The Mafia, a network of organized-crime groups based in Italy evolved over centuries in Sicily.
For centuries, Sicily, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, was ruled by a long line of foreign invaders. The residents of this island formed groups to protect themselves from the often-hostile occupying forces, as well as from other regional groups of Sicilians. These groups, which later became known as clans or families, developed their own system for justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret. By the 19th century, small private armies known as “mafie” took advantage of the frequently violent, chaotic conditions in Sicily and extorted protection money from landowners. From this history, the Sicilian Mafia emerged as a collection of criminal clans or families.
Four criminal networks
Although its precise origins are unknown, the term Mafia came from a Sicilian-Arabic slang expression that means “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful”.
In 1861, Sicily became a province of recently unified Italy. However, chaos and crime reigned across the island as the fledgling Italian government tried to establish itself. In the 1870s, Roman officials even asked Sicilian Mafia clans to help them by going after dangerous, independent criminal bands. In exchange, officials would look the other way as the Mafia continued its protection shakedowns of landowners. The government believed this arrangement would be temporary, lasting just long enough for Rome to gain control and instead the Mafia clans expanded their criminal activities and further entrenched themselves in Sicilian politics and the economy. The Mafia became adept at political corruption and intimidated people to vote for certain candidates, who were in turn beholden to the Mafia. Even the Catholic Church was involved with Mafia clans during this period.
The Mafia’s influence in Sicily grew until the 1920s, when Prime Minister Benito Mussolini came to power and launched a brutal crackdown on mobsters, who he viewed as a threat to his Fascist regime. However, in the 1950s, the Mafia rose again when mob-backed construction companies dominated the post-World War II building boom in Sicily. Over the next few decades, the Sicilian Mafia flourished, expanding its criminal empire and becoming, by the 1970s, a major player in international narcotics trafficking.