The Mafia is a name given to a group of people who were indulged in organized crimes in the Southern Italian island of Sicily. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and a major port of Italy. The word Mafia is from Arabic language meaning ‘refuge’. The Sicilians adopted the term back in the 9th century when the island was occupied by the Arabs. The natives were oppressed the foreigner rulers and were forced to do labor on their estates. The same scene prevailed in the case of other invaders that followed Arabs. A number of local inhabitants thus sought refuge in the nearby hills. There they formed a society of their own aimed to unite the local inhabitants against their foreigner rulers.
The proper form of Mafia however, emerged in Sicily in the 15th century. It was group of armed persons that were patronized and supported by the local land owners to protect their interests in the area. The group however, expanded with the passage of time and many local groups were organized at local levels. These groups mainly operated in the rural areas and were indulged in all kinds of anti government activities including gambling, prostitution, liquor trade, kidnapping for ransom, murders etc. Some believe that Mafia was formed with a concept to help out the poor and needy. The group operated mostly in the rural areas where there was less access of the state authorities. Members of a certain Mafia regarded as family to each other. They used illegal methods and physical force to achieve their goals. The members were bound by Omerta, a rigid code of conduct that required avoiding all contact and cooperation with the authorities. The members are commonly known as “Mafioso”.
The Mafia is a secret organization and all members are required to keep the secrets. The initial administrative structure of Mafia included the Dons or Chiefs as top level management. Theses chiefs headed local level Mafia in every village or town. These Chiefs were accountable to the Don of the Dons who resided in the capital, Palermo. The members of Mafia are required to take oath before a membership could be granted. The oath Omerta is a code of silence that requires a member not to reveal the secrets of the organization or its members even in case of extreme threat of torture or death. Moreover, it requires a total obedience to the boss, avoid any contacts with the government authorities and help and defend the member of Mafia. A member is bound throughout his life to obey the oath and in case of violation of rules a member is subject to penalties or death.
Initially Mafia was a small organization operating at local level. By the 19th century it expanded enormously to become a large scale global association. Currently, Mafia is a “a loose alliance of many small local groups, each bound by kinship (or a kinship relationship that is assumed when a man becomes a member) and by the Mafia code of omerta, which requires absolute silence about Mafia activities and absolute obedience to the hierarchical Mafia authority.”
The main target of Mafia is the government and officials of different countries where it operates. The Mafia often acts like a parallel government and works under its own set of laws and regulations. The members of Mafia often terrorize the local wealthy elite to gain money and other benefits. The practice that started in the 1700s is characterized by handing over of Black Hand notes that are given to the rich citizens as a refined and respectful way to get money in return for their safety. In case the gesture is refused, it is followed by severe threats and acts of harassment, kidnapping, bombing and even murder.
The members of Mafia sometimes occupy government offices also usually by terrorizing and forcing the citizens to vote for them. The members of Mafia are well connected and are able to reshuffle the political set up of an area. This practice was started by Mafia Don Raffaele Palizzolo in 1876 when he decided to run for political office. “He succeeded by having voters vote under gunpoint and, once in office, arranged for his colleague, Don Crispi, to be elected as Prime Minister of Sicily.” At that time Emanuel Notarbartolo, director of the Bank of Sicily, vowed to oust the Mafia from the country. “. . . he was assassinated in 1893, his position was taken over by Don Palizzolo himself. When Notarbartolo's son vowed to bring his father's killers to justice he managed to get Palizzolo indicted, but the latter's control of the government stretched so far that he was released. Witnesses had been unwilling to cooperate and even police documents had not been available to the court for review.”
In the 18th century the Mafia reached the United States and started its activities on the American soils. Many local Mafias were established in various states. in the early 20th century, each American city had its own Mafia chapter. In “the late 19th century, the Mafia began to operate in several large U.S. cities. Two of the strongest mafia gangs in New York where controlled by Joe “The Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. They were known as the “Mustache Petes”.
The present day Mafia is not confined to Italy alone but is an international organization of criminals that operates in a large number of countries around the world including the United States, Russia and Japan. By oath however, all these local Mafias are united.