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This article is about criminal organizations commonly referred to as "mafias". For the criminal society in Sicily to which the name "Mafia" was first ascribed, see Sicilian Mafia. For the Italian American criminal organization often referred to as simply "the Mafia", see American Mafia. For other uses, see Mafia (disambiguation).

A mafia is a type of organized crime syndicate whose primary activities are protection racketeering, the arbitration of disputes in criminal markets, and the organizing and oversight of illegal agreements.[1] Secondary activities may be practiced such as drug-trafficking, loan sharking and fraud.

The term was originally applied to the Sicilian Mafia, but has since expanded to encompass other organizations of similar methods and purpose, e.g. "the Russian Mafia", "the Japanese Mafia", or "the Albanian Mafia". The term is applied informally by the press and public; the criminal organizations themselves have their own terms (e.g. the Sicilian and American Mafia call themselves "Cosa Nostra", the Mexican Mafia calls itself La Eme and the "Japanese Mafia" calls itself yakuza).

When used alone and without any qualifier, "Mafia" typically refers to either the Sicilian Mafia or the Italian-American Mafia.


The Italian term "Mafia" (sometimes spelled "Maffia" in early texts) was created in Sicily, but there are several theories about its origin. That area of Southern Italy, in fact, was an Islamic emirate (the Emirate of Sicily) between 827 and 1091. Therefore, the Sicilian adjective mafiusu (in Italian: mafioso) may derive from the slang Arabic term mahyas (مهياص), meaning "aggressive boasting, bragging", or marfud (مرفوض) meaning "rejected". In reference to a man, mafiusu in 19th century Sicily was ambiguous, signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud, according to scholar Diego Gambetta.[2] In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective "mafiusa" means beautiful and attractive.

Other possible origins from Arabic:

  • maha = quarry, cave;[3] especially the mafie caves in the region of Marsala, which acted as hiding places for persecuted Muslims and later served other types of refugees.[4]
  • mu'afa = safety, protection[3]
  • Ma àfir = the name of an Arab tribe[5] that ruled Palermo.[6] The local peasants imitated these Arabs and as a result the tribes name entered the popular lexicon. The word mafia was used to refer to the defenders of Palermo during the Sicilian Vespers.[7]

The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was perhaps inspired by the 1863 play "I mafiusi di la Vicaria" ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaetano Mosca. The words Mafia and mafiusi are never mentioned in the play; they were probably put in the title to add a local flair. The play is about a Palermo prison gang with traits similar to the Mafia: a boss, an initiation ritual, and talk of "umirtà" (omertà or code of silence) and "pizzu" (a codeword for extortion money).[8] The play had great success throughout Italy. Soon after, the use of the term "mafia" began appearing in the Italian state's early reports on the phenomenon. The word made its first official appearance in 1865 in a report by the prefect of Palermo, Filippo Antonio Gualterio.[9]

According to legend, the word Mafia was first used in the Sicilian revolt – the Sicilian Vespers – against rule of the Capetian House of Anjou on 30 March 1282. In this legend, Mafia is the acronym for "Morte Alla Francia, Italia Avanti" (Italian for "Death to France, Italy Forward!"), or "Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela" (Italian for "Death to France, Italy Begs!").[10] However, this version is now discarded by most serious historians.[2]


A formal definition of "mafia" can be hard to come by. The term was never officially used by Sicilian mafiosi, who prefer to refer to their organization as "Cosa Nostra". Nevertheless, it is typically by comparison to the Sicilian Mafia that other criminal groups earn the label. The expansion of the term has not been welcomed by all scholars. Giovanni Falcone, an anti-Mafia judge murdered by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992, objected to the conflation of the term "Mafia" with organized crime in general:

While there was a time when people were reluctant to pronounce the word "Mafia" ... nowadays people have gone so far in the opposite direction that it has become an overused term ... I am no longer willing to accept the habit of speaking of the Mafia in descriptive and all-inclusive terms that make it possible to stack up phenomena that are indeed related to the field of organized crime but that have little or nothing in common with the Mafia.[11]

Mafias as private protection firms[edit]

Scholars such as Diego Gambetta[12] and Leopoldo Franchetti have characterized the Sicilian Mafia as a "cartel of private protection firms", whose primary business is protection racketeering: they use their fearsome reputation for violence to deter people from swindling, robbing, or competing with those who pay them for protection. For many businessmen in Sicily, they provide an essential service when they cannot rely on the police and judiciary to enforce their contracts and protect their properties from thieves (this is often because they are engaged in black market deals). Scholars have observed that many other societies around the world have criminal organizations of their own that provide essentially the same protection service through similar methods.

