The Hijacking of the Italian Mafia

Home base for the Cosa Nostra (left) and Ndrangheta.
The Heart Mafia... the Nappa Valley Mafia... India's Sand Mafia... something called the Swedish House Mafia... and of course, the Israeli Mafia.

All those mafias were mentioned in articles brought to my attention via a single email from Google Alert, which is ever probing the content plastered all over the Web for several keywords of my choosing. This is one way I develop story ideas for this blog, which takes up a lot of my time, which, truthfully, could be more profitably spent on other endeavors.

The word "mafia" is getting a bit overused these days, and I first held this notion years ago, before I'd even heard of most of the above groups (the Heart mafia?). In fact, except for the Swedish House Mafia, I've never heard any of the above-mentioned coinages prior to today.

It seems like anytime you have one group dominating an industry or sector or area of expertise, you can label them the mafia (I use little "m" from now on, to differentiate these pretenders to the noun).

Traditionally, you can take nearly any ethnic name -- Mexican, Irish, Russian, Albanian, etc. -- and put the word mafia after it, and everyone will know you are referring to a criminal group in which all the members are of a single ethnicity (except, ironically enough, the American Mafia, in which to become a member, one only needs to be half-Italian on the paternal side; this was a necessary change to the mob's bylaws as the group's ranks are running thin as it is, even with the half-bloods in it, no? For those aspiring to a career in organized crime, if you don't have an Italian father, you can never rise higher than an associate, which is light years away from the power held by a soldier, the term for made members of the lowliest rank. There are some exceptions -- Joe "The German" Watts, for example -- but not many.)

The view is from Calabria; across the Messina Strait is Sicily, whose snow-
topped Etna Volcano can be glimpsed in the background.

Probably a couple of decades ago I recall reading articles about how Mike Ovitz, some Hollywood czar, was in trouble for labeling some people as the "gay mafia." I don't believe that was when the full-on corruption of the word began, but I'd say it was long enough ago to have been part of the early stages.

Can't they come up with another word? Journalists are part of the problem; in some instances, they create the group's name. But it also is the ethnic groups themselves, in an effort to capitalize on the word's bloody history. It is for this reason, I have to give a hand to the Albanians; at least they tried giving themselves an original cool-sounding name or two.

In the late 1980s, early 1990s, they were known as the "Rudaj Organization," after Alex Rudaj, the boss (although I am not certain if they referred to themselves as such, or whether it was an invention of the media and/or rival criminal groups, including the Mafia). The Albanians supposedly also referred to themselves as "The Corporation," which I don't think has ever been used by another crime group.

Even the Mafia developed regional nicknames for itself: Chicago's Outfit, the Detroit Partnership, Buffalo's The Arm, etc.

One thing you can bank on; Mafia members and associates never, ever refer to themselves as the Mafia. That word is taboo. Supposedly, according to Joe Valachi, the term used by members of the American Mafia to describe themselves is "Cosa Nostra." (Although the FBI calls it "La Cosa Nostra" or LCN, there is no "La" before it, nor should there be.)

The Mafia actually is an over-arching word that describes the three organized crime groups that began in Italy. The three Mafias are: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, members of which started to arrive on these shores in the late-19th century to pick up where they left off, forming an independent group; the Calabrian-based Ndrangheta; and the Neapolitan Camorra. (I find it interesting that my family line can be traced back to both Calabria and Naples!)

In terms of the history of the word Mafia, it is very murky and confusing. I will try my best to offer a few key points, but I am not an expert. I do find the history of the evolving definition of the word "Mafia" quite fascinating, however.

By the mid 19th century, the word "Mafia" was already in use as an adjective in the dialect of Palermo -- "mafioso" initially meant many things, all good: "beautiful," "bold," "self confident." It is believed to have taken on sinister connotations because of a play, a successful play written in the Sicilian dialect and titled: I mafiusi di la Vicaria ("The mafiosi of the Vicaria Prison."). It was first performed in 1863. The mafioso in the play are a gang of prison inmates in Vicaria Prison, which really existed. The gang had an initiation ritual, a boss, and there is much talk about respect and honor. But it is also a fictional work that shows the redemption of criminals. The author of the play is unknown, but he probably would've done well in today's Hollywood. He knew audiences want to feel uplifted, so with this literary invention was created the myth of the good Mafia, the protector of the weak, etc.

