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The Mafia

"The Mafia is oppression, arrogance, greed, self-enrichment, power and hegemony above and against all others. It is not an abstract concept, or a state of mind, or a literary term... It is a criminal organization regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules... The myth of a courageous and generous 'man of honor' must be destroyed, because a mafioso is just the opposite."

-- Cesare Terranova, Italian Magistrate murdered in 1979

It exists. It is a symptom of Sicily's endemic political corruption and a general cynicism regarding public institutions and the criminal justice system, its life sustained by a widespread mentality which breeds a general distrust in even the youngest Sicilians - distrust of everybody and every thing. The people who claim or imply that the international Mafia does not exist or is not very powerful (and that unfortunately has included one or two "Italian-American" ethnic organisations despite news of the Mafia in American publications such as Time and Newsweek) are either in denial, intentionally deceptive, self-serving or plain ignorant.

Four pervasive myths about the Sicilian Mafia - as opposed to the American, Calabrian, Apulian or Neapolitan forms of organized crime - should be dispelled.

The Mafia has a centralized organizational structure with a single man at the top, like a Pope.
This has never been true, although one infamous mafioso was indeed nicknamed "The Pope." Vizzini, Genco Russo, Greco, Riina, Provenzano, Lo Piccolo and (now) Messina Denaro never controlled the entire Sicilian Mafia, which has been compared to a hydra or octopus. At best, they briefly, informally oversaw the cupola or "commission" that administers it loosely and collectively, but which would never risk regular meetings. There is not, and never has been, a true capo dei capi ("head of heads") of the Mafia or the Camorra (the Neapolitan brand of organized crime) in the manner of a Pope, CEO or general at the head of a rigidly structured organization. It is for this reason that "decapitation" is impossible. Italian investigators and prosecutors know this, yet they also know that less-important mafia bosses tacitly defer to more powerful ones, especially in certain matters involving foreign (international) business or, for example, the murder of a high-profile figure like a judge or senator. Within each cosca or "cell," of course, there are ranks.

The Mafia is hereditary, based on families.
Times change, but until the 1950s the Sicilian Mafia was not based on families but simply on geographical zones of influence (Palermo, Catania, Corleone). Calogero Vizzini, Michele Greco, Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Tommaso Buscetta were not the sons or near relatives of mafiosi. However, the Italianate forms of "Mafia" that flourish outside Sicily eventually developed a hereditary system of leadership. That includes mainland Italy and the Americas. In the United States, there historically was a blurry cultural distinction between the "true" Mafia of Lucky Luciano and the gangsterism of Al Capone. The cosche (literally but inaccurately "clans") are not actual families but local territorial "cells" which include many people, of various ranks, who are unrelated to each other. That said, nowadays it isn't too unusual for a young mafioso to wed the sister or cousin of a fellow mafioso, or for the leader of a cosca to favor his own son with a certain benefit, such as extorting the pizzo in a specific neighborhood. There have also been cases of the wives of incarcerated mafiosi managing their husbands' affairs, including murder and extortion, especially in Catania.

The Mafia was supported by the nobility and the Catholic Church.
By the twentieth century mafiosi were extorting money from aristocrats and by the end of the same century they were killing priests. One might make a case that certain landholding aristocrats and higher clergy, including a few bishops, condoned the actions of the Mafia when it was expedient, but sweeping generalizations are unjustified. For example, the land reforms of 1948 dividing the large rural estates were opposed by the nobles who owned these properties, and certain mafiosi worked for these landholders as land managers. Until the twentieth century the Church in Italy rarely took a strong position on any "progressive" social issue, so (for example) divorce was legalized in the country only in 1974. If anything, we could say that the Mafia was sometimes facilitated by corrupt politicians who, like most Italians, were Catholic. It is true, however, that the Mafia flourished for a long time because the Church and the ruling class failed to recognize it as a threat to the very fabric of society.

