The American Mafia, commonly known as the Mafia, Italian Mafia, Italian Mob, or the Mob in the United States, is an Italian-American criminal society. Similar to the Sicilian Mafia, the Italian-American Mafia is a secret criminal society without a formal name. Its members usually refer to it as Cosa Nostra (Italian pronunciation: [kɔza nɔstra], Italian for “our thing”). The press has also coined the name “National Crime Syndicate” to refer to the entirety of U.S. organized crime, including the Mafia. The Mafia emerged in New York’s Lower East Side, other areas of the East Coast of the United States, and several other major metropolitan areas (such as New Orleans) during the late 19th century and early 20th Century following waves of Italian immigration, especially from Sicily. It has its roots in the Sicilian Mafia, but is a separate organization in the United States. Neapolitan, Calabrian, and other Italian criminal groups, as well as independent Italian-American criminals, eventually merged with the Sicilians to create the modern pan-Italian Mafia in North America. Today, the American Mafia cooperates in various criminal activities with the Sicilian Mafia and other Italian organized crime groups, such as Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta, and Sacra Corona Unita. The most important unit of the American Mafia is that of a “family” as the various criminal organizations that make up the Mafia are known. Despite the name of “family” to describe the various units, succession is not necessarily hereditary, though it can be.
The Mafia is currently most active in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, New England, Detroit, and Chicago; with smaller families, associates, and crews in places such as Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Texas. There have been at least 26 cities around the United States with Cosa Nostra families, with many more offshoots, splinter groups and associates in other cities. There are five main New York City Mafia families, known as the Five Families: the Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno and Colombo families. At its peak, the Mafia dominated organized crime in the U.S. While each crime family operates independently, nationwide coordination is provided by the Commission, which consists of the bosses of each of the strongest families.
Law enforcement still considers the Mafia the largest organized crime group in the United States. It has maintained control over much of the organized crime activity in the United States and certain parts of Canada (See Rizzuto crime family). Today most of the Mafia’s activities are contained to the Northeastern United States and Chicago where they continue to dominate organized crime despite the increasing numbers of street gangs and other organizations that are not of Italian origin.
The first published account of what would evolve into the Mafia in the United States came In the spring of 1869. The New Orleans Times reported that the city’s Second District had become overrun by “well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city.” Emigration from southern Italy to the Americas was primarily to Brazil and Argentina, and New Orleans had a heavy volume of port traffic to and from both locales.
Mafia groups in the United States first became influential in the New York City area, gradually progressing from small neighborhood operations in Italian ghettos to citywide and eventually national organizations. The Black Hand was a name given to an extortion method used in Italian neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century. It has been sometimes mistaken for the Mafia itself, which it is not. Although the Black Hand was a criminal society, there were many small Black Hand gangs. Black Hand extortion was often (wrongly) viewed as the activity of a single organization because Black Hand criminals in Italian communities throughout the United States used the same methods of extortion. Giuseppe Esposito was the first known Mafia member to immigrate to the United States. He and six other Sicilians fled to New York after murdering eleven wealthy landowners, and the chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province. He was arrested in New Orleans in 1881 and extradited to Italy.
New Orleans was also the site of the first Mafia incident in the United States that received both national and international attention.On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessy was murdered execution-style. It is still unclear whether Italian immigrants actually killed him or whether it was a frame-up by nativists against the reviled underclass immigrants.Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested on mostly baseless charges, and nineteen were eventually indicted for the murder. An acquittal followed, with rumors of bribed and intimidated witnesses.The outraged citizens of New Orleans organized a lynch mob after the acquittal, and proceeded to kill eleven of the nineteen defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped. The lynching was the largest mass lynching in American history.
From the 1890s to the 1900s (decade) in New York City, the Sicilian Mafia developed into the Five Points Gang and were very powerful in the Little Italy of the Lower East Side. They were often in conflict with the Jewish Eastmans of the same area. There was also an influential Mafia family in East Harlem. The Neapolitan Camorra was very active in Brooklyn, also. In Chicago, the 19th Ward, which was an Italian neighborhood, became known as the “Bloody Nineteenth” due to the frequent violence in the ward, mostly as a result of Mafia activity, feuds, and vendettas.
