Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

The Sicilian Mafia

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For some people, the mere mention of the name “Mafia” paints a portrait in the subconscious of burly or corpulent, thuggish-looking men, with peppered or jet black hair, a scar somewhere on their face, dressed in black or gray pinstriped suits garnished with a flower in their lapel, a fedora cocked angularly over their brow, their necks and fingers decorated in gold jewelry, and carrying a briefcase or any means of transportation for weapons or money.

This image is typically cliche of the average early 20th century gangster found in big cities such as New York City and Chicago, and of those individuals found in classic films such as “The Godfather” and “Scarface”. So then, what is, or who are, the “Mafia? ” From where did they come? What did they do? Where are they now? To truly understand what the Mafia is and represents, one must travel back in time, centuries ago, where the word, and the people associated, are rooted from an area known widely for its bountiful history of arts, war, and honor – Sicily, Italy.

A thorough understanding of what the Mafia consists of would not be complete without an understanding of the Sicilian concepts of “vendetta” and “omerta. ” The Italian word vendetta is rooted in the Latin vindicta meaning “revenge. ” A more modern equivalent would be violent and vengeful “pay back”. The vendetta was often a prolonged series of retaliatory, hostile acts in exchange for previous violent acts, such as an “eye for an eye” concept or otherwise known as lex taliones.

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In ancient times, when enforcement of law by reliable authorities was virtually unknown, families would often take matters in their own hands, and exact “payment” or revenge for a wrong-doing by another by means of vendetta, often by employing violence, to include murder, to redress their grievance and restore honor to the injured group or family.

Equally important in understanding what Mafia is about, is the Italian concept of “omerta. In its present day usage, omerta is simply a “code of silence,” much like the Blue Curtain of Secrecy employed by law enforcement or omissions of knowledge that friends will utilize if a comrade is accused of a crime. Historically, however, the root meaning of this Italian word is “manliness,” not unlike the Spanish concept of “machismo,” which is considered an integral part, if not the very core value, behind the “code of honor. ” It was in 13th century Sicily that such “men of honor” organized themselves to drive out foreign invaders, and were willing to kill, if necessary.

Protecting the identities of their brothers in the event of capture, these “men of honor” invoked omerta, a code of silence, by refusing to provide governing authorities any information. The concept of omerta, then, served to provide a modicum of protection for the remaining body of those “men of honor. ” No one is certain of the enigmatic origins of the name given to groups of organized criminals from Italy, and the word itself had been long debated.

One theory takes place during the time in the middle ages when the island of Sicily was plagued by foreign invaders, particularly by the French Angevins, who imposed unfair taxes upon the Sicilians. Rising up against their oppressors, several numbers of male citizens, who later came to be called “men of honor,” banded together to overthrow the French, while shouting, “Morte alla Francia Italia anelia! ” Translated, the phrase means: “Death to the French is Italy’s cry! ” Taking the first letter from each word in this Italian phrase, the word “M-a-F-I-a! ” was created.

Another theory thought to be true is that the word “Mafia” was created in 1282 when an enraged group of Sicilian “men of honor” struck back against a French soldier, killing him in retaliation for raping a Palermo girl on her wedding day. Taking away a young woman’s virginity before it is given to her spouse is a heinous crime, and during this era, was punishable by death. As news of this revolt spread from one town to the next, other Sicilians rose up against their French occupiers, killing literally thousands, thus running them off the island, while crying out, “Ma fia! Ma fia! ” Literally meaning, “My daughter! My daughter! Although neither theory has been proven, it is apparent that the basis of the name Mafia comes from some root of honor.

The structure of the Mafia is originally based on a close-knit famiglia or family structure, where the eldest male, such as a grandfather who is wise in the ways of family operations based on heritage and traditions, is the capofamiglia, otherwise known as the head of the family or the boss – such as the “godfather”. His second in command or right-hand man who acts as a “pseudo-boss” when the capofamilglia is away, is the sotto capo, or underboss, and could have originally been a brother or first born son.

The capofamiglia may have one or more advisors, made up of close friends, brothers, or cousins, who aid him in any decision making regarding la famiglia, known as consigliere. Following the sotto capo are crews of “soldiers”, or capodecina, commanded by the sotto capo. The capodecina, literally meaning “head of ten” is selected by the capofamiglia, and usually coordinates units of soldiers made up of about ten people. Lastly are associates, who have no familial ties with the famiglia, through blood or initiation, but aid the famiglia through legal and illegal means.

