The American Mafia, an Italian-American organized-crime network with operations in cities across the United States, particularly New York and Chicago, rose to power through its success in the illicit liquor trade during the 1920s Prohibition era. After Prohibition, the Mafia moved into other criminal ventures, from drug trafficking to illegal gambling, while also infiltrating labor unions and legitimate businesses such as construction and New York’s garment industry. The Mafia’s violent crimes, secret rituals and notorious characters such as Al Capone and John Gotti have fascinated the public and become a part of popular culture. During the latter part of the 20th century, the government used anti-racketeering laws to convict high-ranking mobsters and weaken the Mafia. However, it remains in business today.

Immigration and Prohibition

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, waves of Italians, mostly farmers, craftsmen and unskilled laborers, flocked to America in search of better economic opportunities. In New York City alone, the number of Italians soared from 20,000 to 250,000 between 1880 and 1890, and by 1910, that number had jumped to 500,000 immigrants and first-generation Italian Americans, or one-tenth of the city’s population, according to historian Thomas Repetto. The majority of these immigrants were law-abiding, but, as with most large groups of people, some were criminals who formed neighborhood gangs, often preying on those in their own communities.

Did you know? Mafia boss John Gotti (1940-2002) was dubbed the “Teflon Don” for his ability to evade prosecution. However, after mobster Sammy Gravano turned government informant and testified against Gotti, Gotti was convicted on murder and racketeering charges in 1992 and sent to prison, where he died of cancer.

During the 1920s Prohibition era, when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcoholic beverages, Italian-American gangs (along with other ethnic gangs) entered the booming bootleg liquor business and transformed themselves into sophisticated criminal enterprises, skilled at smuggling, money laundering and bribing police and other public officials. During this time, the Sicilian Mafia in Italy, which had flourished since at least the mid-19th century, was under attack from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). Some Sicilian Mafiosi escaped to the United States, where they got involved in bootlegging and became part of the burgeoning American Mafia. The Mafia in the U.S. and Sicily were separate entities, although the Americans adopted some Italian traditions, including omerta, an all-important code of conduct and secrecy that forbid any cooperation with government authorities.

The American Mafia Gets Organized

In the late 1920s, a bloody power struggle known as the Castellammarese War broke out between New York City’s two biggest Italian-American criminal gangs. In 1931, after the faction led by Sicilian-born crime boss Salvatore Maranzano (1886-1931) came out on top, he crowned himself the “capo di tutti capi,” or boss of all bosses, in New York. Unhappy with Maranzano’s power grab, a rising mobster named Lucky Luciano (1897-1962) had him murdered that same year. Luciano then masterminded the formation of a central organization called the Commission to serve as a sort of national board of directors for the American Mafia, which by then consisted of at least 20 crime families across the country.

New York, which had become America’s organized-crime capital, had been divided into five main Mafia families; everywhere else the Mafia operated, there was just one crime family per city. The Commission’s role was to set policies and mediate disagreements among the families. Each of the five New York families received a vote on the Commission when it was established, while the heads of the families in Chicago and Buffalo also got one vote each.

The U.S. Mafia: Hierarchy and Rituals

Typically, each American Mafia crime family was organized around a hierarchy headed by a boss, who ruled with unquestioned authority and received a cut of every money-making operation taken on by any member of his family. Second-in-command was the underboss and below him were the capos, or captains, who each controlled a crew of 10 or so soldiers (men who had been “made,” or inducted into the family). Each family also had a consigliere, who acted as an advisor and ombudsman. At the bottom of the chain were associates, people who worked for or did business with the family but weren’t full-fledged members.

Becoming an official member of a Mafia family traditionally involved an initiation ceremony in which a person performed such rituals as pricking his finger to draw blood and holding a burning picture of a patron saint while taking an oath of loyalty. Italian heritage was a prerequisite for every inductee (although some crime families required such lineage only from the father’s side) and men often, though not always, had to commit a murder before they could be made. Becoming a member of the Mafia was meant to be a lifetime commitment and each Mafiosi swore to obey omerta, the all-important code of loyalty and silence. Mafiosi were also expected to follow other rules, including never assaulting one another and never cheating with another member’s girlfriend or wife.

The Mafia’s 20th-Century Dominance

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Mafia moved beyond bootlegging and into a range of underworld activities, from illegal gambling to loan-sharking to prostitution rings. The Mafia also sunk its tentacles into labor unions and legitimate businesses, including construction, garbage collection, trucking, restaurants and nightclubs and the New York garment industry, and raked in enormous profits through kickbacks and protection shakedowns. Instrumental to the Mafia’s success was its ability to bribe corrupt public officials and business leaders, along with witnesses and juries in court cases.

By the mid-20th century, there were 24 known crime families in America, comprised of an estimated 5,000 full-fledged members and thousands of associates across the country. Prior to the 1960s, some government leaders, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, voiced skepticism about the existence of a national Italian-American organized crime network and suggested instead that crime gangs operated strictly on a local level. As a result, law enforcement agencies made few inroads in stopping the Mafia’s rise during this period.

Taking Down the Mafia

In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which proved to be a powerful tool in the government’s war on the Mafia, as it allowed prosecutors to go after crime families and their sources of revenue, both legal and illegal. During the 1980s and 1990s, RICO laws were used to convict numerous high-level mobsters. Some Mafiosi, faced with long prison sentences, broke the once-sacred code of omerta and testified against their fellow mobsters in exchange for a place in the federal witness-protection program. At the same time, Mafia membership declined as insular Italian-American neighborhoods, once a traditional recruiting ground for mobsters, underwent demographic shifts and became more assimilated into society at large.

By the start of the 21st century, the American Mafia was a shadow of its former self. However, the Mafia remained active in some of its traditional ventures, including loan-sharking and illegal gambling, and its involvement in labor unions and legitimate industries such as construction hadn’t been completely eliminated. Contributing to the Mafia’s continued survival may be the fact that following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, significant resources devoted to investigating organized crime (which had already seen cuts prior to 9/11) were shifted to counterterrorism work.