosi who had been on the losing end of Mafia feuds voluntarily cooperated with prosecutors,perhaps as a way of obtaining protection and revenge. Charges of Mafia association were typically leveled at poor peasants and gabellotti (farm leaseholders), but were avoided when dealing with major landowners. 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 permanently crush the Mafia as the Fascist press proclaimed, his campaign was nonetheless very successful at suppressing it. As the Mafia informant Antonino Calderone reminisced: “The music changed. Mafiosi had a hard life. […] After the war the mafia hardly existed anymore. The Sicilian Families had all been broken up.”
Sicily’s murder rate sharply declined. Landowners were able to raise the legal rents on their lands; sometimes as much as ten-thousandfold. Many mafiosi fled to the United States. Among these were Carlo Gambino and Joseph Bonanno, who would go on to become powerful Mafia bosses in New York City.
In 1943, nearly half a million Allied troops invaded Sicily. Crime 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 were banned. Most institutions, with the exception of the police and carabinieri, were destroyed, and the American occupiers had to build a new order from scratch. As Fascist mayors were deposed, the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) 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 gave them additional credibility. Mafia bosses reformed their clans, absorbing some of the marauding bandits into their ranks.
The changing economic landscape of Sicily would shift the Mafia’s power base from rural to the urban areas. 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 some of their land. The Mafia, which had connections to many landowners, murdered many socialist reformers. The most notorious attack was the Portella della Ginestra massacre, when 11 persons were killed and 33 wounded during May Day celebrations on May 1, 1947. The bloodbath was perpetrated by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano who was possibly backed by local Mafia bosses. 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.
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.
Sack of Palermo
The post-war period saw a huge building boom in Palermo. Allied bombing in World War II had left more than 14,000 people homeless, and migrants were pouring in from the countryside, so there was a huge demand for new homes. Much of this construction was subsidized by public money. 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. Mafiosi scared off anyone who dared to question the illegal building. The result of this unregulated building was the demolition of many beautiful historic buildings and the erection of apartment blocks, many of which were not up to standard.
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.
First Mafia War
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 1962, the mafia boss Cesare Manzella organized a drug shipment to America with the help of two Sicilian clans, the Grecos and the La Barberas. Manzella entrusted another boss, Calcedonio Di Pisa, to handle the heroin. When the shipment arrived in America, however, the American buyers claimed some heroin was missing, and paid Di Pisa a commensurately lower sum. Di Pisa accused the Americans of defrauding him, while the La Barberas accused Di Pisa of embezzling the missing heroin. The Sicilian Mafia Commission sided with Di Pisa, to the open anger of the La Barberas. The La Barberas murdered Di Pisa and Manzella, triggering a war.
Many non-mafiosi were 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. These incidents 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 Sicilian Mafia 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. The inactivity plus money lost to legal fees and so forth reduced most mafiosi to poverty.
The 1950s and 1960s were difficult times for the mafia, but in the 1970s their rackets grew considerably more lucrative, particularly smuggling. The most lucrative racket of the 1970s was cigarette smuggling. Sicilian and Neapolitan crime bosses negotiated a joint monopoly over the smuggling of cigarettes to Naples.
When heroin refineries operated by Corsican gangsters 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).
Second Mafia War
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 hadGaetano Badalamenti expelled from the Commission on trumped-up charges of hiding drug revenues. In April 1981, the Corleonesi murdered another rival member of the Commission, Stefano Bontade, and the Second Mafia War began in earnest. Hundreds of enemy mafiosi and their relatives were murdered, sometimes by traitors in their own clans. By manipulating the Mafia’s rules and eliminating rivals, the Corleonesi came to completely dominate the Commission. Riina used his power over the Commission to replace the bosses of certain clans with hand-picked regents. 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 politicians, and a fight broke out between them and military police.
Maxi trial and war against the government
In the early 1980s, the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino began a campaign against Cosa Nostra. Their big break came with the arrest ofTommaso 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 whom 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 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’smother, 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 inMilan, 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 anti-Mafia 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 mafiosa.
Modern Mafia in Italy
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.
In addition to Salvatore Lima, mentioned above, the recently deceased 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 imported to Europe. In 2012, it was reported that the Mafia had joined forces with the Mexican drug cartels.
Structure and composition
Cosa Nostra is not a monolithic organization, but rather a loose confederation of about one hundred groups known alternately as “families”, “cosche”, “borgatas” or “clans” (despite the name, their members are generally not related by blood), 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).
The Italian journalist Mauro De Mauro kidnapped by the mafia on the evening of September 16, 1970 was the first to publish a detailed map of the Sicilian Mafia, which was confirmed 22 years later by the Mafia pentito (turncoat) Tommaso Buscetta in his testimony to Judge Giovanni Falcone.
