What Is Cosa Nostra?

Italian mafia gangsters.
Italian mafia gangsters.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” is one of the most famous quotes ever said in American mafia movies. Do you know who said it? Marlon Brando in The Godfather, as Don Vito Corleone, a Sicilian immigrant who created a mafia empire. But how different is the Hollywood version of Cosa Nostra from the real Cosa Nostra, organized crime that originated in Italy and Sicily? 

Mafia or Cosa Nostra?

In the USA, Mafia, the Mob or La Cosa Nostra, stands for organized crime, managed by Italian-Americans whose ancestors mostly came from Sicily or Italy. It is a criminal society with a strict structure within that goes way back. The Mafia organization in the USA adopted the Italian name Cosa Nostra which means “Our Affair.” 

La Cosa Nostra experienced its peak in the 1950s and the 1960s in the USA. Since there were many ongoing investigations about the Mafia, the government agencies discovered that the American Mafia mostly carried out the same structure within the organization as the Sicilian Mafia.   

The Structure Within Cosa Nostra

Since the 1950s, there were twenty-five Mafia “families” in the USA. The practice was that usually, one family was operating in a city with organized crime. However, New York City had five families; Colombo, Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Genovese. Those that were at the head of these powerful families arranged a judicial commission. Each family had a “don” or a “boss” at the highest position. And only the commission could challenge the “boss’s” authority. 

Italian mafia
The soldiers do the dirty work.

The Mafia hierarchy was as follows:

  1. The boss (don)
  2. Underboss (vice president or deputy director)
  3. Consigliere (counselor)
  4. Capos (lieutenants)
  5. Soldiers
  6. Associates

Duties Within Cosa Nostra Hierarchy

The boss keeps everyone in line and makes the final decision. He profits the most from the family’s money. The underboss sometimes deals with issues without involving the boss. He is second in command and may replace the boss if he is old or might go to prison. He makes sure the boss’s orders are carried out. The counselor should be outside the hierarchy in the family; he acts as an advisor, hence the name, consigliere (counselor). He is good at solving family disputes; he is a mediator and often represents the family in any public or governmental dealings.

Capo handles soldiers and should be good at making money. If his soldiers do not complete a given task, a capo is the one who will take the blame. Also, he has to be careful not to become too powerful, or he might, as they say, sleep with the fishes.

The soldiers do the dirty work. They are the bottom of the hierarchy, make little money, and have almost no power. They intimidate witnesses, collect debts, beat up, or kill other soldiers. And the associates are not in Cosa Nostra; they just work with capos or soldiers on criminal activities. They can easily get beaten up or killed since they do not enjoy the privileges that come with being a member of Cosa Nostra.


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