* Prohibition era
On January 17, 1920, Prohibition began in the United States with the Eighteenth Amendment making it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol. Despite these bans, there was still a very high demand for it from the public. This created an atmosphere that tolerated crime as a means to provide liquor to the public, even among the police and city politicians. The profits that could be made from selling and distributing alcohol were worth the risk of punishment from the government, which had a difficult time enforcing prohibition. There were over 900,000 cases of liquor shipped to the borders of American cities. Criminal gangs and politicians saw the opportunity to make fortunes and began shipping larger quantities of alcohol to American cities. The majority of the alcohol was imported from Canada, the Caribbean, and the American Midwest where stills manufactured illegal alcohol.
In the early 1920s, fascist Benito Mussolini took control of Italy and waves of Italian immigrants fled to the United States. Sicilian Mafia members also fled to the United States as Mussolini cracked down on Mafia activities in Italy. Most Italian immigrants resided in tenement buildings. As a way to escape the poor life style some Italian immigrants chose to join the American Mafia.
The Mafia took advantage of prohibition and began selling illegal alcohol. The profits from bootlegging far exceeded the traditional crimes of protection, extortion, gambling and prostitution. Prohibition allowed Mafia families to make fortunes.As prohibition continued victorious factions would go on to dominate organized crime in their respective cities, setting up the family structure of each city. Since gangs hijacked each other’s alcohol shipments, forcing rivals to pay them for “protection” to leave their operations alone, armed guards almost invariably accompanied the caravans that delivered the liquor.
In the 1920s, Italian Mafia families began waging wars for absolute control over lucrative bootlegging rackets. As the violence erupted, Italians fought Irish and Jewish ethnic gangs for control of bootlegging in their respected territories. In New York City, Frankie Yale waged war with the Irish American White Hand Gang. In Chicago Al Capone and his family massacred the North Side Gang, another Irish American outfit. In New York City, by the end of the 1920s two factions of organized crime had emerged to fight for control of the criminal underworld: one led by Joe Masseria and the other by Salvatore Maranzano. This caused the Castellammarese War, which led to Masseria’s murder in 1931. Maranzano then divided New York City into five families. Maranzano, the first leader of the American Mafia, established the code of conduct for the organization, set up the “family” divisions and structure, and established procedures for resolving disputes. In an unprecedented move, Maranzano set himself up as Boss of All Bosses and required all families to pay tribute to him. This new role was received negatively, and Maranzano was himself murdered within six months on the orders of Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano was a former Masseria underling who had switched sides to Maranzano and orchestrated the killing of Masseria.
After prohibition ended in 1933, organized crime groups were confronted with an impasse and needed other ways to maintain the high profits they had acquired throughout the 1920s. The smarter of the organized crime groups acted prudently and expanded into other ventures such as: unions, construction, sanitation, and drug trafficking. On the other hand, those Mafia families that neglected the need to change eventually lost power and influence and were ultimately absorbed by other groups.
* The Commission
As an alternative to the Boss of All Bosses, Luciano set up the Commission, where the bosses of the most powerful families would have equal say and vote on important matters and solve disputes between families. This group ruled over the National Crime Syndicate and brought in an era of peace and prosperity for the American Mafia. By mid-century, there were 26 official Commission-sanctioned Mafia crime families, each based in a different city (except for the Five Families which were all based in New York). Each family operated independently from the others and generally had exclusive territory it controlled. As opposed to the older generation of “Mustache Petes” such as Maranzano and Masseria, who usually worked only with fellow Italians, the “Young Turks” led by Luciano were more open to working with other groups, most notably the Jewish-American criminal syndicates to achieve greater profits. The Mafia thrived by following a strict set of rules that originated in Sicily that called for an organized hierarchical structure and a code of silence that forbade its members from cooperating with the police (Omertà). Failure to follow any of these rules is punishable by death.