The Mafia traces its roots to the Middle Ages.
This is perhaps the most ridiculous myth of all. While the closed, secretive mentality that fostered the development of secret criminal societies such as the Beati Paoli became commonplace with the Inquisition and Spanish rule during the sixteenth century, and though banditry in the countryside increased over time, the Mafia as organized crime (not just a Sicilian word having other meanings) did not exist until late in the eighteenth century at the very earliest. Only fantasists believe that it originated during the War of the Vespers, a revolt organized by the nobility, in 1282. Phenomena such as widespread charlatanry and professional incompetence, nepotism and the overuse of job preferments have helped it along by discouraging transparency at every level of the economy. Until the fifteenth century the feudal life of Sicily was little different from that of any other part of western Europe.

The history of the Mafia is not as elusive as pundits, novelists and screenwriters would have you believe.

Visit Sicily's first monthly online magazine!Protection rackets (the pizzo) and the narcotics trade still exist, of course, with the Mafia funnelling its ill-won profits into businesses such as supermarket and hotel chains across Sicily and even in northern Italy. But a phenomenon which has worsened in recent years is the widespread theft of European Commission funding destined, in principle, for Sicilian economic development. Bribes, kickbacks and outright theft by politicians closely allied with (or actually members of) the Mafia has been a fact of life in Sicily for a long time. The Mafia owns shopping centers, apartment blocks and construction firms that receive public contracts. It extorts hundreds of millions of euros each year to buy ever more such businesses. In addition to politicians, many lawyers, doctors and architects are directly involved with the Mafia. It is a cancer that hides for a while but just won't die.

Considering its profound influence on Sicilian life, no history of twentieth-century Sicily can be complete or accurate without mentioning the most famous Sicilian fraternity. Tragically, the Mafia (and extreme political corruption generally) is the single socio-economic factor that distinguishes Sicily's economic base from those of other European Mediterranean regions such as Spain and Portugal - though it appears that Greece also has some serious problems with public spending and corruption. It is one of the world's most enduring criminal organizations, and one of the most serious social problems confronting Sicily today. In recent times, it has murdered judges, priests and children - though with its increasing grip on the legal economy (public contracts, stores, restaurants) - this rarely happens nowadays. Its hierarchy and vernacular are a reflection of Sicilian society itself, complete with religious allusions: Its ruling council is the "Cupola," Michele Greco, was nicknamed "The Pope," a leader of "clans." But, like the nobility, the Mafia is all but invisible. You probably won't see it if you visit Sicily. You probably won't see many of its effects, either, unless you look very closely. Those who presume that today's Sicilians do not think about the Mafia are sorely mistaken. Anti-Mafia organisations such as Addio Pizzo (of which Best of Sicily is a member) have done much to encourage merchants and other business owners to stand up against the Mafia, but there is still much work to be done.


Banditry and murder had been fairly commonplace since the Middle Ages, but the Mafia has existed as a loose network of local criminals only since the latter decades of the eighteenth century or the early years of the nineteenth. Like the nobility, its roots are feudal. Indeed, the early history of the Mafia is well known. 10 Life Sentences For Cupola Members in Death of Judge Cesare Terranova.

Many people incorrectly presume the Mafia to be the cause of certain social problems. In fact, it is the effect - the result of centuries of bizarre practices such as raccomandazioni (job preferments) which colour every facet of life in Sicily, making it a fertile breeding ground for all forms of corruption, dishonesty and criminality. Nepotism (even in university positions) doesn't help matters, either. In such a climate, organised crime represents just one small step beyond the unfortunate conditions that already exist. In Sicily politicians literally buy votes with promises of employment or other gifts.

