NOTHING DISTINGUISHES THE MAFIA FROM OTHER SECRET societies more than omerta, its rigid code of silence. And nothing more clearly tracks the decline in the Mafia's discipline and status, in America at least, than the contrasting actions of two high-level members: Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, head of a notorious gang of hired killers, and 400-pound Joseph (Big Joey) Massino, don of New York's once-powerful Bonanno crime family. Buchalter died in 1944, seated stolidly in an electric chair. Sixty years later Massino dealt his own organization a potential death blow in a manner that would have driven the short-fused Buchalter into a state of apoplexy.

Between them, they trace the fall of one of the world's most powerful secret societies from a zenith of authority and dominance down to a band of disorganized thugs, many of whose exploits would be humorous if they were not so deadly.

Omerta, like the Mafia itself, was born not from the machinations of a criminal mastermind but out of the desperate necessity of middle-class Sicilian families seeking control over their own lives. Like triads and Templars, the appalling behavior of the Mafia and its various progeny is actually rooted in good intentions.

The most easily recognized country in any atlas of the Mediterranean region is Italy and its boot-shaped peninsula. The toe of the Italian boot ends barely twenty kilometers from the shores of Sicily, making the island appear as a distended soccer ball being eternally kicked across the sea. The image is apt; due to its strategic location, Sicily was the object of invasion, colonization and exploitation by powerful outside interests for hundreds of years. Sicily proved vital to Mediterranean trade and colonization, an important port for merchants and military expeditions traveling to and from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Adriatic.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Sicily endured a chain of invasions, each leaving an indelible mark on its people and culture. The spread of Islam brought Arab raiders to its shores in ad 826. The Muslims proved relatively tolerant of the existing society, permitting non-Muslims to practice their own religion, and their influence on Sicilian culture lies at the root of two Mafia qualities maintained to this day.

One was the position of women in society. Until the arrival of the Muslims, Sicilian society functioned much like others living under Judeo-Christian influence, with women playing a relatively important role in family decision making. In comparison, Islamic law subordinated women. After their arrival, decisions within the family and within the culture generally were made by men, an attitude that took deeper root in Sicily than in other Christian nations that experienced Islamic influence, and one that continues down to this day.

The Arabs also brought a sense of internal justice. Lacking a system of enforcement to deal with criminal acts, Islamic forces depended upon personal responsibility to avenge crimes. These two qualities—limited rights for women and an obligation to seek vengeance for personal redress—remained imbedded in Sicilian society long after the departure of the Islamic invaders.

In ad 1000, a wave of invasions brought Normans, who replaced Islamic influence with an imposed feudal system in which vassals owed their allegiance and lives to their landlord. Each lord dispensed justice in his own manner, producing a patchwork system that left native Sicilians angry and confused. Out of control of their own destiny, and subject to the whims of outsiders, the Sicilians turned inward, embracing the assumption that nothing and no one was to be trusted except immediate family. Only family provided hope for security and justice, and a man could commit no more outrageous crime than to break his loyalty to his own family. With this presumption, the seeds of the Mafia were sown onto fertile ground.

For hundreds of years Sicily remained a pawn of foreign powers. In 1265 Pope Clement iv, acting in his own interests, declared Charles of Anjou, brother of French king Louis ix, the new king of Sicily. Arriving with a large, powerful army and intent on totally dominating the Sicilians, Charles followed the pope's dictates faithfully, becoming among the most arrogant and brutal of all medieval monarchs.

With the passage of time, seething hatred towards Charles and his French administrators produced a fable that supposedly explains the origins of the term “Mafia.” According to the tale, Sicilian loathing of the French was expressed in a slogan whispered among rebellious Sicilians, who would greet each other with Morte ala Francia Italia anelia! (Death to the French is Italy's cry!). To prevent the phrase from being overheard by French soldiers, it was shortened to the acronym Mafia! The story is considered apocryphal at best; most dictionaries attribute the word to a Sicilian dialect, meaning “bragging” or “manly,” and in Sicily it does not necessarily imply a criminal identity. Whatever its origins, “Mafia” came to symbolize the secretive and distrustful nature commonly associated with Sicilians.

Charles and his army brutalized Sicilians to the point where the island nation's entire population developed into a massive bomb waiting for a detonator, which arrived on Easter Sunday, 1282, in classic “Mafioso” manner. On that day, a young Sicilian woman in Palermo on her way to vespers was accosted and insulted by a group of French soldiers. Without warning, several outraged Sicilian men attacked the soldiers, killing them on the spot. When word of their assault spread, first to neighboring towns and eventually across the island, other Sicilian men joined the revolt, overwhelming and annihilating the French garrison in an explosive uprising that became known as the Sicilian Vespers.

