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The origins of the term come from the Sicilian Mafia. In the Sicilian dialect, the word cosca, which literally translates into artichoke (a vegetable whose multiple layers surround and protect a vital core), is also used for clan. In the early days of the Mafia, loose groups of bandits organized themselves into associations that over time became more organized, and they adopted the term based on both of its meanings.
The term can be a point of confusion, especially in popular culture and Hollywood, because in the truest sense, crime families are not necessarily blood families who happen to be involved in criminal activity, and not necessarily based on blood relationships. In Sicily and America, most Mafia bosses are not related to their predecessors. Films like The Godfather underscore this confusion.
It can further be speculated that the Mafia was simply emulating, to a certain degree, a more medieval order in which a noble family would more or less serve as the power in a local village, in a sort of inverted hacienda culture.
Nevertheless, the term stuck, both in the minds of popular culture as well as the national law enforcement community, and eventually began to be used to describe individual units of not only Sicilian gangsters, but those whose origins lie in other parts of Italy (e.g., the aforementioned 'Ndrangheta, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita, etc.). Indeed, the "family" mystique is to such a great degree that in the late 1990s, after many Camorra leaders were imprisoned during a large-scale crackdown in Naples, many of their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and even mothers took temporary control of their gangs, in a widespread phenomenon of Camorra "godmothers".
Sometimes the term is used to describe distinct units of crime syndicates of other ethnic and national origin, such as the Irish Mob, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Tongs and Triads, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, Chechen mafia, Russian Mafia, the Thief in law and Eastern European families (it should be noted here that some of these entities, like the 'Ndrangheta, may also be organized along blood-family lines).
American Mafia crime families
There are many crime families that make up the American Mafia, ranging from giant powers with international influence like the Outfit and the Five Families of New York to small groups with only about 30–50 made members.
- Chicago is the home of the Chicago Outfit, the direct descendant of the Prohibition-era gang run by iconic crime boss Al Capone. The most powerful Mafia family outside of New York, the Outfit also controls rackets throughout much of the Midwest, and once controlled many of the most prominent casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada, although its power there (like the rest of the Mafia's) has waned in recent decades. Unlike other Mafia families, the Outfit has been noted as very ethnically diverse in its leadership, with such non-Italian individuals as Jake Guzik, Gus Alex, and Murray Humphreys rising to positions of authority within it.
The Chicago Outfit, too, has been the subject of numerous portrayals in pop culture, including the TV show The Untouchables, its Academy Award-winning film adaptation, and the films Casino, Scarface, and Road to Perdition.
- New York has five families. These families, together with several powerful members of Jewish-American organized crime, established the Commission in the 1930s, which decided on the rules for the entire American Mafia. This ruling board was established shortly after the end of the bloodiest war in the history of the New York Mafia, the Castellammarese War. One of its most famous founders was Lucky Luciano, who became the most powerful member of the Commission after arranging the murders of Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, the two belligerents in the Castellammarese War. Although the media often attempts to anoint one boss of one of the Five Families as capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") of the American Mafia, in reality the position does not really exist. The only individual believed to have ever been in a position to actually claim the title was Maranzano.
- The Five Families are:
Over the years, the New York Mafia has been the focus of many of the more prominent pop culture representations of the Mafia. Such films as Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy, Donnie Brasco, and Little Caesar have been set in New York.
- Buffalo is the home of the Buffalo crime family, also known as "The Arm", which has seen its fortunes wane considerably in recent years. Originally recognized when it was led by Stefano Magaddino, a cousin to Joseph Bonanno, the family has now been removed from the Commission and is no longer considered to hold undisputed status as master of the Upstate New York rackets.
- Florida is the home of the Trafficante crime family, a small family named for its two most notable former bosses, Santo Trafficante, Sr. and Santo Trafficante, Jr. Although once a major power in the national Mafia (especially in their operations in pre-Castro Cuba), the Trafficante family now operates on a much lesser level, mostly in extortion, numbers, loan sharking, and drug trafficking. It holds most of its influence in Tampa and Miami, the latter of which is now considered an "open territory" by the Mafia at large.
- New England is the domain of the Patriarca crime family, which is based in Boston and named after its longest-serving leader, Raymond L.S. Patriarca. Although once the undisputed master of organized crime in New England, the family was significantly diminished during the 1970s and 1980s by the defection of prominent associate Vincent Teresa, who became a government informant, and the rising power of the Irish Mob, particularly the Winter Hill Gang under the infamous James "Whitey" Bulger. Today, although smaller and somewhat less influential than in the past, the Patriarca family is still one of the most prominent American crime families.
- New Jersey has the smaller and less powerful DeCavalcante crime family, which mostly holds control over turf in North Jersey, such as Hudson County and Newark. Although not as powerful as other families, the DeCavalcante family is noted for inspiring the fictional crime family portrayed in the most popular pop culture portrayal of the mob in recent years, the HBO TV series The Sopranos.
- New Orleans is the home of the New Orleans crime family. Its most notable (and longest serving) leader was Carlos Marcello, who is perhaps most famous for his role in Operation Mongoose, the CIA plot to assassinate Castro, and his prominent placement in many Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. Since Marcello's death in 1993, the family has receded into the shadows, and its relative power, both in New Orleans and nationally, is a topic of debate.
- Philadelphia is the home base of the Philadelphia crime family, which also has interests in much of South Jersey, especially Atlantic City, Camden, and Trenton. Although long known as one of the least violent crime families, it was wracked by a bloody civil war after the 1980 assassination of longtime boss Angelo Bruno, allegedly killed for his attempts to keep the lucrative Atlantic City rackets from other families after the legalization of casino gambling there. Although Atlantic City mobster Nicodemo Scarfo would eventually win the war and become boss of the family, he was convicted under the RICO Act in 1989 and sentenced to 60 years in prison, leading to yet another civil war. After reputed boss Joseph Merlino was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2001, the family has reportedly been returning to its tradition of quieter, more low-key operations.
- There are Mafia crime families of varying degrees of prominence in numerous other North American cities, including the Cleveland crime family, the Detroit Partnership, and the Los Angeles crime family.
- Crime lord
- Drug lord
- Gun moll
- List of crime bosses
- List of criminal enterprises, gangs and syndicates
- Organized crime
- Diego Gambetta. The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. 1993
- The Everything Mafia Book: True-life Accounts of Legendary Figures, Infamous Crime Families, and Nefarious Deeds. Scott M. Dietche. Everything Books, 2009. Page 80
- Gambetta, Diego (2009). Codes of the Underworld. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11937-3