It is believed the play was also based on inside information; in other words, a member blabbed to an outsider, who then wrote a play that became famous.

The problem is that the Mafia never wants to be famous. This first "rat" seemed to betray an organization that was already in existence. In other words, by 1863, the year of the play, the Mafia (a secret society of criminals who went through an induction process) was alive and well.

The play introduced the use of the word Mafia as a reference to certain criminals of Sicily; it went from the stage to the street. And the Sicilian people seemed to notice a resemblance between the characters on the stage and the characters walking their streets. In fact, it is alleged that the mob boss in the play was based on a living mob boss of the time.

That was in the 1860s. Over a period of time, however, the word began to mean other things; a variety of things and not one of them related to organized crime. Somehow, someway, the word's definition evolved, probably based on the efforts of the Mafiosi themselves.

For example, "Mafia" was long believed to be the word that described those stricken by the so-called poverty of the Mezzogiorno, the name given to Italy's Southern region, encompassing Calabria (where the Ndrangheta was born), as well as Sicily, just off the Calabrian coast, and the island of Sardinia. In other words, a people who were stricken by poverty. In the case of Sicily, there was another ingredient, added by historical imperative.

From the 19th century up until probably a couple of decades ago, Sicilians took great heart-swelling pride in being called "Mafioso" because for them, the word stood for a proud people who had survived a historical past characterized by repeated conquest. (Sicily has been of strategic importance in all wars ever fought in that region, probably from before antiquity all the way through World War II). This common heritage of being ruled by various foreign invaders had fostered a singular spirit among Sicilians, who became tough, distrustful of all authority, including law enforcement, etc.

It is believed the Sicilian Cosa Nostra actually got its start when its eventual members began to dominate a certain profession: They were something like the enforcers of the land-owning aristocracy, the affluent who lived in luxurious villas around which the very air was perfumed by large lemon groves -- Sicily's first prized export, in the 1700s -- and other citrus fruits.

I won't go any farther; I am stepping onto the equivalent of a historical minefield here. It is a very confusing story and not for me to explain. Rather, those interested should obtain a copy of "Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia" by John Dickie, one of the best "mob books" I have ever read. Dickie has also written "Blood Brothers: The Rise of the Italian Mafias," which is about the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and its mainland rivals, the Ndrangheta and Camorra.


  1. Let's not forget 'Mafia Republic' By Dickie which I believe is the best of his books on the mafia. It deals with the oldest 3 of the 4 major mafia's in Italy from 1946 to the present day. If you haven't read it you should.

  2. Don't believe it hit the U.S. yet. It's not available on Kindle, is priced pretty high, and has not a single review yet. I do plan on purchasing it, however, thanks for the input...

    1. It has been available in the US since May 2013. $30 bucks for the hard cover.

    2. Are you Mr. Dickie? Just kidding! Couldn't resist. ;-)
      I'm ordering it....

    3. It would be way cooler if I were but I'm not. I brought it up because it's the best of the 3 books he has written on the subject.

      Have you read Critchley's 'origin of OC' yet? If not buy the soft cover it's 30 bucks as opposed to 100+ for hardcover.

    4. I have Critchley's book -- and I paid the $100 for it! I want to start reading all three over again: Blood Brothers and Cosa Nostra, then OC. But first, I need to finish the three other books I am reading, all of which I also highly recommend: Mafia Summit: J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy Brothers, and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob by Gil Reavill; Mob Boss by Jerry Capeci; and Havana Nocturne by TJ English.

  3. You did not include the Cuban Mafia and they were the first to be called the Corporation before the Albanians. The Cubans were running numbers in NYC/NJ in the 60's into the 90's and in partnership with the Bonanno and Genovese Family

  4. I didn't include probably a hundred other... I just used a few examples...


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