The Sicilian Mafia is a criminal organization – well known as Cosa Nostra – present in Sicily, since the early 19th century and transformed in the second half of the 20th century into an international criminal organization.
Today, with the term, “Cosa Nostra” – in English “Our Thing” – we refer to the Sicilian Mafia (also to indicate its international ramifications, especially in the USA), while the generic word “Mafia” relates to the criminal organizations all around the world.
The history of Sicilian Mafia
Cosa Nostra was born in the early 19th century during the period of the Gabellotti, rural entrepreneurs, who leased the lands from aristocrats and hired guards to protect the property and control the farmers. The latests, were always in debt to the Gabellotto for the rent and tax. Eventually, the Gabellotto subdued the owners of the lands, and by the mid-19th century became the real power on the Island. The role of Gabellotto and his guards got more and more essential for the security of the Island in those areas out of control of the state, exercising power over the society both upwards (the landlords) and downwards (the farmers). Gabellotti are arguably considered the first form of Mafia existing.
The Gabellotti were rural entrepreneurs who managed lands of the noble class. They used violence to misappropriate the properties and get protection money from farmers. They are considered the oldest form of Mafia.
The development of organized crime in Sicily is due in large part to the acute economic crisis, which occurred in Sicily, following the Unification of Italy. In fact, the Italian State, incapable of ensuring a stable and direct control of the government of the island, began to rely on the Mafiosi that well knew the local mechanisms.
In the late 19th century, with the rise of the Mafia in local power and the emergence of the practice of exchanging favors and votes, the relationship between the Mafia and politics consolidated. Moreover, Mafiosi begun to bring substantial sums of money to their coffers asking for Pizzo – protection money that the mobsters sought from traders and entrepreneurs. The Mafia breakthrough came in the early 20th century with the migration to the US of Italians, as it took a major role in illegal immigration. Besides, it imposed control over the racket and strengthened its internal structure with new important recruits, like Joe Masseria – well known as “The man who can dodge bullets” in memory of a Mafia attack from which he escaped miraculously unscathed.
Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria:
Everyone dies. Not everyone keeps his promises.
During the fascist period, the prefect of Palermo Cesare Mori (1925 – 28) – renowned as Iron Prefect – was commissioned to eradicate mafia by any means. The action taken by Mori was as severe as effective. Hundreds and hundreds of Mafiosi were arrested and eventually convicted. The most celebrated event was the Siege of Gangi, a small village in the Madonie Mountains, renowned for being a Mafia stronghold. During the siege, he arrested the Mafia boss, Vito Cascio Ferro, suspected of being the author of the murder of Detective Joe Petrosino, which took place in Palermo in the central Piazza Marina. After several arrests of mafia bosses, most of the heads of Cosa Nostra no longer felt safe and chose to migrate to the US, going to strengthen the American Cosa Nostra.
During World War II, many Italo-American bosses imprisoned in the US (Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, to mention the most famous) were contacted by US intelligence, at the time called the OSS (Office of Strategic Service), to be employees with the promise of freedom to facilitate the American Army landing on the Sicilian coast. Once the island was conquered, the bosses would keep the island stable from a political perspective. Not only American bosses were contacted, but also the Sicilians, such as Vincenzo Di Carlo, Calogero Vizzini, and Giuseppe Genco Russo, people who arguably changed the history of Italy.
There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.
Once the island came under Italian control again, the Mafia recovered lost ground, and the Cosa Nostra in Palermo initiated a process of control of the organized crime in the city and identified new areas of profit (construction and contracts). The bosses forged an alliance with politicians and, due to bid rigging, earned much money building neighborhoods and infrastructure in the main city of Italy. Politicians in exchange got thousands of votes, as Cosa Nostra had a great influence on the society.