The popular perception of mafiosi as "Robin Hoods" or even "knights" is misleading, but it is based on general distrust of authority and - until very recently - the historical laxity of law enforcement in protecting citizens. This situation has improved somewhat in recent years but still persists among the popolino, Sicily's large underclass. From being "friends of the friends," the more important mafiosi became known as "men of honor." In truth, the Mafia code is the antithesis of the code of chivalry - or at best a bizarre interpretation of it. Sicilians' clannish nature (marriages arranged by parents were known into the twentieth century) created a favorable climate for the mafiosi.

memorialOmertà literally means "manhood," and refers to the idea of a man resolving his own problems, but the term has become synonomous with the Mafia's code of silence. The duel, however, gave way to the vendetta and contract killings. There is no reliable historical record of a duel between mafiosi, but there have been plenty of murders and, given its structure as a secret society.

The freemasons certainly aided Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily in 1860 but so, it is believed, did some Mafia bands, even if they were not a decisive factor in his victory. In the same year, it was suggested to King Francesco II of the Two Sicilies that the Comorra, a Neapolitan organization similar to the Mafia, kill Garibaldi and his officers upon their arrival in Naples. The King refused his subjects' offer. incredibly, the plan might have actually worked.

The Modern Mafia

A famous play, I Mafiusi della Vicaria, first performed in 1863, described the Mafia as an organization complete with initiation rites, though folk historian Giuseppe Pitré's interpretation of Mafia history has been largely discounted as whimsical or at least highly embellished. By 1900, the "black hand" was identified with the "friends of the friends." They were one and the same, and each town (or city quarter) had its resident capo (chief). When the Fascists rose to power, Mussolini's "Iron Prefect," Cesare Mori, threw most of them in prison. In reality, the relationship between the Fascists and the Mafia was that of one group of criminals pitted against another - two wolves fighting over the same chicken coop.

The wartime collaboration of Sicilian-born Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano with the United States Navy may have made the aftermath of the Allied invasion of Sicily smoother than it otherwise might have been, but there is no evidence that the Sicilians in 1943 were any less welcoming of the Allies than the residents of Piedmont and Lombardy were two years later. Luciano's real influence was at the Port of New York.

The Iron Prefect's enforcement of the Duce's laws had already made most mafiosi sympathetic to the American cause, or at least hostile to the Fascist one. The surrender, without even token resistance, of thousands of Italian troops at Pantelleria, shortly before the main attack on Sicily, made it clear that most Italian recruits were unwilling to risk their lives for a lost cause - or perhaps for any cause.

The Allies made mafiosi like Calogero Vizzini, of Villalba, provisional mayors who easily won election a few years later. It was easy for these men, imprisoned by Mussolini's regime without the benefit of a fair trial, to pose as anti-Fascists or even "political prisoners." Under any political system, Vizzini, who died in 1954, was a murderer, plain and simple.

In the immediate postwar years, as the Mafia set about the task of re-organizing its activities, several freelance bandits roamed the countryside. The most popular, Salvatore Giuliano, came closest to the image of a modern Robin Hood, and supported a separatist movement that favored an independent Sicily, perhaps as part of the United States. Men like Giuliano were not mafiosi. Indeed, the mafiosi resented and perhaps even feared them.

Michele Greco in captivity.With the death of Calogero Vizzini, the Mafia slid into the realm of what Sicily's mafiosi later derided as "gangsterism," a more reckless American style of crime. In 1957, the Sicilian Mafia re-established ties with their brethren in the United States and Canada. It was Lucky Luciano, of all people, who orchestrated the alliance. Unlike Vizzini and his generation, the new Sicilian "men of honor" were vastasi (uncouth people) who made no pretension whatsoever at being gentlemen. Whereas, in public at least, Vizzini and people like him maintained a veneer of civility, and might even pass for dignified country squires, it was clear that newcomers like Giuseppe Genco Russo, Michele Greco and Luciano Leggio, though furbi (sly) in certain respects, were essentially vulgar by nature. "Men of honor" and the "code of honor," if either had ever existed in fact, vanished in a flurry of murders. By the 1970s, even women and children were not spared in the carnage.