The rise of power that the Mafia acquired during Prohibition would continue long after alcohol was made legal again. Criminal empires which had expanded on bootleg money would find other avenues to continue making large sums of money. When alcohol ceased to be prohibited in 1933, the Mafia diversified its money-making criminal actives to include (both old and new): illegal gambling operations, loan sharking, extortion, protection rackets, drug trafficking, fencing, and labor racketeering through control of labor unions. In the mid-20th century, the Mafia was reputed to have infiltrated many labor unions in the United States, most notably the Teamsters and International Longshoremen’s Association. This allowed crime families to make inroads into very profitable legitimate businesses such as construction, demolition, waste management, trucking, and in the waterfront and garment industry. In addition they could raid the unions’ health and pension funds, extort businesses with threats of a workers’ strike and participate in bid rigging. In New York City, most construction projects could not be performed without the Five Families’ approval. In the port and loading dock industries, the Mafia bribed union members to tip them off to valuable items being brought in. Mobsters would then steal these products and fence the stolen merchandise.
Meyer Lansky made inroads into the casino industry in Cuba during the 1930s while the Mafia was already involved in exporting Cuban sugar and rum. When his friend Fulgencio Batista became president of Cuba in 1952, several Mafia bosses were able to make legitimate investments in legalized casinos. One estimate of the number of casinos mobsters owned was no less than 19. However, when Batista was overthrown following the Cuban Revolution, his successor Fidel Castro banned American investment in the country, putting an end to the Mafia’s presence in Cuba. Las Vegas was seen as an “open city” where any family can work. Once Nevada legalized gambling, mobsters were quick to take advantage and the casino industry became very popular in Las Vegas. Since the 1940s, Mafia families from New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Chicago had interests in Las Vegas casinos. They got loans from the Teamsters‘ pension fund, a union they effectively controlled, and used legitimate front men to build casinos. When money came into the counting room, hired men skimmed cash before it was recorded, then delivered it to their respective bosses.
This money went unrecorded, but the amount is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Operating in the shadows, the Mafia faced little opposition from law enforcement. Local law enforcement agencies did not have the resources or knowledge to effectively combat organized crime committed by a secret society they were unaware existed. Many people within police forces and courts were simply bribed, while witness intimidation was also common. In 1951, a U.S. Senate committee called the Kefauver Hearings determined that a “sinister criminal organization” known as the Mafia operated in the nation. Many suspected mobsters were subpoenaed for questioning, but few testified and none gave any meaningful information. In 1957, New York State Police uncovered a meeting and arrested major figures from around the country in Apalachin, New York. The event (dubbed the “Apalachin Meeting”) forced the FBI to recognize organized crime as a serious problem in the United States and changed the way law enforcement investigated it. In 1963, Joe Valachi became the first Mafia member to turn state’s evidence, and provided detailed information of the its inner workings and secrets. More importantly, he revealed Mafia’s existence to the law, which enabled the Federal Bureau of Investigations to begin an aggressive assault on the Mafia’s National Crime Syndicate.Following Valachi’s testimony, the Mafia could no longer operate completely in the shadows. The FBI put a lot more effort and resources into organized crime actives nation-wide and created the Organized Crime Strike Force in various cities. However, while all this created more pressure on the Mafia, it did little to curb their criminal activities. Success was made by the beginning of the 1980s, when the FBI was able to rid Las Vegas casinos of Mafia control and made a determined effort to loosen the Mafia’s stronghold on labor unions.
* RICO Act
When the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act) became federal law, it became a highly effective tool in prosecuting mobsters. It provides for extended criminal penalties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. Violation of the act is punishable by up to 20 years in prison per count. The RICO Act has proven to be a very powerful weapon, because it attacks the entire corrupt entity instead of individuals who can easily be replaced with other organized crime members.Between 1981 and 1992, 23 bosses from around the country were convicted under the law while between 1981 and 1988, 13 underbosses and 43 captains were convicted. While this significantly crippled many Mafia families around the country, the most powerful families continued to dominate crime in their territories, even if the new laws put more mobsters in jail and made it harder to operate. With Sammy Gravano agreeing to cooperate with the FBI and turn state’s evidence in 1991, he helped the FBI convict top Mafia leaders in New York. Although not the first Mafia member to testify against his peers, such a powerful mobster agreeing to do so set a precedent for waves of mobsters thereafter to break the code of silence to do the same; giving up information and testifying in exchange for immunity from prosecution for their crimes. Aside from avoiding long prison stretches, the FBI could put mobsters in the United States Federal Witness Protection Program, changing their identities and supporting them financially for life. This led to dozens of mobsters testifying and providing information during the 1990s, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of mobsters. As a result, the Mafia has seen a major decline in its power and influence in organized crime since the 1990s.
