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The origins of La Cosa Nostra: From its roots to emigration

By Fernando Acosta Bernadet

The Italian-American Mob traces its roots to the Sicilian Mafia, which can be regarded as its basis and inspiration. The Sicilian Mafia’s commandments remained during the installation and organization of the Italian-American Mob.

The concept

It should be noted that the concept of “Mafia” is a very broad term that covers very different crime groups, which are:

. . . as a mirror of traditional society, with attention to political, economic or –  more often – sociocultural facts; as a company or type of criminal industry; as secret organization more or less centralized; as legal system parallel to the state, or as anti-State  (LUPO, 2002: 21).

The concept becomes more tangible when you take hold of Misha Glenny's perspective, once exposed to that:

there are two basic types of criminal organizations: the extortionists who charge for the protection and market products. The first is divided into three main groups: producers, wholesalers and retailers. Each of them are usually found, but not always, associated with a particular ethnic group, and the three links of the commercial chain cooperate across international borders, since the production of goods always occurs at a great distance of the most lucrative markets for it. The mobsters who charge protection services, such as Cosa Nostra American, rarely operate internationally and usually are contained in the borders of a state. However, sometimes they enter the trade in illicit goods as Tony Soprano and his colleagues to take control of the sale by retail of the market part: drugs, prostitution, etc . (GLENNY, 2008: 244)

Their history

The origin of the Italian Mafia is linked to Sicily, in southern Italy. To understand the elements that led to the transformation and empowerment, we must return to its beginnings:

For over two thousand years, most of Sicily’s population endured tyranny and suppression under foreign conquerors and feudal overlords. From ancient times until the mid-nineteenth century, the nine-thousand-square-mile island was raided, invaded and even traded – actually exchanged for other territories – by foreign rulers. Sicily’s strategic and vulnerable location, almost in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, close to southern Italy and North Africa, subjected it to and endless succession of occupation and oppression by Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French, Spanish, Austrian, and finally hostile Italian armies . (RAAB, 2005: 13)

These invasions and submissions have caused the Sicilians to develop a culture based, according to Raab (2005: 13), on two basic concepts: “contempt for and suspicion of governmental authorities; and tight-knit alliances with blood relatives and with fellow countrymen facing same perils”. This disregard for law and the forming of mutual alliances caused Sicilians to gather in what they call cosche and create their own dialect in order to protect themselves from the authorities. As Raab says (2005), because they do not rely on government protection, they solved the problems within their clan – composed mainly of peasants – themselves, and based their rule on the commitment and confidentiality of the citizens. To maintain law and order, they could perform the vendettas that were their form of justice.

Over time, in Sicily, the secret cosche became known by the name of Mafia. It is in the written record that the name carries folkloric elements, mythical and certain romanticism, therefore, based on the bibliography used in this research, the "less romantic" perspective, according to Selwyn Raab (2005: 14) would be pointing to “. . . the name Mafia is a combined Sicilian-Arab slang expression that means acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful.”

The expression coincides with the history of the Sicilian people, considering it as an oppressed society and ruled by foreigners. At that time, being a gangster was not seen as something bad, despite the discrediting in the state apparatus and in accordance with what Hobsbawn indicated, the mafioso “. . . made himself respected and safe by winning a reputation of toughness and courage, and settled his differences by fighting” (apud RAAB, 2005: 14). In turn, the historian adds that the only obligations that were possessed were “. . . those of the code of honor or omertà (manliness), whose chief forbade giving information to public authorities.” (HOBSBAWN apud RAAB, 2005: 14-15).

Following the reading of Raab (2005), there was no unification of the clans nor a centrality to the whole island; they were grouped into regional bands to protect specific interests of foreign aggressors and invaders from other areas. This vision of manliness and guards led them to be considered as "partisan patriots" in the mid-twentieth century. These clans were also called "families" with a leader for which was awarded with the title of padrino or capo di famiglia, and it corresponded to arbitrate disputes and controversies in their territory (RAAB, 2005: 15).

With the unification of Italy, the Mafia was consolidated by the conditions of release and removal of the old feudal pillars present on the island, thus the cosche organized themselves better and were able to mobilize a small group of armed guards. Also used in their favor the disorganization of the newly formed republic, creating an instance where the gaps left by the government and judiciary were met by criminal activities (RAAB, 2005: 16; DICKIE, 2014, p 51-86.).