While the Mafia controlled building construction (effectively destroying large historical districts) and vast sectors of the economy (the meat trade, for example) and developed a successful heroin trade, the pizzo (extortion through "protection money") remained a cornerstone of its system for generating revenue, day-by-day, year after year. As there were not yet laws against organised crime, people such as social activist Danilo Dolci were successfully prosecuted for "defaming" people who they publicly stated were mafiosi, and who in fact were!

During the 1960s, the Sicilian "Cupola" and the American "Commission" began to seriously cooperate in the narcotics trade, despite their expressed sentiment that heroin and cocaine were somehow less "respectable" products than extortion and murder. The Sicilian faction was still more ruthless than its American counterpart, often resorting to the murder of judges and other public officials, as well as journalists, whose activities they considered inconvenient. Palermo's Falcone-Borsellino Airport is named after two such judges, and there is a monument in Piazza 13 Vittime (13 Victims), at the end of Palermo's Via Cavour, dedicated to the memory of people killed by the Mafia.

Politicians as Mafiosi

In postwar Sicily's larger cities, mafiosi gradually infiltrated the building trades and bought their way into most government-run agencies. Why are the newer districts of Palermo full of ugly buildings but lacking in green parks and efficient parking areas? Because the urban planning was undertaken by criminals. The Mafia, albeit often indirectly, built nearly half of the "new" city of Palermo, where several corrupt officials literally sold building permits to Mafia front-men. A similar situation emerged in Catania. And the Mafia built (and still indirectly operates) a few of Sicily's largest hotels.

The Catholic Church has not always helped matters. Some priests now speak out against the Mafia (though pastors of Corleone, traditionally a Mafia stronghold, have not usually been among them), and at least one cleric was murdered for doing so. In the 1960s, however, a Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo issued a statement that the Mafia had never existed, and that author Giuseppe di Lampedusa, along with Danilo Dolci, had defamed Sicilians by implying that, among other things, most western Sicilians were secretive by nature or habit, and that the Mafia does indeed exist.

How does such an organization survive into the twenty-first century? It has a great deal to do with social factors - things like high unemployment, widespread lack of confidence in the competence of law enforcement authorities, distrust of the state. But the general secretiveness of the people is one of the main reasons organised crime is still so powerful in the Italian South, where common folk often seem suspicious of even the most ordinary social forces. The Italian ethos is based on the realities of everyday life: Italians presume that their elected leaders are thieves motivated by greed. Businessmen presume that associates will steal at the first opportunity. Labor unions presume that employers will seek to exploit employees whenever possible. Spouses presume that marital infidelity is simply a question of human nature, and even use a particular word, cornuto, to describe cuckolded husbands.

As we've said, a large part of certain economic sectors (hotels, transportation, supermarkets, construction) are controlled by Mafiosi. In a land without a tangible industrial base, public monies are the Mafia's main target. Everything has its price. Most politicians (Left and Right) can be bought, and the same holds true for managers of most larger banks and utilities. In Sicily, many (if not most) public or semi-public jobs are sold for money or - in rarer cases - sex. (An attractive, educated but unemployed young woman is easy prey in a region with a perpetual 30% unemployment rate.) Public contracts are assigned - actually sold - in exchange for bribes and kickbacks. Everybody expects a substantial kickback (usually at least 10%), from the politician who gets you a public advertising or construction project to the event organizer who gets your musical group a gig in the local music festival. In business, money laundering is a way of life. It's all part of "The New Mafia." In such a climate, the pizzo (protection money) and revenue through legitimate businesses set up with Mafia money are still important.

Buying the European Commission

Against such a backdrop, one easily understands that the Mafia is not always the primary cause of organised crime in Sicily. More often, it is a simple symptom of the corruption that permeates almost every aspect of public and professional life in Sicily. New corruption is born every day: In recent years, certain local politicians who have spoken against the Mafia have covertly purchased large sections of Palermo's historical district through front companies (there were no public auctions), and given well-paying "consulting" jobs to their friends and relations.