In the 21st century, the Mafia has continued to be involved in a broad spectrum of illegal activities. These include murder, extortion, corruption of public officials, gambling, infiltration of legitimate businesses, labor racketeering, loan sharking, tax fraud schemes and stock manipulation schemes. Another factor contributing to the Mafia’s downfall is the assimilation of Italian Americans, which left a shallower recruitment pool of new mobsters. Although the Mafia used to be nationwide, today most of its activities are confined to the Northeast and Chicago. While other criminal organizations such as Russian Mafia, Chinese Triad, Mexican drug cartels and others have all grabbed a share of criminal activities, the Mafia continues to be the dominant criminal organization in these regions, partly due to its strict hierarchical structure. Law enforcement is concerned with the possible resurgence of the Mafia as it regroups from the turmoil of the 1990s and the FBI and local law enforcement agencies focus more on homeland security and away from organized crime since the September 11 attacks.In 2002 the FBI estimated that the Mafia earns $50–$90 billion a year. To avoid FBI attention and prosecution, the modern Mafia also outsources a lot of its work to other criminal groups, such as motorcycle gangs.
The American Mafia operates on a strict hierarchical structure. While similar to its Sicilian origins, the American Mafia’s modern organizational structure was created by Salvatore Maranzano in 1931. All inducted members of the Mafia are called “made” men. This signifies that they are untouchable in the criminal underworld and any harm brought to them will be met with retaliation. With the exception of associates, all mobsters are “made” official members of a crime family. The three highest positions make up the administration. Below the administration, there are factions each headed by a caporegime (captain), who lead a crew of soldiers and associates. They report to the administration and can be seen as equivalent to managers in a business. When a boss makes a decision, he rarely issues orders directly to workers who would carry it out, but instead passed instructions down through the chain of command. This way, the higher levels of the organization are insulated from law enforcement attention if the lower level members who actually commit the crime should be captured or investigated. This provides what the intelligence community calls plausible deniability.
There are occasionally other positions in the family leadership. Frequently, ruling panels have been set up when a boss goes to jail to divide the responsibility of the family (these usually consist of three or five members). This also helps divert police attention from any one member. The family messenger and street boss were positions created by former Genovese family leader Vincent Gigante.
- Boss — The boss is the head of the family, usually reigning as a dictator, sometimes called the Don or “Godfather”. The boss receives a cut of every operation taken on by every member of his family. Depending on the family, the boss may be chosen by a vote from the caporegimes of the family. In the event of a tie, the underboss must vote. In the past, all the members of a family voted on the boss, but by the late 1950s, any gathering such as that usually attracted too much attention. In practice, many of these elections are seen as having an inevitable result, such as that of John Gotti in 1986. According to Sammy Gravano, a meeting was held in a basement during which all capos were searched and Gotti’s men stood ominously behind them. Gotti was then proclaimed boss.
- Underboss — The underboss, usually appointed by the boss, is the second in command of the family. The underboss often runs the day-to-day responsibilities of the family or oversees its most lucrative rackets. He usually gets a percentage of the family’s income from the boss’s cut. The underboss is usually first in line to become acting boss if the boss is imprisoned, and is also frequently seen as a logical successor.
- Consigliere — The consigliere is an advisor to the family and sometimes seen as the Boss’s “right-hand man”. He is used as a mediator of disputes, and a representative or aide in meetings with other families. In practice the consigliere is normally the third ranking member of the administration of a family and was traditionally a senior member familiar with how the organization is run. A boss will often appoint a trusted close associate as his consigliere.
