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Overview

The Mafia also known as La Cosa Nostra (Our thing or This Thing Of Ours) or the mob originated in Sicily, is a secretive criminal organization. The American Mafia was active from the late 19th century till present day.  During the height of its' power from the 1920's until the 1950's, the Mob operated in many cities including: New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and even worked its' way as far west as California. Mafia families were groups of mobsters that followed the orders of the head of a family, in the United States a mafia family was organized into a hierarchy with a structure of: 

  • Boss - The head of a Mafia family, he may be refereed to as The Don or Godfather. He gets a percentage of every member of the family he rules the family and obviously makes every major decision.
  • Underboss -The second in command, he carries the orders given out by the boss to Caporegimes or Captains. Should the boss be imprisoned he will act as the head of the family until the don is released from prison.
  • Consigliere - The adviser to the Don, he advises him on situations on the streets and on his "wartime'' and "peacetime'' decisions.
  • Caporegime - The Capo or Captain is the head of a small cell, he can be in direct command of anywhere between 10-20 mobsters known as soldiers.
  • Soldiers - Are the lowest (and most numerous) official members in the Mafia hierarchy. They carry out orders given to them by the Caporegime and are usually the perpetrators of the many crimes the Mafia commits.
  • Associate - Is a person who has ties with the Mob but is not considered to be a part of the Mob itself. An associate is usually an errand boy, carrying messages and performing deliveries. Associates can be non-Italians (who can never rise above this rank) or Italian Americans who are new to the organization. On occasion an associate who is not of Italian descent can become respected and powerful within his own family, even though he could never become an actual member.
 Mafia Heirarchy
Families were usually located in a single city ,however, several families it was not unusual for several to be active in a city, such as the notorious Five Families that ruled over New York these were:

Nationwide rule of the Mob was in the hands of the commission, through Mafia history the structure changed but the most powerful members were usually the heads of the Five Families in New York.      

Mafia leaders usually didn't like publicity or attention, some however did, these Mafioso are amongst the well known, and were often portrayed in Hollywood movies these include Lucky Luciano, John Gotti and Al Capone

The Mob had many rituals and codes, the most well known code is known as Omerta, the oath or code of silence. During this initiation a candidate would hold a burning picture of a saint on which he previously spilled a drop of his own blood. After this ritual is complete an Associate becomes a "made man'', he officially becomes part of a crew and part of a family. 

The Mafia also used ritual executions on certain people who would break the rules.

Origins (Early 19th century - Late 20th century)

 Map of Sicily in 1900 with red spots representing Mafia activity.
The first Mafia clans are believed to have formed in the 19th century in Sicily. In the early 19th century Sicily was annexed by Italy, and its feudal laws were changed, many nobles lost their estates and their ownership was turned over to the people and the state. Unfortunately as nobles lost many of their estates they had to disband their armies which they turned over to the state, the state officials were not experienced enough and law enforcement became a big problem. Many towns and settlements in Sicily didn't even have a standing police force and the only law enforcement would come in the view of  a few soldiers and policeman coming every few months to capture criminals. This left many people to the whims of criminals, which led to the formation of the mafia. Many citizens and land owners turned to extralegal protectors that later formed the Mafia. 

Much of the early mafia activities were carried out in the more wealthy parts of Sicily (Western Sicily, Palermo) mainly because of the many merchants in those areas. There the newly formed mafia clans could racket and extort money from these merchants and landowners by offering them protection from other clans and competition. As the people who were seeking protection from the mafia increased so did the price of the protection rise. Mafiosi also meddled in politics, they could bully and intimidate voters to vote for candidates favored by the mob. Early Sicilian police investigations yielded interesting findings. They found that members of the mafia were smart young man, recruited from the rural areas of Sicily, they had a code in which they never had any interaction with the police, they offered protection services for money, and the leaders of this organization were extremely powerful and wealthy. The efforts of the law to imprison mafiosi were unsuccessful, only creating distrust for law enforcement among the populace. By the early 20th century Benito Mussolini had outlawed the mafia, Mussolini's reasons were more political then anything else,seeing as many of his competitors were politicians that had ties with the mafia. Many mafiosi chose to escape to America.   
 