Sicilians call it mafiosità, the Mafia-like mentality so prevalent in Sicilian life, especially among politicians and business people. This doesn't always mean that somebody is a mafioso per se, just that he behaves like one. Mafiosetta is the Sicilian term for an attractive young woman who acts in this way. Clientelism, nepotism and the excessive use of "recommendations" to assign everything from public construction contracts to clerical jobs foster widespread corruption, and therefore organised crime. Bribery and kickbacks (the Italian word is bustarella for the envelope, busta, in which the money is paid) are normal in Sicily. Billions of dollars poured into the Sicilian economy by the World Bank, the United States, the European Commission and the central Italian government have ended up in the hands of corrupt politicians, consultants and others who, in many instances, were connected to the Mafia in some way. In many cases, the children or grandchildren of Mafiosi and Mafia-collaborators who stole money earmarked for Sicilian development under the Marshall Plan decades ago are now "respectable" citizens who one would not overtly associate with organised crime. In other words, the families have become legitimate. To many Sicilians, wealth is viewed as an end in itself; the methods employed to gain it are of little importance so long as misdeeds go unpunished. It's no secret that the criminal justice system does not function very well in Italy. And where there is no law, there is no sin.

The sale of jobs is not limited to banks, national companies (telecommunications, energy, airlines) and public administration. Until the 1990s, military promotions in Italy (in the Carabinieri and Army) to colonel or general were often based on bribes equal to around €20,000, linked to a "recommendation," of course. Hence the lack of prestige attached to such ranks.

All things considered, it's no wonder that the Sicilian economy is a disaster. It's rather embarrassing when the first large-scale organ transplant unit in Sicily (ISMETT) is established only in the late 1990s, and then with the help of an American hospital. It makes Sicily seem like an under-developed country.

Were it not so ironic, it would be amusing to see the deceptive manner in which officials often disguise their efforts to exploit the status quo by overtly supporting pointless "anti-Mafia" public awareness campaigns while robbing public monies.

Sadly, the European Commission and the central Italian government continue to support many so-called "development" projects in Sicily, few of which result in little more than untaxed wealth for the projects' managers. Indeed, the phenomenon has spawned an entire industry as politicians and their friends scramble to propose projects with grossly inflated budgets. In the 1980s, a new profession, that of the progettista, was born. The term refers to the "project consultant" who seeks European Commission funds on behalf of a town, association or governmental agency (presumably one lacking personnel competent to know how to manage public money efficiently, as though that were an esoteric art), and then spends these monies, taking a large commission for himself and his cohorts. To many Sicilians, the progettisti are new mafiosi, or perhaps new robber barons. Considering the vast investments involved, the tangible results are precious few, apart from expensive vacation homes for the project administrators themselves. One can only conclude that Sicilian progettisti, Mafia proponents or Sicilian politicians have in some way infiltrated or corrupted elements of the European Commission in Brussels. It's a long way from stealing cattle in the mountains.

The Discovery of America

Our discussion concentrates on the Mafia in Sicily. It is worth mentioning, however, that outside Italy, the Mafia and its progeny have been the object of every form of fame that modern society carries in its sophisticated cinematic arsenal. The first films to depict the Mafia in an appealing light were made not in Italy, but in the United States, where authors like the late Mario Puzo presented American mafiosi as pseudo-aristocrats. It is an image still bolstered by television and cinematic portrayals despite the fact that the American Mafia, if indeed it ever conformed very closely to such stereotypes, has been overshadowed in its own country by criminal organizations from South America, the Far East and Russia.

In Italy, films such as I Grimaldi ("The Grimaldis") present the glossy cinematic portrayal of the homegrown version of the Mafia based on the American model, complete with lavish homes, luxury cars and attractive, well-dressed people (its use of the name of the ruling dynasty of Monaco implicitly associating mafiosi with royalty). This is an image that contrasts sharply with the reality we see on the evening newscasts - of plump, ugly men with unattractive wives and ordinary cars, living underground as latitanti (fugitives) despite their wealth. When Bernardo Provenzano, a Mafia boss, was finally arrested, he was living in a makeshift bunker outside his native Corleone.

