Sicilian Mafia: Origins, Evolution, and Operations

As Italy developed into a modern state in the 19th Century, agricultural Sicily saw the rise of the Cosa Nostra.

Historical Background

The Sicilian Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra, comprises of an association of criminal groups in Sicily who work under common codes of conduct and principles and share the same organizational structure. These criminal groups existed in Sicily as far back as the 19th Century but became more prominent after Sicily was recognized as a province of Italy in 1861. The Italian government, facing several hiccups in attempting to strengthen its hold on Sicily after it came under the rule of Italy, is believed to have taken the help of Cosa Nostra to eliminate the other, more dangerous international gangs operating on the island. In turn, the Cosa Nostra enjoyed privileges from the government who now shielded many of the mafia group’s illegal activities. Soon, the Sicilian Mafia grew strong and started influencing politics and the economy in Sicily to a significant degree. They started endorsing the election campaigns of candidates loyal to them. In the 1920s, when the fascist ruler Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy, he embarked on a large-scale operation to eliminate the mafia in large numbers. This significantly reduced the influence of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily but, once again in the 1950s, with a post-World War 2 construction boom in the island, there was witnessed a return of the Sicilian Mafia back to power. During this time, the mafia also spread their influence to other countries of the world, especially into the United States of America, where a powerful gang of American mafias emerged who worked in coalition with the Sicilian Mafia to make their unlawful endeavors highly successful.

Organizational Structure

The Cosa Nostra has an extremely well-planned hierarchical structure. The entire mafia organization comprises of 100 or more clans with each clan operating in a particular area in Sicily. Clans are headed by bosses and under-bosses and comprise of members whose numbers vary from clan to clan. Bosses and under-bosses are elected by the members on the basis of performance. A consigliere is an impartial mafia member who oversees the action of the bosses and under-bosses. The associates are individuals like corrupt officials who though not members of the clan are used by the clan for their interests. There is no age limit to become a member of the Cosa Nostra but only Sicilian men without any relatives in the legal department can qualify for this position. The individual aspiring to be a mafia has to go through a rigorous set of assignments including an execution of murder to assure the bosses of their faithfulness to the mafia order. Once part of the team, they have to take vows to strictly maintain secrecy about their work and fellow gang members, failing which they might have to face death.

Economics and Violence

Members of the Sicilian Mafia (the Cosa Nostra) are actively engaged in a large number of criminal activities. Their core activities involve protection racketeering and management of illegal transactions and agreements. The mafia also often endorses the politicians favored by them which help attract influential votes for the politician. Loan sharking is another important activity of the mafias and so is bid rigging. Both these activities are significant income generators for the Cosa Nostra. The criminals also invest in drug smuggling and protects the drug dealers. The Cosa Nostra members never shy away from committing murders which is a common part of their work.

Evolution Through the Year

After the World War II, the Cosa Nostra gained significant power and diversified its activities, dominating more and more branches of illegal activities. Strict adherence to their code of omerta, which ensured each and every member of the organization maintained a perfect secrecy about the organization’s affairs, allowed the mafias to thrive. However, in the later part of the 20th Century, the laws against the mafias strengthened and the government started cracking down on mafia strongholds using harsh anti-racketeering laws as the legal weapon. During this time, many mafias also broke the omerta, and surrendered themselves to legal authorities, revealing the secrets of the mafia world in order to avoid long terms in prison. Thus, by the beginning of the 21st Century, the mafia became significantly weakened following arrests of many of its leaders, though it was never completely eliminated.

The Mafia of Today

The Cosa Nostra continues to wield its power in the island province of Sicily, Italy, though it is not as strong today as it was a few decades back. As per reports, by the late 1990s, the mafia organization was forced to handover a significant part of its share of the drug trade to the Ndràngheta, another criminal organization based in Italy. Another report claims that, in 2012, the Cosa Nostra became associated with certain large Mexican drug cartels.

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