A mafia is a type of organized crime syndicate whose primary activities are protection racketeering, the arbitration of disputes between criminals, and the organizing and oversight of illegal agreements and transactions. Mafias often engage in secondary activities such as gambling, loan sharking, drug-trafficking, and fraud.
The term was originally applied to the Sicilian Mafia and originates in Sicily, but it has since expanded to encompass other organizations of similar methods and purpose, e.g., "the Russian Mafia" or "the Japanese Mafia". The term is applied informally by the press and public; the criminal organizations themselves have their own terms (e.g. the Sicilian Mafia and Italian-American Mafia refer to their organizations as "Cosa Nostra"; the "Japanese Mafia" calls itself "yakuza"; and "Russian Mafia" groups often call themselves "Bratva").
When used alone and without any qualifier, "Mafia" or "the Mafia" typically refers to either the Sicilian Mafia or the Italian-American Mafia, and sometimes Italian organized crime in general (e.g. Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, etc.).
The word mafia (Italian pronunciation: [ˈmaːfja]) derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, roughly translated, means 'swagger', but can also be translated as 'boldness' or bravado'. In reference to a man, mafiusu in 19th century Sicily, signified fearless, enterprising, and proud, according to scholar Diego Gambetta. In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means 'beautiful' or 'attractive'.
Large groups of Italian migrant workers first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage. A result of the US Civil War, the end of slave labor, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. As the migrant laborers from Italy arrived they were met with prejudice and discrimination. This is where the Italian word 'mafiusu' began to change from a positive connotation in Italy to the negative and shortened one 'mafia' in the US.
As migrant laborers from Italy arrived for work they created their own labor system called the 'padrone' system based on the 'boss' systems which already existed during this period. The word padrone is an Italian word that means boss when translated to English. A 'padroni' or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Italy who were unable to speak the language. He was in charge of the labor group including where they would work, the length of their employment, how much they were paid, and living quarters.
Labor laws were non existent during this period and the padrone system like the boss systems were not immune to corruption. Many times workers were exploited, never paid, or even given the work they were promised. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century the migrant laborers from Italy and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or a padroni who was mafiosi became known as the American counterpart 'mafia boss', labor contracts became known as mafia contracts, further glorified in American film and television as time went on. The mafia concept would soon be accepted in Italy even though it had never been recognized there.
- màha = quarry, cave; especially the mafie, the caves in the region of Marsala, which acted as hiding places for persecuted Muslims and later served other types of refugees, in particular Giuseppe Garibaldi's Red shirts after their embarkment on Sicily in 1860 in the struggle for Italian unification.
- mahyas (مهياص) = aggressive boasting, bragging
- marfud (مرفوض) = rejected, considered to be the most plausible derivation; marfud developed into marpiuni (swindler) to marpiusu and finally mafiusu.
- mu'afa (معافى) = safety, protection
- Ma àfir = the name of an Arab tribe that ruled Palermo. The local peasants imitated these Arabs and as a result the tribes name entered the popular lexicon. The word mafia was then used to refer to the defenders of Palermo during the Sicilian Vespers against rule of the Capetian House of Anjou on 30 March 1282.
The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was probably inspired by the 1863 play "I mafiusi di la Vicaria" ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare 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). 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.
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.— Giovanni Falcone, 1990
Mafias as private protection firms
When there is a lack of order to enforce bargaining, the mafia can step in and regulate the trades. Although the mafia will tax the citizens of a state, a permanent control over the state will lead to lower taxes and more infrastructure than a temporary stay by the mafia in the state. The political scientist James Fearon analyzes bargain breakdowns as a result of asymmetric information and/or commitment problems.
Asymmetric information causes bargains to break down because each side knows information that the other side seeks but does not have, like willingness to go to war, strength of army, or quality of product. The outcome is always inefficient when there is missing information from either side rather than symmetric information because asymmetric information is used to make one side better off and one side worse off. For example, a farmer selling a sick cow may not reveal the cow is sick when selling the cow. Another farmer will buy the sick cow under the belief that it is healthy. The seller is better off here and the buyer is worse off because they paid as much for a sick cow as they would for a healthy cow. If the mafia is present, it can act as a threat to each side for not revealing important information in bargaining. For example, the buying farmer could go to the mafia and request violence to be used to enforce a buy-back or some type of refund.