Associates usually consist of corrupt officials, such as police officers, judges, or religious heads, who help la famiglia by providing any important information. An associate, to la famiglia, is seen as nothing more than a tool, and may be discarded of easily if their services are not needed anymore. The only way to join the famiglia in the past was to be born or married into the family. As time went on, family of friends, as well as friends of friends, were admitted, but only after partaking in an initiation ceremony and swearing their allegiance to la famiglia, or else face the consequences of horrific mutilation or death.

Initiation ceremonies included a variety of oaths and pledges, where potential members would carry out various acts to show their loyalty. Some acts included, but were not limited to, killing their own family members due to an unpaid debt to the famiglia, finding a “rat” within the famiglia and sending him a warning, such as mutilation or terrorizing their home life, or other heinous and illegal acts that would show devotion. Other means of initiation were ceremonies where a blood oath was implemented.

In a testimony from the police interrogation of Leo Pellegrino, from the village of Sciacca, Agrigento province, 15 March 1876, Leo proceeded to explain the ceremony he was involved in: "Marsala tied my index finger of my right hand tightly with a string. He pricked the finger with a pin. The blood dripped on the image of a female saint. He burned the image, divided it into two portions and gave me one. We ground up our portions in our hands and then threw the result into the air.

As part of the ceremony I swore that I would remain a member of the Societa that has as its capo Don Vito Vita, and its aim is to commit crimes against persons and property. I was told that the Societa has affiliates in other towns, each town with its own capo, and if an affiliate does not carry out his assigned duties he would be judged by the Societa and condemned to death. Then they taught me the mode of recognizing other affiliates. " Prior to Benito

Mussolini becoming Italy’s dictator during the Fascist movement, the Mafia was the one of the ways of providing protection and justice throughout Sicily without involving law enforcement and government officials. The Mafia would rid neighborhoods of vandals and criminals, while collecting fees for their services. What work they provided for the people would be repaid in money, goods, or by marrying into families so they would profit from farming lands. By the time Mussolini came to Sicily, the Mafia had acquired a great deal of power and respect from the citizens they protected and profited from.

In 1924, when Mussolini visited Sicily, he was angered by the reception he received. The capofamiglias treated him as nothing more than a mere guest to their land, and told Mussolini that he was under their protection. Enraged by this notion, fearing opposition to his regime, the dictator avowed to suppress the Mafia by means of violence and honor. Mussolini names Ceaser Mori as Prefect, and ordered him to crack down with “steel and fire” against the Mafia. Because the Mafia’s power was equal to that of the State, an invasion of western Sicily took place, and during 1926-1928, 11,000 suspects in the Mafia were arrested.

Ceaser Mori felt that the Mafia and Sicilian people were not one in the same. Rather, that the island had been suffering under the reign of terror known as the Mafia because the State was absent. Poor governing had created the menace known as Mafia, and that by eliminating that power, encouraged the people of Sicily to break away from unlawful oppression. He wanted the Mafia to appreciate that the State was stronger and wanted the “men of respect and honor” to be brought to their knees and be humble for their vanity and arrogance.

During Mori’s suppressive action of rounding up any individual, proven or otherwise, under suspicion of “association for criminal purposes,” hundreds fled Sicily to other countries – as many as five hundred entered the United States, some illegally with help from family currently residing in the Unites States. Those arrested and unable to flee were found guilty and imprisoned. They were tortured in order to gain confessions, whether true or not, and violence towards individuals was common. Communities would be rounded up to ensure that those guilty would not flee the country.

Innocent people would be caught up in the violence and tyranny with no ounce of concern from the State or other government officials. With Mussolini in control, Sicily faced a reign of terror. After capturing Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the “greatest capo the Mafia ever had,” Mori attempted to extract a confession from Don Vito, that he was, indeed, the capofamiglia of the Sicilian Mafia. Don Vito denied any accusation, regardless of the countless beatings Mori and his police committed. Finally, after having his legs clamped between a block of wood, Don Vito confessed to his involvement, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mussolini announced to the nation shortly after that the Mafia was no more and no force would ever be able to revive it. Following the Fascist movement and World War II, the crime rate in Sicily soared in amongst the upheaval and chaos. Many criminals escaped from prison and bandits roamed the streets, wreaking havoc where ever they came. As Fascist members were disposed of, replacements were appointed, many of which turned out to be part of the Mafiosi, such as Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo.

