"Mafia" is an informal term that is used to describe criminal organizations that bear a strong similarity to the organized crime groups from Italy. The central activity of such an organization would be the arbitration of disputes between criminals as well as the organization and enforcement of illicit agreements between criminals through the use of or threat of violence.[1] Mafias often engage in secondary activities such as gambling, loan sharking, drug-trafficking, prostitution, and fraud.

The term "mafia" was originally applied to the Sicilian Mafia. The term has since expanded to encompass other organizations of similar methods and purpose, e.g., "the Russian Mafia" or "the Japanese Mafia". The term was coined by the press and is informal; the criminal organizations themselves have their own names (e.g. the Sicilian Mafia and the related Italian-American Mafia refer to their organizations as "Cosa Nostra"; the "Japanese Mafia" calls itself "Ninkyō dantai" but is more commonly known as "Yakuza" by the public; "Russian Mafia" groups often call themselves "Bratva".)

When used alone and without any qualifier, "Mafia" or "the Mafia" typically refers to either the Sicilian Mafia or the Italian-American Mafia and sometimes Italian organized crime in general (e.g., Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, etc.).

Today the 'Ndrangheta, originating in the Southern Italian region of Calabria, is widely considered the richest and most powerful mafia in the world.[2][3] The 'Ndrangheta has been around for as long as the better-known Sicilian Cosa Nostra, but was only recently designated as a Mafia-type association in 2010 under Article 416 bis of the Italian penal code.[4][5] Italy's highest court of last resort, the Supreme Court of Cassation, had ruled similarly on 30 March 2010.[6]


The word mafia (English: /ˈmɑːfiə/; Italian: [ˈmaːfja]) derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means "swagger", but can also be translated as "boldness" or "bravado". In reference to a man, mafiusu (mafioso in Italian) in 19th century Sicily signified "fearless", "enterprising", and "proud", according to scholar Diego Gambetta.[7] In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means 'beautiful' or 'attractive'.

Because Sicily was once an Islamic emirate from 831 to 1072, mafia may have come to Sicilian through Arabic, though the word's origins are uncertain. Possible Arabic roots of the word include:

The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was perhaps inspired by the 1863 play I mafiusi di la Vicaria ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca.[18] The words mafia and mafiusi are never mentioned in the play. The play is about a Palermo prison gang with traits similar to the Mafia: a boss, an initiation ritual, and talk of "umirtà" (omertà or code of silence) and "pizzu" (a codeword for extortion money).[19] The play had great success throughout Italy. Soon after, the use of the term "mafia" began appearing in the Italian state's early reports on the phenomenon. The word made its first official appearance in 1865 in a report by the prefect of Palermo Filippo Antonio Gualterio [it].[20]


The term "Mafia" was never officially used by Sicilian mafiosi, who prefer to refer to their organization as "Cosa Nostra". Nevertheless, it is typically by comparison to the groups and families that comprise the Sicilian Mafia that other criminal groups are given the label. Giovanni Falcone, an anti-Mafia judge murdered by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992, objected to the conflation of the term "Mafia" with organized crime in general:

While there was a time when people were reluctant to pronounce the word "Mafia" ... nowadays people have gone so far in the opposite direction that it has become an overused term ... I am no longer willing to accept the habit of speaking of the Mafia in descriptive and all-inclusive terms that make it possible to stack up phenomena that are indeed related to the field of organized crime but that have little or nothing in common with the Mafia.[21]

— Giovanni Falcone, 1990

Mafias as private protection firms

Scholars such as Diego Gambetta and Leopoldo Franchetti have characterized the Sicilian Mafia as a cartel of private protection firms whose primary business is protection racketeering: they use their fearsome reputation for violence to deter people from swindling, robbing, or competing with those who pay them for protection. For many businessmen in Sicily, they provide an essential service when they cannot rely on the police and judiciary to enforce their contracts and protect their properties from thieves (this is often because they are engaged in black market deals).[22]

The [Sicilian] mafia's principal activities are settling disputes among other criminals, protecting them against each other's cheating, and organizing and overseeing illicit agreements, often involving many agents, such as illicit cartel agreements in otherwise legal industries.

— Diego Gambetta, Codes of the Underworld (2009)

Scholars have observed that many other societies around the world have criminal organizations of their own that provide the same sort of protection service. For instance, in Russia after the collapse of communism, the state security system had all but collapsed, forcing businessmen to hire criminal gangs to enforce their contracts and protect their properties from thieves. These gangs are popularly called "the Russian Mafia" by foreigners, but they prefer to go by the term krysha.

With the [Russian] state in collapse and the security forces overwhelmed and unable to police contract law, ... cooperating with the criminal culture was the only option. ... most businessmen had to find themselves a reliable krysha under the leadership of an effective vor.

— excerpt from McMafia by Misha Glenny.[23]

In his analysis of the Sicilian Mafia, Gambetta provided the following hypothetical scenario to illustrate the Mafia's function in the Sicilian economy. Suppose a grocer wants to buy meat from a butcher without paying sales tax to the government. Because this is a black market deal, neither party can take the other to court if the other cheats. The grocer is afraid that the butcher will sell him rotten meat. The butcher is afraid that the grocer will not pay him. If the butcher and the grocer cannot get over their mistrust and refuse to trade, they would both miss out on an opportunity for profit. Their solution is to ask the local mafioso to oversee the transaction, in exchange for a fee proportional to the value of the transaction but below the legal tax. If the butcher cheats the grocer by selling rotten meat, the mafioso will punish the butcher. If the grocer cheats the butcher by not paying on time and in full, the mafioso will punish the grocer. Punishment might take the form of a violent assault or vandalism against property. The grocer and the butcher both fear the mafioso, so each honors their side of the bargain. All three parties profit.

