Secret society reputed to control organized crime such as gambling, loansharking, drug traffic, prostitution, and protection; connected with the Camorra of Naples. It originated in Sicily in the late Middle Ages and now operates chiefly there and in countries to which Italians have emigrated, such as the USA and Australia. During the early 1990s many centre and right-wing Italian politicians, such as the former Christian Democrat prime minister Giulio Andreotti, became discredited when it emerged that they had had dealings with the Mafia.
It began as a society that avenged wrongs against Sicilian peasants by means of terror and vendetta. In 19th-century Sicily the Mafia was employed by absentee landlords to manage their latifundia (landed estates), and through intimidation it soon became the unofficial ruling group. Despite the expropriation and division of the latifundia after World War II, the Mafia remains powerful in Sicily. The Italian government has waged periodic campaigns of suppression, notably 1927, when the Fascist leader Mussolini appointed Cesare Mori as prefect of Palermo. Mori's methods were, however, as suspect as those of the people he was arresting, and he was fired 1929. A further campaign was waged 1963–64. The Calabrian mafia (known as the 'Ndrangeta) and the Camorra allegedly worked together in attempting to assassinate lawyers investigating the Mafia 1993–94. It was calculated 1992 that the Mafia was Italy's biggest business, earning one out of every eight lire and accounting for 12% of national product.
The Mafia grew during Prohibition in the USA. Main centres are New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Atlantic City, and Chicago. Organization is in ‘families’, each with its own boss, or capo. A code of loyalty and secrecy, combined with intimidation of witnesses, makes it difficult to bring criminal charges against its members. However, Al Capone was sentenced for federal tax evasion and Lucky Luciano was deported. Recent cases of the US government versus the Mafia implicated Sicilian-based operators in the drug traffic that plagues much of the Western world (the ‘pizza connection’). In 1992 John Gotti, reputedly head of the Gambino ‘family’ of the Mafia, was convicted.
Italian police believe the Mafia to be involved in a spate of fires early 1997 at various historical and cultural sights. It is alleged they are reacting to a crackdown by the authorites by threatening Italy's countless – and often vulnerable – works of art and architecture. Targets have included La Fenice, Venice's most famous opera house, and Milan Cathedral.
The Mafia, also known in the USA as La Cosa Nostra (‘our affair’) or the Mob, features frequently in fiction; for example, in the Godfather films from 1972 based on a book by Mario Puzo.