The American Mafia is a highly organized Italian-American criminal society. The organization is often referred to by members as Cosa Nostra, our thing. The Mafia in the United States emerged in impoverished Italian immigrant neighborhoods in New York’s East Harlem (or Italian Harlem), Lower East Side, and Brooklyn. It also emerged in other areas of the East Coast of the United States and several other major metropolitan areas (such as New Orleans) during the late 19th century and early 20th century, following waves of Italian immigration especially from Sicily and other regions of Southern Italy.
It has its roots in the Sicilian Mafia but is a separate organization in the United States. Neapolitan, Calabrian, and other Italian criminal groups in the U.S., as well as independent Italian-American criminals, eventually merged with Sicilian Mafiosi to create the modern pan-Italian Mafia in North America. Today, the American Mafia cooperates in various criminal activities with Italian organized crime groups, such as the Sicilian Mafia, Camorra in Naples, and ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. The most important unit of the American Mafia is that of a family, as the various criminal organizations that make up the Mafia are known. Despite the name of family to describe the various units, they are not familial groupings.
The Mafia is currently most active in the Northeastern U.S., especially in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New England (especially in Boston and Providence) while also being active in Chicago and Florida. At the Mafia’s peak, there were at least 26 cities around the United States with Cosa Nostra families, with many more offshoots and associates in other cities. There are five main New York City Mafia families, known as the Five Families: the Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno, and Colombo families.
At its peak, the Mafia dominated organized crime in the U.S. Each crime family has its own territory, except for the Five Families, and operates independently, while nationwide coordination is overseen by the Commission, which consists of the bosses of each of the strongest families. Today, most of the Mafia’s activities are contained to the Northeastern United States and Chicago, where they continue to dominate organized crime, despite the increasing numbers of other crime groups.
By many accounts, the NY Mafia has had somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years as the feds have turned the majority of their attention and resources over to the fight against terrorism. The Five Families were severely crippled by years of RICO indictments and were clearly on the ropes when the 9/11 attacks changed the playing field. The mafia families in New York may never again reach the heights of power of its heyday but they have proven over the years to have an uncanny ability to adapt and survive. Many of New York’s Cosa Nostra families now have new and stable leadership in place although some families have benefited from this new era more than others.
For years the Genovese crime family often referred to as the “Ivy League” of organized crime has been the most powerful of the Five Families. But as this latest mafia resurgence takes root and stability sets in could we see a new family name sitting atop the power structure in New York? The Genovese family is the oldest and still considered to be the largest of the NY families with influence over vast criminal activities both in NY and elsewhere across the country. According to multiple sources, veteran mobster Liborio “Barney” Bellomo has taken the reigns as the families new boss or acting boss. Bellomo is well respected and considered by many to be one of the more powerful mafioso on the streets of New York today. But even with a strong leader once again atop the mountain and the families continued devotion to the code of Omerta it may not be enjoying the same success currently as one of its rivals.
The Gambino crime family has historically been one of the more powerful of the New York mafia families in both size rivaling the mighty Genovese family and influence. The Gambino family is once again on the rise and may be the family that has benefited most from this ongoing mafia revival. Esteemed author and mafia expert Selwyn Raab believe one aspect of this new mafia resurgence is the increase in influence and power by Zips (nickname given to Sicilian newcomers) and Zip factions within the American mafia families in New York. The new Gambino family leadership which includes Francesco “Frank” Cali, Domenico “Italian Dom” Cefalù, and John Gambino among others have strong Sicilian ties and the family currently, maintains one of strongest zip factions in NY. Many believe these old school ties and a newly renewed old school approach have made the Gambino’s the most powerful family in NY overtaking the Genovese’s.
It is clear that the Gambino family currently has its most powerful and influential leadership groups in decades at the helm. Frank Cali has long been a rising star in New York mafia circles benefiting from his upbringing by mob elders including Cefalù and his uncle John Gambino along with his strong family ties to the old country. The strong Sicilian ties have undoubtedly given the Gambino family a solid foundation in the lucrative drug trade at least for now which is a major source of income for the NY families. According to recent reports, the Gambino family continues to operate outside of New York including having a heavy influence over what remains of the New Jersey mafia family. The other mob families in New York which include the Bonanno family, Lucchese family and Colombo family also seem to be rebounding just at a slower pace than these two mob powerhouses.
Meet the sons of Naples’ murderers, racketeers, extortionists and mob leaders. They too deal, steal and shoot, albeit with no financial necessity. The money they earn buys them the luxury items they need to maintain their image.
Most have never been to school and cannot read or write, let alone speak Italian. They speak in dialect and in onomatopoeic sounds. They wear clothes by Marcel Burlon – the reference – and live the life of footballers, spending hundreds of euros in VIP areas of bars each night. Their Burlon t-shirts cost €500 a piece.
They know everything about weapons, mafia hierarchies and crime but most don’t know how to stamp a metro ticket, according to the authors of the report. “Outside of the district they don’t know how to move,” says Silvia Ricciardi, a counsellor with the Jonathan reform school for the sons of leaders of crime organisations, known locally as the Camorra.
“We are teaching one boy how to read the dials on a clock. If you ask some of the others what month it is, they won’t be able to tell you.” Ricciardi runs the reform centers on the edges of Naples, which takes in teenagers with a background of organized crime; rape, drug dealing, assault.
Most young men arrive with a long criminal record already at 14 or 15. They are not allowed money or precious items inside but when they do get their phone allowances, they spend time texting and imitating their favorite characters from gangster films such as Scarface or Blow.
Despite such general braggadocio however, most of the teenagers carry their own traumas. “I often hear them scream in their sleep, as if they were being followed by someone. They scream: ‘Grab the gun, grab the gun.’ They relive in their subconsciousness their fears from the streets,” says Luigi Linguetta, who works at Jonathan and is charged with monitoring the boys in their sleep.
There are man boys at the centers, the maximum is eight. Most look up to those who were killed in the streets, such as 19-year-old Emanuele Sibillo, who was shot 13 times and killed.
Others try to replicate gang hierarchies, forcing younger members of the clan to make their beds or carry out chores for them. The staff at Jonathan too run their own dangers. One boy sent his men to burn down Jonathan’s car after he was turned away. He had refused to take off his hat when checking in.
Appearances can also be deceptive, say Jonathan’s staff. One son of a famous ‘Ndrangheta family from Reggio Calabria was admitted into the centre last year, codename Tiziano.
The 15-year-old was this, cleanly presented and spoke perfect Italian according to Jonathan’s staff. It was only after they took him back to Reggio Calabria did they realize how indoctrinated young Tiziano already was.
Crowds lined the streets to meet them as they arrived. “People here like me because I put myself at their disposal,” was how Tiziano explained the adoring crowds. Amidst the multitudes was a boy to whom Tiziano had delivered justice. The boy had been shot at and insulted. Tiziano made sure the perpetrator could no longer have children.