For instance, in Russia after the collapse of Communism, the state security system had all but collapsed, forcing businessmen to hire criminal gangs to enforce their contracts and protect their properties from thieves. These gangs are popularly called "the Russian Mafia" by foreigners, but they prefer to go by the term "krysha".

With the [Russian] state in collapse and the security forces overwhelmed and unable to police contract law, cooperating with the criminal culture was the only option [...] most businessmen had to find themselves a reliable krysha under the leadership of an effective vor.

—excerpt from McMafia by Misha Glenny.[13]

Mafia-type organizations under Italian law[edit]

In Italy, the term associazione di tipo Mafioso ("Mafia-type organisation") is used to clearly distinguish the uniquely Sicilian Mafia from other criminal organisations that are structured like the Sicilian Mafia, such as the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta and the Sacra Corona Unita.[14] Article 416-bis of the Italian Penal Code, under which all criminal organisations are prosecuted, defines an association as being of Mafia-type nature "when those belonging to the association exploit the potential for intimidation which their membership gives them, and the compliance and omertà which membership entails and which lead to the committing of crimes, the direct or indirect assumption of management or control of financial activities, concessions, permissions, enterprises and public services for the purpose of deriving profit or wrongful advantages for themselves or others."[15][16]


Mafia-proper can refer to either:


Other Italian criminal organizations include:

Other countries[edit]


  1. ^ Gambetta. Codes of the Underworld"
  2. ^ a b This etymology is based on the books Mafioso by Gaia Servadio; The Sicilian Mafia by Diego Gambetta; and Cosa Nostra by John Dickie (see Books below).
  3. ^ a b Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia. pp. 259-261.
  4. ^ Henner Hess (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. NYU Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 9781863331432. 
  5. ^ John Follain (8 Jun 2009). The Last Godfathers. Hachette UK. ISBN 9781848942493. Even the origin of the word 'mafia' remains obscure. Some believe its roots lie in the Arab domination of Sicily from 827 to 1061 and the Arabic word mahias (daring) or Ma àfir (the name of a Saracen tribe). 
  6. ^ Henner Hess (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. NYU Press. p. 1. ISBN 9781863331432. 
  7. ^ Richard Lindberg (1 Aug 1998). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal, 1855-1960 (illustrated ed.). SIU Press. p. 161. ISBN 9780809322237. The word "Mafia" is a derivative of the Arabic maafir, the name of a tribe of Arabs who settled in Palermo, Sicily before the Middle Ages. The Sicilian peasants adopted the customs of the nomadic tribe, integrating the name into everyday language. When the French were massacred in Palermo on Easter Sunday, 1282, the townsmen described their brave defenders as the "Mafia." In 1417 this secret band of guerrillas absorbed another society of local origin, the Camorra. 
  8. ^ Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, p. 136.
  9. ^ Lupo, The History of the Mafia, p. 3.
  10. ^ Hess, Mafia & Mafiosi, pp. 2-3.
  11. ^ Lupo, History of the Mafia, pp. 1–2
  12. ^ Diego Gambetta (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection
  13. ^ Glenny, Misha (2008). McMafia: A Journal Through the Global Criminal Underworld. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-4000-4411-5. 
  14. ^ Mafia and Mafia-type organizations in Italy, by Umberto Santino, in: Albanese, Das & Verma, Organized Crime. World Perspectives, pp. 82-100
  15. ^ Seindal, Mafia: money and politics in Sicily, p. 20
  16. ^ Art. 416-bis, codice penale - Associazione di tipo mafioso
  17. ^
  18. ^ Wang, Peng (2013). "The rise of the Red Mafia in China: a case study of organised crime and corruption in Chongqing". Trends in Organized Crime 16 (1): 49–73. doi:10.1007/s12117-012-9179-8.