“In 1957, a series of meetings took place at the Hotel des Palmes in Palermo between the heads of Cosa Nostra and those of the American Cosa Nostra. Representing the American Cosa Nostra were Joseph Bonanno, Lucky Luciano, Carmine Galante, Santo Sorge and John Bonventre while the Sicilian Mafia was represented by Giuseppe Genco Russo, Salvatore Greco, Angelo La Barbera, Gaetano Badalamenti, Rosario Mancino, Cesare Manzella, and Tommaso Buscetta. The aims of the meetings were the organization of drug trafficking to the United States. The Mafia, therefore, continued to get rich more and more due to the tons of drugs illegally traded between USA and Sicily.”
Meanwhile, in the 70s, Corleonesi family, led by the Boss Totò Riina, took the field to reach the top of Cosa Nostra. With the rise of Corleonesi in the Cosa Nostra, two parties were formed. On one side, there were the Corleonesi, backed by Michele Greco, who was at that time considered the boss of the bosses; on the other side, there was the faction of Don Tano Badalamenti, supported by Tommaso Buscetta and the Catania’s families, led by Pippo Calderone. Riina ordered the killing of Calderone and forged an alliance with his successor, Benedetto Santapaola. Later, Corleonesi killed even Badalamenti, and in doing so, Riina reached the top of Cosa Nostra. The Corleonesi are those who most of all have made the history of the Sicilian Mafia.
From that moment, the Corleonesi initiated a violent offensive aimed at removing obstacles to the Mafia growth with the killing of politicians, policemen, and judges. Many heroes involved in fighting mafia were killed, like Piersanti Mattarella, Pio La Torre, and the general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa. The high point of this war was the assassination in 1992 of the judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The two prosecuting magistrates indicted more than 450 Mafiosi – among them many politicians, as well as the Godfather Totò Riina – for a multitude of crimes, relating to Mafia activities with the renowned Maxiprocesso (Maxi Trial) bringing the Mafia system to its knees. They were both awarded the Italian “Medaglia d’oro al valore civile” (Gold medal for civil valor) and also named as heroes of the last 60 years in 2006.
Since the arrest of Totò Riina, Bernardo Provenzano became the boss of Cosa Nostra. He radically changed the policy and modus operandi in the affairs of the Sicilian Mafia; the richest mandamenti (districts) share their gains with the less profitable to please everyone (a kind of welfare state), avoiding unnecessary wars. On 11 April 2006, after 43 years on the run (since 1963), Provenzano was captured in a cottage in the Montagna dei Cavalli, a village 2 km away from Corleone. On 5 November 2007, after 25 years on the run, the boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo – the alleged Provenzano successor – was arrested in a house in Giardinello (a small village close to Palermo).
The alleged Lo Piccolo successor is Sicilian Mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, currently the fourth most wanted fugitive in the world. He is considered to be the head of the mafia, following the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano and Salvatore Lo Piccolo.
“According to the Mafia ideology, Omertà is the distinctive principle of the true man. It’s a code of silence that Mafiosi take up when dealing with the representatives of justice. In a nutshell, Mafia members hold their tongue about their system to protect the entire hierarchy, even though they risk a life sentence.”
Where does the term Mafia come from?
In 1863, Giuseppe Rizzotto writes – with the cooperation of the elementary teacher, Gaspare Mosca – I mafiusi de la Vicaria (The mafia of the Vicaria prison), a play set in the Vicaria Prisons in Sicily. It is from this drama, which had great success and was translated into Italian, Neapolitan, and Milanese, the word mafia spread throughout the country.
How is Sicilian Mafia organized?”
It consists of groups called Famiglia (Family), featuring a rigid hierarchical system made up of different level of followers. The controlled territory is divided into “mandamento” (districts). These can incorporate two or more neighborhoods of the city or two or more villages in the province. Each mandamento is controlled by families, which together elect a Capomandamento (chief of the district). Each capo-mandamento chooses a deputy and from 1 to 3 counselors. Beneath this level of the hierarchy, there is the Capodecina (head of ten), who directly controls the Picciotti (singular: picciotto. He is the lower-level Mafioso, a soldier) namely the army of families. All families are being controlled by the Padrino (The Godfather).