They would present themselves as political dissidents and would become further desirable with their anti-communist position. The Minister of Agriculture, a communist, pushed for reforms where peasants would receive larger shares of produce and own land that was forced to be sold by owners of large estates. The Mafia had connections to many landowners and murdered several social reformists; however, they were unable to stop the process, and many landowners chose to sell their land to the Mafiosi, who offered more money than the government.

After the war, the government poured money into rebuilding Sicily, where two Mafia connected officials took control of Palermo’s Office of Public Works. They gave out building permits to just five people, who were probably Mafia front men. Any construction companies unconnected with the Mafia were forced to pay protection fees, and many illegally constructed buildings were put up before the city’s planning was finalized. This was the re-birth of the Sicilian Mafia. During the early 1960s, the first high-profile Mafia conflict occurred in post-war Italy.

The Sicilian Mafia has always had a long history of violent rivalries, but this was the first to involve many lives, some of which were innocents. In December of 1962, a heroin shipment to America turned up missing, and when the Sicilian Mafia Commission could not decide who to blame, the La Barbera clan, one clan involved, took matters into their own hands. They murdered a Mafioso, or member, of the Greco clan whom they had suspicion of stealing heroin. Therein, triggering a war where many would lose their lives.

In April 1963, several non-mafiosi were wounded during a shootout in Palermo. Two months later, six military officers and a policeman in Ciaculli were killed while trying to dispose of a car bomb. Because the conflict spread beyond Sicily and claimed several innocent lives, a crackdown commenced in which nearly two thousand arrests were made. Mafia activity fell as a result as clans disbanded and many Mafiosi went into hiding. The Commission was dissolved and would not reform until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During the 1970s, the Mafia in Sicily resumed its normal illicit business, and Corleonesi, the mafia family from the town of Corleone, slowly began growing in power and prestige under the brutal and ambitious leadership of Luciano Leggio. Luciano Leggio became the boss through simply shooting the previous boss, Michele Navarra. Corleonsi’s primary rivals were the bosses of various powerful Palermo Mafia Families. The Sicilian Mafia Commission was re-established in 1970, with Luciano Leggio as one of the three leaders, although his underboss, Salvatore Riina, represented him as he was in hiding in mainland Italy for various crimes committed.

After Leggio was captured and murdered in 1974, Riina took over as boss and began winning over allies amongst other Mafia families. In 1978, Riina arranged the murders of Bontade and Inserillo’s allies, the Reisi and Catania clans’ bosses. This caused the bosses of Palermo and their men to become isolated. After the murder of Stefano Bontade, another member of the commission, the Second Mafia War began. Hundreds of enemy Mafiosi and relatives were killed by each other, and even some of those who were traitorous in their own clans.

In the end, the Corleonesi faction won, and Riina became widely known as the “boss of bosses. ” By the early 1980s, the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino began a campaign against the Sicilian Mafia. With the arrest of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafioso turned informant, Falcone and Borsellino compiled their testimonies and organized the Maxi Trial, which lasted twenty-eight months. Four hundred seventy-four mafiosi were put on trial, of which 342 were convicted. By 1992, the Italian Supreme Court confirmed these convictions.

The Mafia retaliated violently, and in 1988, they murdered a Palermo judge and his son, a prosecutor and an anti-mafia businessman. Four years later, Falcone and Borsellino were killed by car bombs, and this led to a public outcry, along with a massive government crackdown, resulting in the arrest of Riina in 1993. Following Riina’s arrest, the Mafia began a campaign of terror on mainland Italy. Tourist spots were attacked, such as places in Florence, Milan, and Rome, leaving ten dead and 93 injured, two churches bombed, and an anti-mafia priest shot dead.

Leadership of the Mafia was held for a short time by Leoluca Bagarella, and then was passed to Bernardo Provenzano after Bagarella was captured in 1995. Provenzano ceased the violent campaign and replaced it with pax mafiosi, the quiet mafia, where it allowed the Mafia to slowly regain the power it once held. Provenzano halted the murders of state officials and informants. He felt that by not killing them and their families, it would encourage informants to retract their statements and testimonies and return to the famiglia. After eleven years of leadership, Provenzano was arrested in 2006.

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