The Sicilian Mafia

Origin and Meaning of the Cosa Nostra

For travellers outside of Italy, the Mafia is one of the most common associations with Sicily. Said criminal organization, which is regarded as a model for many other criminal organizations, achieved, thanks to many films, almost a cult status outside of Italy - for many Sicilians, however, it is still a sad reality. The Mafia developed in the early 19th Century in the interior of the island of Sicily and after a meteoric rise since the 1950s, it has been contained only slightly in recent years.

Cosa Nostra - the Sicilian Mafia

The Mafia is certainly one of the most common associations with Sicily outside of Italy. Thanks to numerous films - especially about the American Mafia in the 1930s and 1940s, which remains inextricably linked to Sicily – it reached almost cult status. The Godfather and Al Capone send their regards. For the Sicilians in contrast, the Mafia and all the associated problems are the harsh reality, of which an outsider is not aware today.

The term Mafia or Cosa Nostra referred originally to only the Sicilian criminal organisation. Today, however, the Mafia is associated with the concept of other mafia-like organisations such as the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta', the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita or outside Italy, the Russian mafia, the Albanian Mafia or the Chinese Triads.

Origin and history of the Mafia

The origin of the Mafia dates back to the 19th Century, when the Sicilian gentry moved to the cities and the gap was filled by land tenants, the later "bosses", who were given extensive rights. Under the pretext of protecting the farmers and peasants from the nobility and feudal misrule, they exacted payments from the farmers’ leases and forced them to take a vow of silence. Since 1865 it is officially considered a criminal organisation. Gradually, the sphere of influence of the Mafia extended to the cities, and only during fascism under Mussolini was it effectively controlled and almost destroyed.

During the Second World War, however, it was the Americans who breathed new life into the Mafia and allowed for its new rise. The jailed Mafia boss in America, Luciano, and other members cooperated with the U.S. authorities and established contacts with the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, who were to prepare the Allied landings in Sicily. As a token of gratitude, the criminals were not only released, but they also got influential posts in the Sicilian war government - a system of organised crime, corruption and politics had emerged, that has marked Sicily up to the present day.

Fight against the Mafia

Politics and organised crime went hand in hand for a long time from now on and swept over the whole of Italy. Lucrative sectors such as construction, waste disposal and, of course, drugs and arms were firmly in the hands of the bosses and most politicians - if not themselves members - remained silent or collaborated. The turning point came in the 1990s. The murder of two Mafia investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino, and the slow discovery of the extent of corruption finally stirred opposition in the Italian population. The result was the end of the 1st Republic and increased efforts in the fight against organised crime.

Now the investigators were able to catch some of the key bosses of the Mafia: Toto Riina in 1993, Giovanni Brusca in 1996, Bernardo Provenzano in 2006 and Salvatore Lo Piccolo in 2007. Mafia property was seized and resistance was organised in the population and businesses. "Addio Pizzo" (Goodbye Protection Money) is a growing movement which includes daring entrepreneurs, traders and consumers, and is a direct challenge to the Mafia. However, the Mafia is still far from being defeated – its structure is too complex and corruption still runs deep - but the steady progress gives the population hope.

Tourists need not fear the Mafia and their activities in any way. The mass tourism and the millions in profits that can be earned are too important for them as a result. In any case, watch out for petty crime such as burglary and car theft, which has nothing to do with the Mafia.

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