Arrival to United States  (Late 19th - Early 20th century)

 Lucky Luciano, considered to be the father of modern organized crime in the US.
Many mobsters arrived to America in the late 19th century during the immigration of 1890. New arrivals came to New York, where Ellis Island was opened in 1892 as the temporary center for immigrants. During its early years in America men who would later become mafiosi were members of Black Hand gangs, so named due to an extortion method employed by its members. There were many mafia centers, most notably New York and Chicago. The true explosion of mafia activity and power in America came during the prohibition (also known as The Noble Experiment). Gangsters took full advantage of the newly passed law, by buying alcohol in Canada or producing it themselves then selling the alcohol in the United States.Due to the ban mobsters could sell alcohol beverages at very high prices.  It was during this time that the mafia established its power and gained wealth in the United States. By 1933 the prohibition ended and the mob was forced to seek new forms of income, got by illegal activities such as  extortion,gambling,racketeering,union exploitation, drug trafficking and fencing (the act of buying or selling stolen goods) and many others. Drug trafficking however was frowned upon in the mob at least until the 60's and 70's. Heads of families would "make an example'' of anyone selling drugs. In the 40's and 50's the mob had a huge interest in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many casinos were secretly run by the mob,also from the mobs humble beginnings law enforcement wasn't too interested in arresting mafiosi, due to bribes and deals made with corrupt cops. But by 1963 Joe Valachi became the first mafia member to turn states evidence, this brought to the slow but steady decline of Mafia power.
 

Decline in power (Late 20th century)

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (commonly referred to as RICO or RICO act)  was a part of the Organized Crime Control act brought into power in 1970. The creation of RICO came from the need to find a way to prosecute members of the mob, however, RICO has found a much more widespread use since then.  

The basic idea behind RICO is that a person that belongs to a criminal organization that has committed any  two crimes of 35 can be charged with racketeering. Some of these many crimes are drug trafficking, racketeering, bribery, theft, arson, robbery,  extortion, kidnapping, murder and many others.  

 Suspected Mobster waiting to be processed following the massive Jan. 21, 2011 arrests in New York.
Almost every crime that was punishable by the RICO act were everyday occurrences within the mafias activities. The sentences for being found guilty under the RICO act can lead up to $25,000 and 20 years of incarceration. This ultimately led to the fall of the power of the Mafia as in a 20 year span more then twenty mafia bosses were charged and found guilty.The bosses believed that drug dealing would lead to the fall of the mob, despite this in the 1980s mafia members began to plan how to sell heroin from fronts, these fronts were the mafia controlled pizzerias. This plan never came to realization as the famous Pizza connection trial started in 1985. In the present mafia has regained many of its lost power during its turmoil in the 1990's. It is estimated that this criminal organization makes up to a 100 billion dollars each year, mafia in present times also began "outsourcing'' their work, mostly to gangs, and despite losing territory and power to the Russian mob that came after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Italian-American mafia remains one of the most successful criminal organizations in the United States today.
 

Portrayal in popular culture

 The two main characters of Mafia, Tommy Angelo and Paulie.
The Mob was romanticized in many Hollywood classics such as The Godfather (1972), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995).  Hollywood movies portrayed mobsters as "men of honor''. Many games also feature mafiosi to one extent or another. The most well known, Mafia, was hailed as one of the best games of 2002. The story follows a cab driver, Tommy Angelo, who becomes a made man. Its' sequel Mafia II told the similar story of Vito Scaletta and his quest of becoming a wise guy. The Mob, despite many criminal activities, represents a good source for movies and video games due to their romanticized image of a guy doing what a man has to do, and never killing anyone who didn't deserve it.

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