- Caporegime (or capo) — A caporegime (also captain or skipper) is in charge of a crew, a group of soldiers who report directly to him. Each crew usually contains 10–20 soldiers and many more associates. A capo is appointed by the boss and reports to him or the underboss. A captain gives a percentage of his (and his underlings’) earnings to the boss and is also responsible for any tasks assigned, including murder. In labor racketeering, it is usually a capo who controls the infiltration of union locals. If a capo becomes powerful enough, he can sometimes wield more power than some of his superiors. In cases like Anthony Corallo they might even bypass the normal Mafia structure and lead the family when the boss dies.
- Soldier (Soldato in Italian) — A soldier is a member of the family, and traditionally can only be of full Italian background (although today many families require men to be of only half Italian descent, on their father’s side). Once a member is made he is untouchable, meaning permission from a soldier’s boss must be given before he is murdered. When the books are open, meaning that a family is accepting new members, a made man may recommend an up-and-coming associate to be a new soldier. Soldiers are the main workers of the family, usually committing crimes like assault, murder, extortion, intimidation, etc. In return, they are given profitable rackets to run by their superiors and have full access to their family’s connections and power.
The initiation ritual emerged from various sources, such as Roman Catholic confraternities and Masonic Lodges in mid-19th century Sicily and has hardly changed to this day. The Chief of Police of Palermo in 1875 reported that the man of honor to be initiated would be led into the presence of a group of bosses and underbosses. One of these men would prick the initiate’s arm or hand and tell him to smear the blood onto a sacred image, usually a saint. The oath of loyalty would be taken as the image was burned and scattered, thus symbolising the annihilation of traitors. This was confirmed by the first pentito, Tommaso Buscetta.
A hit, or assassination, of a “made” man had to be approved by the leadership of his family, or retaliatory hits would be made, possibly inciting a war. In a state of war, families would “go to the mattresses” — an Italian phrase which roughly meant to go into battle.
Mafia rules and customs
In order to be invited into the American Mafia and become a member one must perform a series of tasks, such as committing murder for the family and not for one’s own personal benefit. When the boss decides to let a member into the family one will be part of a ceremony, involving the drawing of blood, swearing an oath over a gun or holy picture, and obeying the rules of the organization. In New York City, the Mafia created customs and traditions which the members have to follow. If one breaks any of the rules they can be killed by another member of the family and usually the murder is committed by the people closest to that person.
- “Omertà” – is the oath or “code of silence”, never talk to the authorities.
- “Ethnicity” – only men of Italian descent are allowed to become full members. Associates, partners, allies etc. have no ethnic limits.
- “Family secrets” – members are not allowed to talk about family business to non-members.
- “Blood for blood” – if a family member is killed (by another member) no one can commit murder (in revenge) until the boss gives permission.
- “No fighting among members” – from fist fights to knife fights.
- “Tribute” – every month; members must pay the boss; also giving the boss a cut on any side deals.
- “Adultery” – members are not allowed to commit adultery with another family member’s wife.
- “No facial hair” – members were not allowed to grow mustaches; part of the Mustache Pete way.
Homosexuality is reportedly incompatible with the American Mafia code of conduct. In 1992, John D’Amato, acting boss of the DeCavalcante family, was killed when the family learned of his sexual relationships with other men.
Symbolism in murders
- In 1981, for allowing undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family caporegime Dominic Napolitano, also known as Sonny Black, had his hands severed after he was killed. This was because he had Pistone shake hands and introduced to others as a “friend of ours” or a made man when he was not.
- In the 1990 murder of Lucchese crime family soldier Bruno Facciolo, a dead canary was stuffed into his mouth after he was shot to death. He had also been stabbed and shot in both eyes.
- On April 18, 1980, Philadelphia Mafia consigliere Antonio Caponigro had Angelo Bruno killed without the The Commission’s approval. Caponigro and his brother-in-law Alfred Salerno were taken to an isolated house in upstate New York and tortured before being killed. Salerno had been shot three times behind the right ear and once behind the left ear. The autopsy showed that a rope had been tied around his neck, wrists, and ankles, and most of his neck and face bones shattered. Caponigro had been suffocated, beaten, repeatedly stabbed and shot, and was found in a garbage bag. Around $300 was stuffed up Caponigro’s rectum as a sign that he had become greedy.