Dissecting the Mafia: Sicily’s Cosa Nostra

For the past 100 years, the mafia’s brutal and lawless presence has influenced everything from pop culture to history, extending beyond Italy’s borders to impact crime around the world. The word mafia is used as an informal term for four major groups: Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta, Campania’s Camorra, Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita and the most influential of the groups, Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia.

A Brief History of the Sicilian Mafia

The origin of the word mafia is debated but it is likely derived from a combined Sicilian-Arabic expression that means “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful.” Until the early 19th century, a mafioso was not a criminal but a resolute man in Sicily who was distrustful of central authority.1

During the early 1800s, regional bands (or mafia clans), began to protect local interests from foreign and neighbouring invaders and were viewed as patriotic partisans. These groups were also known as “families,” with a padrino or a father as the figurehead.2 The first association of these clans to crime dates back to a court document from 1837, which refers to a cosca mafiosa, or a mafioso group, used to describe brotherhoods involved with criminal activities.3

With the birth of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Piedmontese ruling class from the north of Italy established itself in Sicily to use the clans to counter the exploitation of the peasant masses and the local nobility nostalgic for the old regime. These mafia groups began a parasitic takeover of the island, using violence to exhort their influence and coercing farmers and peasants to pay them a pizzo, or protection money.4

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a great migration of Italians in search of better work conditions to the US, including the migration of the Sicilian Mafia. During World War II, Sicily’s mafia clans were decimated by Mussolini, but their power was reinstated toward the end of the war by the US Central Intelligence Agency, with the help of notorious gangster Lucky Luciano, to facilitate the landing of American troops in the island and to later counter the communist threat in Sicily.5

The economic boom of the 1950s saw the Sicilian Mafia move from an agrarian model toward an urban model, infiltrating public spending and construction work in major Sicilian cities, along with investing in a variety of businesses and becoming a world leader in the international drug market.6

The name Cosa Nostra, meaning “our thing” in Italian, was used to describe the American Mafia, but became popular in Italy in the mid-1980s when Italian mobster Tommaso Buscetta revealed to judge and prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the Sicilian Mafia was called Cosa Nostra.7

Money Laundering

In the past decades, Cosa Nostra has discarded its violent side in favour of business, pursuing what Italy’s Anti-Mafia Commission of Inquiry calls a “strategy of submersion.” Invisibility and deceptiveness are essential for the clans to escape scrutiny from the authorities and coexist with the state. Their international drug trade, extortion money and other illicit businesses have created a money laundering machine that has spread into every corner of Italy’s economy.8

Cosa Nostra’s infiltration into the public and the private economy is due to the complicity of the so-called “grey area” professionals and entrepreneurs who turn a blind eye for an extra profit or whose businesses are on the brink of failure and in need of liquidity. This has allowed the clans to set up front businesses in everything, from tourism to alternate energies, gaming and betting, expanding beyond Sicily into all regions of Italy.9

Part of the success of Cosa Nostra’s ability to move discreetly into various businesses is the phenomenon of omertà, or a form of complicity among members of the mafia and other individuals involved with the criminal organisation, whereby a person guilty of a crime is protected by silence. This is often done to avoid revenge.10

The techniques used by the various groups are textbook money laundering methods—inflated invoices, falsified balance sheets and suspicious transactions masked as production costs, among others.11 This has allowed Cosa Nostra to become one of the major criminal organisations in Italy.

Between 1983 and 2011, the Italian state confiscated a total of 19.987 assets from all Mafia groups, including companies, movable assets and real estate, which tops the list with 52.3%. Looking at the top five provinces in Italy with the most amount of seized assets during that period, Sicily’s capital Palermo sat at the number one spot with 24.3%, whilst Catania, the island’s second most important city, took fourth place with 5.4%. The majority of Cosa Nostra’s confiscated companies in Sicily involved the construction industry.12

Recent Trends

With the rapid expansion of cryptocurrencies, the Sicilian clans, like other Mafia groups, have begun to take an interest in new technologies. A recent report from Italy’s Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) evidenced how bitcoin and monero could be used to escape the scrutiny of banks.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are also being eyed by Mafia groups to conceal the illicit origin of their gains.13

Cosa Nostra has also exploited the apprehension and economic difficulty that the COVID-19 lockdowns have posed in Italy. At the onset of the first 2020 lockdown, the brother of infamous boss, Giuseppe Cusimano, was spotted distributing food to people in Palermo’s disadvantaged Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN) district through charities linked to a local cartel.14 The fear is that the Sicilian Mafia, but also other groups, may have been trying to gain consensus from the population to infiltrate into failing businesses to use for money laundering and profit.15