On the other side of the ocean, several Italian-American cultural organisations decry the persistent cinematic image as nothing less than bigotry, citing the (accurate) statistic that fewer than one percent of Italo-Americans are in the Mafia. A few of these organisations, echoing the official position held by the FBI until the 1970s, denied the very existence of the Mafia until it was mentioned in criminal cases in federal courts in the 1980s. Until then, anti-defamation lobbying garnered some isolated and unexpected results; it was strange, for instance, to hear references to "the syndicate" in American telefilms when everybody knew from context that the teleplays' characters were referring to the Mafia, which American mafiosi usually referred to as "our thing" or "our business." Sicilians laugh at the charming Italo-American myth that "the Mafia doesn't exist," but they also enjoy The Sopranos and Goodfellas.

Unfortunately, cultural factors have sometimes added to the confusion; to outsiders, New Yorkers Rudolph Giuliani and John Gotti seemed to represent opposite sides of the same ethnic coin, and the negative side of that coin still appeals to some of America's Italian descendants in search of an easily-acquired cultural identity, the so-called guido. Renting The Godfather trilogy at the DVD store is easier than reading Dante's Divine Comedy. The Freshman and Married to the Mob were successful parodies, while The Untouchables and Goodfellas presented a slightly more accurate, and less varnished, view of the Mafia in America.

In Italy, the cultural element creates fewer complexities. Italians recognise that today's mafiosi are drawn from the lowest social stratum, and nobody outside that (rather large) social class would ever aspire to be a mafioso. Collaborating with the Mafia, however, is another story. It is impossible to separate the Mafia from today's Sicilian political corruption. Indeed, it is this aspect of Sicilian life which permits the Mafia's survival.

Legitimate Businesses

Its adaptability has always distinguished the Mafia. Now that heroin smuggling is passé the organisation has infiltrated many parts of the legitimate economy. This is more than mere money laundering. Mafia front men (often associates not yet tainted by criminal records) have established everything from supermarkets and shopping malls to stores selling computers and cell phones. These businesses - a source of revenue in themselves - feed the Mafia. So do betting parlors and bingo salons.

Crime and Punishment

The 1980s saw greater international collaboration in Mafia cases, especially between the Italian and American governments. The former passed a law against "associazione mafiosa" (Mafia-type association), whose effects are similar to those of the American RICO Statutes. Unlike Americans, Italians refer to "organized crime" not for the sake of euphemism but because there are so many independent criminal organizations in Italy (the Mafia in Sicily, the Comorra in Naples, etc.).

Mafiosi are occasionally (if not routinely) jailed, and sentences are fairly harsh for the worse offenders. Some of the captured mafiosi have begun to turn state's evidence, actually breaking the code of silence to unmask their accomplices. The most famous of these pentiti is Tommaso Buscetta. Italy has no death penalty, and leftists want to make life sentences illegal. Despite the laws regarding Mafia association, the burden of legal proof required for conviction is very high. Unfortunately, while it's sometimes easy enough to confiscate a chain of supermarkets or even a clinic owned by mafiosi (yes, they're in health care too), the related matters of bribery and corruption in public life are more difficult to address.

Many Sicilians, including judges Giuseppe Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, have literally given their lives in the war against the Mafia. Some of Sicily's more prominent politicians would have us believe that the Mafia is nearly extinct. (Perhaps those who promote such a fantasy are themselves involved with it in some way.) Reports of its early demise are greatly exaggerated.

Though by now somewhat dated, the most authoritative book published in English on the Sicilian Mafia is the late Claire Sterling's Octopus - The Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia (New York and London 1990). Its extensive bibliography provides a wealth of material for anybody interested in reading further on this topic.

Our history of the Mafia presents information on its origins.

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