Commitment problems lead bargains to break down because lack of enforcement of bargains leads individuals to choose their best option without taking into account the negative externality this choice has on the other person. Since both parties are not held accountable to holding the bargain by a governing enforcer, there is no incentive to not break the bargain. For example, two neighboring tribes can agree to not attack each other, but one will still attack at a later time because they believe the other tribe won't be ready. The mafia can enforce contracts through use/threat of violence. According to Fearon's puzzle, non-violence is always the favorable efficient outcome so both parties in a bargain will stay committed because it is more beneficial than an act of violence.
Scholars such as Diego Gambetta 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.
Mafia-type organizations under Italian law
Article 416-bis of the Italian Penal Code defines a Mafia-type association (associazione di tipo Mafioso) as one where "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."
Mafia-proper can refer to either:
Other Italian criminal organizations include:
- Banda della Magliana, in Lazio
- Camorra, in Campania
- Mala del Brenta, in Veneto
- 'Ndrangheta, in Calabria
- Sacra Corona Unita, in Apulia
- Stidda and Cosa Nostra in Sicily
- Gambetta 2009: "The mafia's principal activities are settling disputes among other criminals, protecting them against each other's cheating, and organizing and overseeing illicit agreements, often involving many agents, such as illicit cartel agreements in otherwise legal industries. Mafia-like groups offer a solution of sorts to the trust problem by playing the role of a government for the underworld and supplying protection to people involved in illegal markets or deals. They may play that role poorly, sometimes veering toward extortion rather than genuine protection, but they do play it."
- This etymology is based on the books Che cosa è la mafia? by Gaetano Mosca, Mafioso by Gaia Servadio, The Sicilian Mafia by Diego Gambetta, Mafia & Mafiosi by Henner Hess, and Cosa Nostra by John Dickie (see Books below).
- According to Giuseppe Guido Lo Schiavo (it), "cave" in Arabic literary writing is Maqtaa hagiar, while in popular Arabic it is pronounced as Mahias hagiar and then "from Maqtaa (Mahias) = mafia, that is cave, hence the name (ma)qotai, quarrymen, stone-cutters, that is, mafia." (Loschiavo 1962: 27-30). See: Fabrizio Fioretti (2011), Il termine "mafia", Sveučilište Jurja Dobrile u Puli.
- Mosca, Che cosa è la mafia?, p. 51
- Hess, Mafia & Mafiosi, pp. 1-3
- Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, pp. 259-261.
- Coluccello, Challenging the Mafia Mystique, p.3
- Lupo, History of the Mafia, p. 282 quoting Lo Monaco (1990), Lingua nostra.
- Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, p. 136.
- Lupo, The History of the Mafia Archived 2013-01-06 at the Wayback Machine., p. 3.
- Lupo, History of the Mafia, pp. 1–2
- Fearon, James D. (1995). "Rationalist Explanations for War". International Organization. 49 (3): 379–414.
- Diego Gambetta (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection
- Glenny 2008
- Seindal, Mafia: money and politics in Sicily, p. 20
- Art. 416-bis, codice penale - Associazione di tipo mafioso
- Albanese, Jay S., Das, Dilip K. & Verma, Arvind (2003). Organized Crime: World Perspectives. Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780130481993
- Coluccello, Rino (2016). Challenging the Mafia Mystique: Cosa Nostra from Legitimisation to Denunciation, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-349-55552-9
- Dickie, John (2007). Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. Hodder. ISBN 978-0-340-93526-2.
- Gambetta, Diego (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-674-80742-1.
- Gambetta, Diego (2009). Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691119373.
- Glenny, Misha (2008). McMafia. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1400095124.
- Hess, Henner (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. London: Hurst & Co Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-500-6
- (in Italian) Lo Schiavo, Giuseppe Guido (1964), Cento anni di mafia, Rome: Vito Bianco Editore
- Lupo, Salvatore (2009), The History of the Mafia, New York: Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0-231-13134-6
- (in Italian) Mosca, Gaetano (1901/2015). Che cosa è la mafia?, Messina: Il Grano, ISBN 978-88-99045-11-1 (See Full text in Italian and the English translation for a background on the publication)
- Mosca, Gaetano (1901/2014). "What is Mafia", M&J, 2014. Translation of the book "Che cosa è la Mafia", Giornale degli Economisti, July 1901, pp. 236–62. ISBN 979-11-85666-00-6
- Paoli, Letizia (2003). Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515724-9
- Seindal, René (1998). Mafia: Money and Politics in Sicily, 1950-1997. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 87-7289-455-5
- Servadio, Gaia (1976). Mafioso: a history of the Mafia from its origins to the present day. London: Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0-436-44700-2
- Wang, Peng (2017). The Chinese Mafia: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Extra-Legal Protection. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198758402