The DIA has noted that the top industries in which Cosa Nostra has invested in the past year include gaming and online betting,16 as well as the agro-pastoral sector.17

Italy’s Fight Against Cosa Nostra

Violent internal warfare amongt Cosa Nostra’s groups in the early 1960s and 80s led to an intense intervention of the Italian state, which, together with the aid of the so-called pentiti—individuals who broke the code of omertà to denounce members of the gangs—were able to decrease the power of the Sicilian Mafia.18

Today, various organisations and institutions in Italy are responsible for gathering information, working closely with the local financial intelligence unit, and coordinating strikes with local and international forces to bring down Cosa Nostra. These include the DIA, the Anti-Mafia District Directorate (DDA), and the National Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism Directorate (DNAA), amongst others. Sicilian organisations, such as AddioPizzo and Fondazione Falcone, help spread awareness of the mafia’s wrongdoings and promote legality through education and campaigns.

But despite the best efforts, Cosa Nostra continues to persist. It is estimated that it currently includes 5.000 affiliates and 20.000 collaborators spread across Europe and the US.19 Recent studies have shown that mafia groups who were at odds, such as the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, have begun forming alliances to facilitate their illegal activities.20

The fight to eradicate the Sicilian Mafia will continue to be long and problematic for decades to come.

Stefano Siggia, CAMS, senior consultant, Pideeco, Belgium, stefano@pideeco.be.

  1. Selwyn Raab, “Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires,” Thomas Dunne Books, p.14
  2. Ibid. p. 15
  3. Matteo Pasi, “Materiale di approfondimento : Cosa Nostra,” Associazione Pereira, http://www.associazionepereira.it/wp-content/uploads/Origini-e-caratteristiche1.pdf
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Le Mafie Oggi. L’Analisi della Commissione Antimafia,” Avviso Pubblico, http://www.avvisopubblico.it/home/home/cosa-facciamo/informare/osservatorio-parlamentare/attivita-dinchiesta/attivita-dinchiesta-xvii/commissione-bicamerale-antimafia/le-mafie-oggi-lanalisi-della-commissione-antimafia/
  9. Ibid.
  10. Matteo Pasi, “Materiale di approfondimento : Cosa Nostra,” Associazione Pereira, http://www.associazionepereira.it/wp-content/uploads/Origini-e-caratteristiche1.pd
  11. “Il terzo tema: Come e dove le mafie investono i propri ricavi in Italia,” Joint Research Centre on Transnational Crime, https://www.transcrime.it/investimentioc/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Gli-investimenti-delle-mafie-2.pdf
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Criptovalute e Pnrr le mani delle mafie sul mercato legale,” La Sicilia, 7 April 2022, https://www.lasicilia.it/cronaca/news/criptovalute-e-pnrr-le-mani-delle-mafie-sul-mercato-legale-1570484/
  14. Melissa Barra, “Faced with the Covid-19 crisis, the Italian mafia sees business opportunities,” France24, 2 May 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200502-faced-with-the-covid-19-crisis-the-italian-mafia-sees-business-opportunities
  15. Roberto Saviano, “Il contagio mafioso: cosi la criminalità sfrutta l’epidemia,” La Repubblica, 25 August 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2020/08/25/news/covid_cosi_le_mafie_sfruttano_l_epidemia-265405132/
  16. “Attività svolta e risultati conseguiti dalla Direzione Investigativa Antimafia Gennaio – Giugno 2021,” Direzione Investigative Antimafia, https://direzioneinvestigativaantimafia.interno.gov.it/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Relazione_Sem_I_2021.pdf
  17. “Attività svolta e risultati conseguiti dalla Direzione Investigativa Antimafia Luglio – Dicembre 2021,” Direzione Investigative Antimafia, https://direzioneinvestigativaantimafia.interno.gov.it/relazioni-semestrali/
  18. “Le Mafie Oggi. L’Analisi della Commissione Antimafia,” Avviso Pubblico, http://www.avvisopubblico.it/home/home/cosa-facciamo/informare/osservatorio-parlamentare/attivita-dinchiesta/attivita-dinchiesta-xvii/commissione-bicamerale-antimafia/le-mafie-oggi-lanalisi-della-commissione-antimafia/
  19. Matteo Pasi, “Materiale di approfondimento : Cosa Nostra,” Associazione Pereira, http://www.associazionepereira.it/wp-content/uploads/Origini-e-caratteristiche1.pdf
  20. Marco Ludovico, “Mafia, boom del riciclaggio: +26% di segnalazioni nel 2021,” Il Sole 24 Ore, 7 April 2022, https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/mafia-boom-riciclaggio-26percento-segnalazioni-2021-AEs1XnPB?refresh_ce=1

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