Among these gaps, was part of the Mafia endorsed by the government. It was a "local government instrument" (DICKIE, 2014: 97) thanks to its "violence industry"  (DICKIE, 2014: 77) that was used to help in the capture of the most violent thugs not connected to the Mafia (RAAB, 2005: 16).

Thus, according to Raab (2005), by the help of the Mafia,

[…] the nascent government in Rome secretly pledged that the cosche continue without interference their own refined style of plunder and economic domination over sections of Sicily. The Rome officials, mainly from north and central Italy, were unfamiliar with the nuances of Sicilian culture and viewed the private deal as an expedient compromise. Overconfident, they believed the Mafia leaders would serve as temporary middlemen between themselves and the island’s population, and would help to maintain order until the young constitutional monarchy gained the strength to impose its own will. (RAAB, 2005: 16)

The secret pact made with the Mafia generated consequences and granted a strengthening in the northwest of the island, near Palermo, increasing its radius of action, since the central government was to the north. Thus, it became the government's replacement in this area (RAAB, 2005).

This substitution caused the mobsters to use violence and fear to extort protection payments, tax payments, etc. Among its collaborators was the Catholic Church, which was given the opportunity to get more land, thanks to the methods used by cosche, promising, in turn, that it would not denounce the heavy weapons tactics used by mobsters (RAAB, 2005). In addition, when the unification brought the Sicilian men the right to vote, the mobsters made sure to use it in favor or against the candidates they chose. In a more specific analysis it is clear that democratic reform contributed to the Mafia even more magnified (RAAB, 2005; DICKIE, 2014: 97-109).

Thus, despite the new form of government representation, this did not contribute to the prosperity of the people, to the point that many landless and impoverished workers emigrated to the United States, opening a whole new chapter (even chapters) in this piece of Cosa Nostra’s history (RAAB, 2005).

Emigration: Arrival in the US

According to John Dickie  (2004: 195)

Between 1901 and 1913, some 1.1 million Sicilians emigrated – a little less than a quarter of the island’s entire population. Of those, roughly 800,000 made the United States their destination. Inevitably, some were men of honor, smart and ruthless criminals who sought to establish protection regimes and other criminal activities among their fellow migrants and along the trade routes connecting the two shores of the Atlantic.

However, Selwyn Raab  (2005) points out that at the beginning of the emigration none of the cosche tried to establish its mandate, “[...] there was no need. In Sicily, the Mafia families were among the favored ‘haves’, not the downtrodden ‘have-nots’. They had no reason to relinquish their enviable, comfortable station in life for risky ventures in a foreign land.” (RAAB, 2005: 18)

Raab’s statement is ratified by Hortis  (2014: 17) when he says that “[New York], a city built for the Mob”. Among the reasons he used to defend such a claim, Hortis (2014) dissects the city, with the qualities and opportunities for this group. He begins with the Port of New York, which he claims to be ideal because of its weather and water conditions, allowing the passage of transatlantic ships. With the immigration and population growth, “[...] New York became an international center of commerce” he adds that

[t]he ambitious immigrant who made it to New York in the mid-to-late nineteenth century –principally the Germans and the Irish, then later the Jews and the Italians – filled the workshops and factories in Manhattan, making it a manufacturing powerhouse. The exploding population became a huge consumer market. (HORTIS, 2014: 19)

Combined with the fact it was the busiest port in the world and that nearly half of imports to and exports from the United States crossed that way (HORTIS, 2014). Yet, “[t]he Mafia followed the Money” according to Hortis (2014: 28), and by this way, took advantage of the burgeoning small producers and industrial groups, since these were the economic engine of New York (HORTIS, 2014).

The proliferation of business and people generated a favorable environment known as racketeering. The narrow streets, bridges, 300,000 cars, congestion, all these features, considered by the Mafia as aim for its activities. Hence, they targeted small businesses because “[t]he Cosa Nostra could delay shipments of supplies, engineer labor problems, scare off customers, or physically threaten the owner and his or her family” (HORTIS, 2014: 32).

