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, prostitution, and fraud.
The term "Mafia" 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, Stidda, etc.).
The word mafia derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means 'swagger', but can also be translated as 'boldness' or 'bravado'. In reference to a man, mafiusu (mafioso in Italian) 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, primarily from the south of the country, first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage, which was 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 Sicily arrived, they were met with prejudice and discrimination. This is when the Sicilian word 'mafiusu' began to change from a positive connotation in Sicily to the negative and shortened 'mafia' in the US.
As migrant laborers from Sicily 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 'padrone' or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Sicily 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 Sicily and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or padroni who were 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 before.
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
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.
In his analysis of the Sicilian Mafia, Gambetta provided the following hypothetical scenario to illustrate the Mafia's function in the Sicilian economy. Suppose a grocer wants to buy meat from a butcher without paying sales tax to the government. Because this is a black market deal, neither party can complain to the police if either of them cheats. The grocer is afraid that the butcher will sell him rotten meat. The butcher is afraid that the grocer will not pay him. If the butcher and the grocer can't get over their mistrust and refuse to trade, they would both miss out on an opportunity for profit. Their solution is to ask the local mafioso to oversee the transaction, in exchange for a fee proportional to the value of the transaction but below the legal tax. If the butcher cheats the grocer by selling rotten meat, the mafioso will punish the butcher. If the grocer cheats the butcher by not paying on time and in full, the mafioso will punish the grocer. Punishment might take the form of a violent assault or vandalism against property. The grocer and the butcher both fear the mafioso, so each honors their side of the bargain. All three parties profit.
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:
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).
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.