Mafia-type organizations under Italian law

Introduced by Pio La Torre, article 416-bis of the Italian Penal Code defines a Mafia-type association (Italian: associazione di tipo mafioso) as one where "those belonging to the association exploit the potential for intimidation which their membership gives them, and the compliance and omertà which membership entails and which lead to the committing of crimes, the direct or indirect assumption of management or control of financial activities, concessions, permissions, enterprises and public services for the purpose of deriving profit or wrongful advantages for themselves or others."[24][25]


Mafia-proper can refer to either:

In Italy

Map of Italy's main criminal syndicates

Italian criminal organizations include:

In other countries

Main article: List of criminal enterprises, gangs and syndicates


  1. ^ Gambetta 2009: "The mafia's principal activities are settling disputes among other criminals, protecting them against each other's cheating, and organizing and overseeing illicit agreements, often involving many agents, such as illicit cartel agreements in otherwise legal industries. Mafia-like groups offer a solution of sorts to the trust problem by playing the role of a government for the underworld and supplying protection to people involved in illegal markets ordeals. They may play that role poorly, sometimes veering toward extortion rather than genuine protection, but they do play it."
  2. ^ "The Mafia from the mountains".
  3. ^ Lowen, Mark (13 January 2023). "Nicola Gratteri: The man on the kill list of Italy's most powerful mafia". BBC News.
  4. ^ Sergi, Anna (4 February 2016). "Meet the 'Ndrangheta – and why it's time to bust some myths about the Calabrian mafia". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  5. ^ (in Italian) Modifiche agli articoli 416-bis e 416-ter del codice penale in materia di associazioni di tipo mafioso e di scambio elettorale politico-mafioso, Disegno di legge, Senato della Repubblica, 20 May 2010
  6. ^ "Sentenza storica: "La 'ndrangheta esiste". Lo dice la Cassazione e non è una ovvietà" (in Italian). La Repubblica. 18 June 2016. Archived from the original on 18 October 2019. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  7. ^ This etymology is based on the books Che cosa è la mafia? by Gaetano Mosca, Mafioso by Gaia Servadio, The Sicilian Mafia by Diego Gambetta, Mafia & Mafiosi by Henner Hess, and Cosa Nostra by John Dickie (see Books below).
  8. ^ According to Giuseppe Guido Lo Schiavo [it], "cave" in Arabic literary writing is Maqtaa hagiar, while in popular Arabic it is pronounced as Mahias hagiar and then "from Maqtaa (Mahias) = mafia, that is cave, hence the name (ma)qotai, quarrymen, stone-cutters, that is, mafia." (Loschiavo 1962: 27-30). See: Fabrizio Fioretti (2011), Il termine "mafia", Sveučilište Jurja Dobrile u Puli.
  9. ^ Mosca, Che cosa è la mafia?, p. 51
  10. ^ a b c Hess, Mafia & Mafiosi, pp. 1-3
  11. ^ a b Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, pp. 259-261.
  12. ^ Coluccello, Challenging the Mafia Mystique, p.3
  13. ^ Lupo, History of the Mafia, p. 282 quoting Lo Monaco (1990), Lingua nostra.
  14. ^ John Follain (8 June 2009). The Last Godfathers. Hachette UK. ISBN 9781848942493. Even the origin of the word 'mafia' remains obscure. Some believe its roots lie in the Arab domination of Sicily from 827 to 1061 and the Arabic word mahias (daring) or Ma àfir (the name of a Saracen tribe).
  15. ^ Richard Lindberg (1 August 1998). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal, 1855-1960 (illustrated ed.). SIU Press. p. 161. ISBN 9780809322237. The word "Mafia" is a derivative of the Arabic maafir, the name of a tribe of Arabs who settled in Palermo, Sicily before the Middle Ages. The Sicilian peasants adopted the customs of the nomadic tribe, integrating the name into everyday language. When the French were massacred in Palermo on Easter Sunday, 1282, the townsmen described their brave defenders as the "Mafia." In 1417 this secret band of guerrillas absorbed another society of local origin, the Camorra.
  16. ^ Theroux, Paul (1995). The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. New York: Fawcett Columbine. p. 176. ISBN 0449910857.
  17. ^ Lewis, Norman (1964). The Honoured Society.
  18. ^ "Sicily And The Mafia". americanmafia.com. February 2004.
  19. ^ Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, p. 136.
  20. ^ Lupo, The History of the Mafia Archived 2013-01-06 at the Wayback Machine, p. 3.
  21. ^ Lupo, History of the Mafia, pp. 1–2
  22. ^ Diego Gambetta (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection
  23. ^ Glenny 2008
  24. ^ Seindal, Mafia: money and politics in Sicily, p. 20
  25. ^ "Art. 416-bis, Codice Penale - Associazione di Tipo mafioso" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2019. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
  26. ^ Il senatore Carlo Giovanardi difendeva un'azienda di amici che era colpita da interdittiva antimafia, L'Espresso, 4 maggio 2017
  27. ^ "The Mafia from the mountains".
  28. ^ Lowen, Mark (13 January 2023). "Nicola Gratteri: The man on the kill list of Italy's most powerful mafia". BBC News.