The Sordid History of the Sicilian Mafia

It’s time that you heard the tale that Sicilians are all too familiar with. This isn’t the kind of story that helps your children fall asleep at night, it is much, much darker. This is the history of the Sicilian Mafia, which has been the greatest and most powerful organized crime outfit the world over.

the godfather mafioso

The Sicilian Mafia is a renowned criminal organization. They are also well known as Cosa Nostra. While the organization still remains to this day in Sicily, it has been present here since the early 19th century.

Around the second half of the 20th century, the organization would turn international.

The term mafia is generic, as it could refer to any criminal organization. This is why Sicilians have coined the term “Cosa Nostra” to represent the Sicilian Mafia here in Sicily and anywhere else this organization might be present around the world.

In English, “Cosa Nostra” means “Our Thing,” which is ironic considering its now vast reach through the United States and beyond.

It is a common belief that the Mafia began in Sicily, primarily through the first major rulers and power-hungry groups that occupied the island. The only thing that we know for sure is the records of their existence dating into the early 19th century.

Let’s look at where the Sicilian Mafia started and how it grew into a major international criminal organization.

The history of Cosa Nostra

Early in the 19th century, Cosa Nostra was created in a surprisingly simple grab for power. This was a time of the Gabellotto – entrepreneurs who leased farm lands from aristocrats at the time.

tano sicilian gunsThey would hire guards that would both protect the property and have control over the working farmers.

These aristocrats would constantly be in the debt to the Gabellotto for rent and taxes. This would lead to the loss of their properties entirely, and the Gabellotto became an undeniable power on the island.

Gabellotto and his guards would take bigger pieces of the pie by providing security to areas of the island that the state did not govern. It wouldn’t take long before Gabellotto had power over the landlords and the farmers equally.

This was the first noteworthy presence of a Mafia in Sicily.

The Gabellotti used fear tactics and violence to get protection money from farmers on properties they managed for the nobility of the time. They are deemed the oldest form of a mafia in Sicily.

It would actually the Italian State that would inadvertently provide a foothold for the Mafia in Sicily. During a small economic crisis in 1861 amidst the Unification of Italy, the Italian State was trying to find a way to control the government on the island they knew very little about.

They decided to rely on the Mafiosi that knew all about how things worked locally.

Now with a foothold in Sicily, the Mafia here would rise to power. They would begin the practice of exchanging both favors and votes, and soon politics and the Mafia were bedfellows (much as they still are today).

The largest part of their profits at this time was from Pizzo (protection money) they would urge entrepreneurs and traders to pay them. Their big breakthrough would happen in the 20th century as many Italians sought a new life in the United States.

The Mafia would play a large role in that illegal immigration process. New recruits would strengthen the organization even further, such as Joe Masseria. He is also known as “the man who can dodge bullets” after escaping a brutal Mafia attack without a scratch.

joe masseriaGiuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria:

Everyone dies. Not everyone keeps his promises.

During a period of fascism, a prefect was commissioned by the Italian dictator Mussolini. Cesare Mori was known to many as the “Iron Prefect.

His job was to get rid of the Mafia by any means necessary.

While it might have been deemed severe, Mori’s process was deliberate and effective. Soon hundreds of Ma

fiosi were apprehended and convicted.

Perhaps one of the best-known events was the Siege of Gangi (1926). This small mountain village was a well-known Mafia stronghold.

Vito Cascio Ferro would be arrested at the end of this siege, suspected of orchestrating the murder of a New York City detective (Joe Petrosino) in Palermo at the Central Piazza Marina.

After several bosses wound up in handcuffs, nearly all of the remaining bosses sought refuge in the United States committing to strengthen their organization there.

When World War II was in full swing, US Intelligence (Office of Strategic Service at that time) would seek out imprisoned Sicilian mob bosses in the United States. Some of the most famous of these would be Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese.

For their aid in helping the US Army free Italy (starting with their landing on the Sicilian coast), they would earn their freedom.

Once Italy was free from Nazi control, these bosses would remain to keep a political hold on the island. Not only the American bosses were contacted for their aid, though.

Sicilians like Calogero Vizzini, Giuseppe Genco Russo and Vincenzo Di Carlo were also requested, and these men would be instrumental in changing the history of Italy.

lucky luciano quoteLucky Luciano:

There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.

Now that the island was under Italian control once again, the Mafia made up for lost time by taking all they could as quickly as they could.

Cosa Nostra became a force in Palermo, reverting to old avenues of profit as well as new ventures (contracts and construction).

With their aid to politicians running for office, the Mafia was able to land money building neighborhoods and buildings within the major Italian cities. Cosa Nostra was very influential, which would give their politician counterparts thousands of votes.

