Mafia (mäˈfēä) [key], name given to a number of organized groups of Sicilian brigands in the 19th and 20th cent. Unlike the Camorra in Naples, the Mafia had no hierarchic organization; each group operated on its own. The Mafia originated in feudal times, when lords hired brigands to guard their estates in exchange for protection from the royal authority. The underlying assumption of the Mafia was that legal authorities were useless and that justice must be obtained directly, as in the vendetta. Italian attempts to curtail the Mafia have suffered from political corruption and the assassination of judges.
Through emigration the organization spread to the United States (where it was sometimes called the Black Hand). In the United States, it became involved in many illegal operations—trade in narcotics, gambling, prostitution, labor union racketeering—and certain legal enterprises, such as trucking and construction. In Nov., 1957, more than 60 of its alleged leaders were surprised at a secret meeting at Apalachin, N.Y. About one third of them were convicted of obstructing justice, but the convictions were reversed on appeal. In recent years, the Mafia has been linked with money-laundering and police corruption and has also been hampered by defections. It slowed its activities in extortion and racketeering in the last decades of the 20th cent., but also has expanded into such white-collar criminal enterprises as fraud in health insurance and sales of prepaid telephone cards and illegal stock market deals and into legitimate businesses such as hotel chains and restaurants.
See also organized crime.
See M. Pantaleone, The Mafia and Politics (tr. 1966); D. Cressey, Theft of the Nation (1969); P. Maas, The Valachi Papers (1969); J. Albini, The American Mafia (1971); N. Gage, Mafia U.S.A. (1972); F. Ianni, A Family Business (1972); J. Fentress, Rebels and Mafiosi: Death in a Sicilian Landscape (2000); T. Reppetto, The American Mafia (2003); J. Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (2004); S. Raab, Five Families (2005); S. E. Scorza, comp., Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime (2007); P. Reski, The Honored Society: A Portrait of Italy's Most Powerful Mafia (2013).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.