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What is the Mafia?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

The Mafia is a group of families or clans in the criminal world that are loosely associated with each other. Also known as the Cosa Nostra, the Mafia originated in Italy in the mid-1800s and made its way to the United States later that century. Each family or clan controls the criminal activity of a certain territory of a city or locality. The Mafia has a set hierarchy that is respected across clans, and permission must be granted for one clan to do any type of activity in another family or clan's territory.

The Sicilian Mafia is a different entity than the American Mafia, though the roots of both organizations appear to be the same. The American Cosa Nostra — which translates into "This Thing Of Ours" — began in New York City and has spread across the country since. Each family is comprised solely of Italian-Americans, regardless of how far removed the bloodlines are. Both the Sicilian and the American Mafia operate under a code of conduct that prohibits members from fighting with each other, from having affairs with the wives of other members, and from other various insults within the family.

The mafia controlled criminal activity of certain territories.
The mafia controlled criminal activity of certain territories.

Turf wars have happened in the past to determine where one family's territory begins and another family's territory ends. Such turf wars were often bloody and symbolic, and after much fighting, New York City was divided into five families. Members of all crime families take an oath of silence, meaning they cannot talk to police about any family business, and if they do, they will be killed. Family and friends of the person who talked to police can also be killed as part of the Cosa Nostra code of conduct.

Crime family members take an oath of silence,  and if they break that oath they will be killed.
Crime family members take an oath of silence, and if they break that oath they will be killed.

The American Mafia came to prominence during prohibition in the 1920s, trafficking alcohol all over New York City and even the country. The Sicilian Mafia was active and prominent long before that time, usually in a protection services capacity. They would essentially protect the interests of anyone who fell under their control or influence, whether that meant protection from competitive businesses, landowning pursuits, or other money-making enterprises. In return, the family would receive services and payments from those protected. Later on in its history, the Cosa Nostra would get involved in other moneymaking and power-grabbing operations, including drug and arms trafficking, election rigging, and buying of public contracts. These activities are less common in the American Mafia, but they are not unheard of.

Discussion Comments


The Mafia still exists today. It is not as powerful as it used to be but it is still powerful. It exists in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, LA, New England, Florida and other areas. The mafia is a lot quieter than it used to be.

Overall, the mafia in America is a lot weaker than it used to be. In New York, the families still have influence in unions, but like I said before, the Mafia is a lot weaker and quieter than it used to be.


I love the movie The Sopranos. I love all mafia movies, and would love to know if it still is in the USA.


I love to read crime stories and my favorite ones usually involve mafia type characters. I'm not sure what I love so much about them. I certainly wouldn't want to be one I guess they are just more fun to live vicariously through then drug runners or petty thieves.

I am also a big fan of mafia movies from Goodfellas to the Sopranos. Those guys have so much swagger. You can't help but envy them a little even if you know that they will probably end up getting whacked sometime in their lives.


@Izzy78 - Wow, I'm sure there must have been a lot of interesting stories you heard about the Mafia. I think a lot of people are familiar with Al Capone's story, but I think the really funny thing is that of all the involvement in had with the Mob, it was tax evasion that finally got him put in jail.

As far as modern Mobsters go, I don't hear a lot of Mafia news about them being very active. Maybe they are just more covert now. The only story I have heard was about Whitey Bulger getting caught. He was a more recent Mafia member who was active up until the mid 90s. He had a lot of police connections and avoided getting caught. Then he got put on the FBI's most wanted list and was finally found in 2011.

As far as sentiments toward the Mafia versus street gangs go, I think a lot of it has to do with how they've framed themselves. The Mafia is seen as kind of a Robin Hood fighting the system, but street gangs are usually seen (often rightfully so) as being cold-blooded killers.


Does anyone have any idea whether there is any Mafia activity still in the United States? I would assume there is some, but it is clearly not as visible as it used to be.

I grew up near Chicago where the Mafia was a huge part of the local culture. I think Al Capone is usually considered to be one of the most famous gangsters if not the most famous, and he was infamous in Chicago. My grandfather was alive during that time period when the Mafia was basically running the city and said that is wasn't usually a friendly place to be.

He always told the story about being in the same neighborhood where the St. Valentine's Day Massacre happened. He could hear the gunshots and people start to tell and panic.

Reading the stories of the Mafia from history books doesn't really do justice to the grip they had on society. I think the worst part is the way they rigged elections with corrupt officials just so they could further their plans.


@TreeMan - I think I see what you're getting at. There are a ton of extremely popular movies like the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, and Scarface that are kind of a watered down look at what the Mafia is like. The Mob members are usually framed as the "good guys." When someone is killed in one of the movies it is usually framed as a reasonable action when in reality, lots of innocent people were killed by the Mob just because they tried to stick up for themselves.

There are even a lot of Mafia games that do the same type of thing and kind of take a light-hearted look at the Mafia, and no one really says anything. If someone makes a movie or game about current gangs, though, the members are usually put in a much different light as being the bad guys. Not to say the Mafia movies aren't violent, but the movies about more recent gangs are usually a lot more graphic even though both groups basically did the same things just at different time periods.


Even though the roots of the American Mafia are from Italy, I still kind of feel like the Mafia has found its own place in American history. I think a lot of people don't care too much about where it originated, and sort of claim the Mafia as an American thing.

Maybe it is because the Mafia is more under control now than it was in the past, but it almost feels like talking about the Mafia is a nostalgic thing. I am sure there is still Mafia involvement in some places, but I don't think it is nearly as powerful as it used to be. Because of that, most people today haven't experienced the Mafia in full force and just know the basic information presented in history classes and TV.

On the other hand, the current gangs are marginalized, because we are still feeling their effects and have a reason to be afraid of them.

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    • The mafia controlled criminal activity of certain territories.
      By: tiero
      The mafia controlled criminal activity of certain territories.
    • Crime family members take an oath of silence,  and if they break that oath they will be killed.
      By: 2707195204
      Crime family members take an oath of silence, and if they break that oath they will be killed.
    • Money laundering is a crime commonly associated with the mafia.
      By: s_kuzmin
      Money laundering is a crime commonly associated with the mafia.