However, the Mafia was not alone in the business; there was competition, which made it necessary to conspire against opponents.

From World War I through the New Deal, business leaders orchestrated a campaign to reduce competition throughout the economy. They often singled out the “ruinous competition” or “cut-throat business in New York City. Business commonly used “traded associations” as fronts for efforts to restrict competitions. Joining the chorus of the captains of the industry were their counterparts in the labor unions. Though adversaries on other issues, business and labor agreed on the need to “stabilized” industries by artificially limiting competition. (HORTIS, 2014: 33).

Among alliances and business, Cosa Nostra established what Hortis (2014: 34) called “Racketland” because the Department of New York police did not stop them and, therefore, a  “[c]rime syndicate flourished” (HORTIS, 2014: 35). It should also be noted that, according to Hortis (2014: 35), “[t]he NYPD’s large, decentralized patrol force became a font of corruption in the city”.

Therefore, the Mafia was in the process of knowing and using the city at its disposal. As Hortis writes, the Mafia (2014: 36), “[…] also learned how to game New York’s sprawling, opaque, and unaccountable bureaucracy. By World War I, the city had 85,000 municipal employees; the number ballooned to 200,000 by the 1950s.”

The Cosa Nostra also outlined the weakness of the industry in terms of services. As reported by Hortis (2014: 37-38) “[t]he most fragile was the pushcart peddler, who everyday fought for a spot on the street. […] Mafiosi also liked to acquire hidden interests in restaurants through coercive partnerships”. Either saved the taxi industry, because the taxi drivers that led back to their apartments customers of the restaurants were also the target of mobsters. According to Hortis (2014: 38), “[r]oughly 5,600 cabs in New York belong to single-cab companies, where the owner was typically the driver himself”.

The food served in the restaurants was also illegal and, just as Hortis writes (2014: 38), “[...] was grown elsewhere, shipped by freight trains, and trucked through the narrow streets of the city”. This itemization detailed by Hortis’ book (2014: 40) allows us to understand that “[t]his was a city built for the mob. But there were many people vying for the rackets.”

In this context, the arrival of Sicilian mobsters, among the Italians immigrants, as was pointed out, produced a series of problems for American law and order. One of those cases was La Mano Nero, a group that had no relationship with the Mafia, but acted in a similar way, through extortion, by sending threatening letters to their victims (RAAB, 2005). Joseph “Joe” Petrosino, New York police officer, immigrant born in southern Italy, dismantled blackmailers, as well as other criminals. From his knowledge, Raab writes (2005), he prepared the other officers to learn the modus operandi of the Italian mobsters. The effectiveness of his work resulted in his promotion to detective, by Theodore Roosevelt. But, in one of his reports, as above, he stood out the police inaction at the time:

Here there is practically no police surveillance […] Here it is easy to buy arms and dynamite. Here there is no penalty for using a fake name.  Here it is easy to hide, thanks to our enormous territory and overcrowded cities. (PETROSINO apud RAAB, 2005: 20).

The Mafia used the writings of Joe Petrosino during and after that time. Having been born there and knowing the region, Petrosino embarked towards Sicily on a secret mission that resulted in his death. His murderer was Vito Cascio Ferro, a godfather of the Mafia, who declared to be the perpetrator of the crime and whose goal was to alert and send a message to the American investigators (RAAB, 2005: 21; DICKIE, 2004: 195-213).

The detective's murder can be seen as a confirmation that the Sicilian Mafia went back to its roots, and in that way, abided by its ancient commandments. In the following years, the Italian Mafia grew and expanded in force between 1920 and 1933, invigorated by Prohibition, as Reppetto  writes (2004: 91): “[...] The Mob Strike a Bonanza”.

Fernando Acosta Bernadet holds an International Relations BA by the Federal University of Pampa, Brazil. He wrote his Bachelor’s Degree thesis on The Securitization of the Organized Crime inside the American Foreign Policy in the decades of 1970-1980s: A study of case of La Cosa Nostra.

He is a researcher on the Italian-American mob, international security and politics and a translator in the Laboratory of Studies, International Research and Border (LEPIF by its acronym in Portuguese). Acosta Bernadet was born in Uruguay.

You can reach him at: acostabernadet@gmail.com

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