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August 1999

Exactly What Is The Mafia?

Question to Porrello:
          Exactly what is the Mafia? The Mafia, more specifically the Italian-American Mafia, is a group of criminals organized into "families," and operating primarily in North America. Also known as La Cosa Nostra, at one time there were 26 families in the United States - roughly one for each major city. The Mafia "commission," composed of bosses of numerous families, mostly New York, was the overseeing authority for all of the other La Cosa Nostra families.

          The Mafia has its roots in Sicily, where the larger and more powerful Sicilian Mafia operates from.

          ...and with Prohibition came the birth and growth spurt of nationally organized crime. Newly-conceived Mafia families jockeying for power were waging battles that killed scores, frightened citizens, and gave birth to screaming headlines and grand funeral processions never before experienced in the New World. But it all began years ago and miles away.

     Sicily is an unforgiving land, with a harsh climate and soil that reluctantly yields up its bounty. A long history of foreign invasion was no doubt influenced by Sicily being the largest island in the Mediterranean. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, French, Spanish and Austrians conquered the island. Sicilian peasants were little more than slave labor to their foreign overlords. Thus the Mafia was born, a secret society that provided the poor, oppressed Sicilians with protection, stability and pride. The Mafia "vendetta" was the Sicilian form of justice. The victimized were quiet and patient. Vengeance was saved for a future time....

     Consequently the Mafia golden rule of "omerta" (translated as honor) was born. Because of the inherent instability of being conquered by so many different peoples, the Sicilians came to distrust all forms of government. It became an unwritten rule to leave the government out of private affairs. Crimes were considered to be personal with justice served by the vendetta.

     The code of omerta, if put into words might say: "Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward. Whoever cannot take care of himself without police protection is both. It is cowardly to betray an offender to justice, even though his offenses be against yourself, as it is not to avenge an injury by violence. It is dastardly and contemptible in a wounded man to betray the name of his assailant, because if he recovers, he must naturally expect to take vengeance himself. A wounded man shall say to his assailant: If I live, I will kill you - If I die you are forgiven."


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