Now that the Mafia was growing in both Italy and the United States, the two factions would start a series of meetings in 1957 to work out the details of major drug trafficking. This would be monetarily beneficial for both sides.

Among the American bosses present were: Lucky Luciano, Joseph Bonanno, Carmine Galante, John Bonventre and Santo Sorge. The Sicilian bosses present were Tommaso Buscetta, Cesare Manzella, Giuseppe Genco Russo, Salvatore Greco, Gaetano Badalamenti and Angelo La Barbera.

In the 1970s, the Corleonesi family (led by Boss Toto Riina) aimed to reach the acme of Cosa Nostra. With their rise in prominence, two factions would form. One of these would be the Corleonesi family with Michele Greco (deemed the boss of bosses) at their side.

The other side would consist of Don Tano Badalamenti, with the boss Tommaso Buscetta (the Mafia’s first boss turned informant) in their corner, the Catania families, and their leader Pippo Calderone.

A bloodbath would ensue starting with Riina ordering the killing of Calderone. Riina would form an alliance with Benedetto Santapaola (who would take Calderone’s place). Corleonesi would then kill Badalementi, putting Toto Riina at the top of Cosa Nostra in Italy.

falcone and borsellino killed by mafia

The main practice for some time after this was bloodshed and violence, as Corleonesi sought to remove every hurdle between Cosa Nostra and their further rise to power. They would kill politicians, judges, police.

Even anti-mafia heroes like Piersanti Mattarella (The President of the Regional Government of Sicily), Pio La Torre (leader of the Italian Communist Party) and General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa would meet their demise opposing the Corleonesi family.

Two judges that would be assassinated in 1992 (Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino) would be a turning point in this endless war with the Mafia.

These two magistrates would be instrumental in indicting more than 450 Mafiosi (which would include the Godfather Toto Riina) for a large number of crimes in the “Maxiprocesso” or Maxi Trial. This would cripple the organization.

In 2006, both of these judges were awarded the Gold Medal for Civil Valor (Medaglia al valore civile) and deemed heroes of the last 60 years.

Since Toto Riina was now imprisoned, Bernardo Provenzano would assume leadership of Cosa Nostra. He would radically change the operating practices of the Sicilian Mafia, enforcing a policy in which the richest districts would share and support the less fortunate ones.

This in theory would benefit everyone equally and prevent wars. On April 11th, 2006, Provenzano would eventually be apprehended after spending an impressive 43 years on the run from law enforcement. He would be found in a small cottage in Montagna dei Cavalli (which is about 2km from Corleone).

Then, in November of 2007, Salvatore Lo Piccolo (the assumed successor of Provenzano) would be found in a house in Giardinello (small village outside of Palermo). He had spent the past 25 years prior on the run from arrest.

What Is The Sicilian Mafia’s Structure?

Cosa Nostra is comprised of several families that control specific areas (districts). This is a hierarchical system in which each family has a head, and appoints specific people to power underneath them.

There is a Capomandamento or Chief of the District (elected by each family exclusively), and that chief will select a deputy and rarely more than 3 trusted counselors. Underneath this level is the Capodecina (head of ten). They control the foot soldiers of the families (Picciottos).

mafia family

Each family is controlled by the Godfather (Padrino).

What has allowed for their success is the Omertà. This is a practice that is taken by each member of the Mafia that protects the information about its dealings and infrastructure.

Basically, members aren’t going to say anything when they are apprehended by police even if they are staring down a life in prison.

Where Does The Word “Mafia” Actually Come From?

Back in 1863 there was a play that was set within Vicaria Prison entitled “I Mafiusi de la Vicaria” (The Mafia of the Vicaria Prison)” This would be written by Giuseppe Rizzotto and elementary teacher Gaspare Mosca.

Since this drama was so successful throughout the country, the term “mafia” would be well known.

Is The Mafia Even Still A Thing?

While they are not quite as prominent and powerful as they used to be, the Sicilian Mafia is still very much alive in both Italy and the United States. Drawing most of their money from laundering and drug operations, the Mafia is biding its time waiting to find a foothold again somewhere.

With law enforcement more mindful of their threat and movements aimed to prevent extortion practices (such as the Sicilian AddioPizzo), their numbers are undeniably thinning.

Don’t be troubled about visiting Sicily, as it is 👉one of the safest in all of Italy and you will never so much as see a mafioso face.

About Don Tano

I’m full-blooded Sicilian born from the noise of the Vucciria market and the gentle sound of the waves of Mondello. I grew up eating “pane e panelle” and “pasta con le sarde”. But most of all, I grew up with an awareness: Palermo is a beautiful city to live intensely and to love without question!