Today, according to the Chief Prosecutor of Palermo, Francesco Messineo, there are 94 Mafia clans in Sicily subject to 29 mandamenti, 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 command structure of a typical clan.A clan is led by a “boss” (capofamiglia or rappresentante), who is aided by an underboss (capo bastone or sotto capo) and supervised by one or more advisers (consigliere). Under his command are groups (decina) of about ten “soldiers” (soldati, operai, or picciotti). Each decina is led by a capodecina.
The actual structure of any given clan can vary. Despite the name decina, they do not necessarily have ten soldiers, but can have anything from five to thirty. Some clans are so small that they don’t even have decinas and capodecinas, and even in large clans certain soldiers may report directly to the boss.
The boss of a clan is typically elected by the rank-and-file soldiers (though violent successions do happen). Due to the small size of most Sicilian clans, the boss of a clan has intimate contact with all members, and doesn’t receive much in the way of privileges or rewards as he would in larger organizations (such as the larger Five Families of New York). His tenure is also frequently short: elections are yearly, and he might be deposed sooner for misconduct or incompetence.
The underboss is usually appointed by the boss. He is the boss’ most trusted right-hand man and second-in-command. If the boss is killed or imprisoned, he takes over as leader.
The consigliere (“counselor”) of the clan is also elected on a yearly basis. One of his jobs is to supervise the actions of the boss and his immediate underlings, particularly in financial matters (e.g. preventing embezzlement). He also serves as an impartial adviser to the boss and mediator in internal disputes. To fulfill this role, the consigliere must be impartial, devoid of conflict of interest and ambition.
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 by the mafiosi nothing more than a tool, someone that they can “use”, or “nothing mixed with nil.”
The media has often made reference to a “capo di tutti capi” or “boss of bosses” that allegedly “commands all 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. While a powerful boss may exert great influence over his neighbors, the position does not formally exist, according to Mafia turncoats such as Buscetta. According to Mafia historian Salvatore Lupo “the emphasis of the media on the definition of a ‘capo di tutti capi’ is without any foundation”.
Membership in Cosa Nostra is open only to Sicilian men. A candidate cannot be a relative or have any close links with a lawman, such as a policeman or a judge. There is no strict age limit: boys as young as sixteen have been initiated. A prospective mafioso is carefully tested for obedience, discretion, courage, ruthlessness and skill at espionage. He is almost always required to commit murder as his ultimate trial, even if he doesn’t plan to be a career assassin. The act of murder is to prove his sincerity (i.e. he is not an undercover policeman) and to bind him into silence (i.e. he cannot break omertà without facing murder charges himself).
To be part of the Mafia is highly desirable for many street criminals. For one, mafiosi receive a great deal of respect, for everyone knows that to offend a mafioso is to risk lethal retribution from him or his colleagues. Mafiosi have an easier time getting away with crimes, negotiating deals, and demanding privileges. A full member also gains more freedom to participate in certain rackets which the Mafia controls (particularly protection racketeering).
Traditionally, only men can become mafiosi, though in recent times there have been reports of women assuming the responsibilities of imprisoned mafiosi relatives.
Although clans are also called “families”, their members are usually not related by blood. The Mafia actually has rules designed to prevent nepotism. 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. That said, mafiosi frequently bring their sons into the trade. They have an easier time entering, because the son bears his father’s seal of approval and is familiar with the traditions and requirements of Cosa Nostra.
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. Professionals such as lawyers and doctors do exist within the organization, and are employed according to whatever useful skills they have.
Since the 1950s, the Mafia has maintained multiple commissions to resolve disputes and promote cooperation among clans. Each province of Sicily has its own Commission. Clans are organized into districts (mandamenti) of three or four geographically adjacent clans. Each district elects a representative (capo mandamento) to sit on its Provincial Commission.
Contrary to popular belief, the commissions do not serve as a centralized government for the Mafia. The power of the commissions are limited and clans are autonomous and independent. Rather, each Commission serves as a representative mechanism for consultation of independent clans 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.
A major function of the Commission is to regulate the use of violence. For instance, a mafioso who wants to commit a murder in another clan’s territory must ask the permission of the local boss; the commission enforces this rule. Any murder of a mafioso or prominent individual (police, lawyers, politicians, journalists, etc.) must be approved by the commission. Such acts can potentially upset other clans and spark a war, so the Commission provides a means by which to obtain their approval.
The Commission also deals with matters of succession. When a boss dies or retires, his clan’s reputation often crumbles with his departure. This can cause clients to abandon the clan and turn to neighboring clans for protection. These clans would grow greatly in status and power relative to their rivals, potentially destabilizing the region and precipitating war. The Commission may choose to divide up the clan’s territory and members among its neighbors. Alternatively, the commission has the power to appoint a regent for the clan until it can elect a new boss.