Sicilian leaders knew it was only a matter of time before Charles gathered an army and returned to Sicily with massacre on his mind. In a strategic move, they appealed to Peter iii of Aragon, a sworn enemy of Charles and possessor of extensive lands in Spain. Peter was naturally pleased to oblige, proclaiming his sovereignty over Sicily and preventing Charles from wreaking terrible vengeance on the Sicilians as he planned. With Peter's death, however, Sicily's fortunes were now in the hands of Spanish rulers, where they remained for 500 years.

The Spaniards, in contrast with the Muslims who opened Sicilian life to other cultures, exerted tight control by imposing strict censorship on the country. Sicily remained isolated from the rest of the world for the next several hundred years, a period when all the rest of Western Europe was caught up in the artistic and scientific advances of the Renaissance. As a result, the intellectual and cultural eruption that changed the character of European civilization by-passed Sicily entirely. Developments in music, painting, sculpture, philosophy, agriculture, science, architecture and other miracles of the period passed unknown to people living literally within sight of the Italian boot, where many of these advances were taking place.

The Spanish preserved the feudal system imposed by the Normans long after it had crumbled in mainland Europe. The Sicilians suffered more under Spain's rule than under the Normans’ because the Spanish were even more discriminatory and brutal in dispensing justice. Some powerful Spanish lords living in Sicily, for example, were exempted from paying any tax at all. To fill the quota, other lords had to impose higher demands on their own vassals and peasants, increasing the inequality of Sicilian life.

Sicilians who dared object to Spanish dictums risked execution by either their lord or representatives of the Spanish government. The other long arm of Spanish reckoning, the dreaded Inquisition, added hideous torture to the hazard of speaking out or defying authority in any manner.

Other cultures were subjugated in a like manner through history. Only in Sicily, however, were injustices imposed so heavily on a people who had learned to turn inward as a means of defense and self-preservation. Only in Sicily was the population removed for so long from the positive influences of the Renaissance and the increasingly enlightened views of the Catholic Church. And only in Sicily did anything like the Mafia rise in direct response to this long litany of violence and humiliation.

Around 1500, one aspect of contemporary European life arrived in Sicily when the island's tradesmen began forming guilds. In other countries, the guilds functioned as a means for the trades-men to train personnel and establish standards, just as the Freemasons began in England. Sicilian trade guilds added a unique aspect to their operations when they assumed a judicial role as well, dispensing punishment to their members without any involvement from local officials who, of course, could not be trusted.

The rise of the guilds coincided with the rise of bandit gangs. Reminiscent of the legendary (and highly fictional) bandits led by Robin Hood in England 500 years earlier, the gangs targeted Spanish lords and nobles, robbing and murdering them, and represented the only means available for most Sicilians to strike back at their oppressors. They also distributed food to starving families in the villages beyond Palermo. To ensure their fair share, families would choose someone to represent them and distribute the food among brothers, sisters and cousins. These men, many of them members of bandit gangs, were called capodecina, shortened to capos.

Like Sherwood Forest outlaws, the Sicilian bandits created their own folk heroes, lauding their bravery and exploits as examples of gallantry. The most celebrated of them, a man named Saponara, was captured and imprisoned in 1578. According to Sicilian lore, Saponara was tortured by his Spanish captors in an effort to learn the names of his cohorts but Saponara chose to die in agony rather than betray others. His bravery became a symbol for every Sicilian who believed their salvation could be achieved only through loyalty.

Driven by the actions of the bandit gangs that grew steadily in strength and daring, many Spanish landowners abandoned the countryside to relocate in Palermo, Sicily's largest city. By the early 1600s, most of the largest estates were being administered bygabelloti, managers chosen by the Spanish landowners for the prominence and respect they commanded among local citizens. The most important function of the gabelloti was tax collection, carried out by uomo di fiducia, men appointed to visit personally every citizen and pocket the tax payable. The collectors were often accompanied by campieri, armed and mounted men assigned to maintain peace and command respect.

To anyone familiar with the modern Mafia, the gabelloti, uomo di fiducia and campieri portray an early Mafia organizational chart. Even the management technique is recognizable. From a distant and luxurious setting, the order to collect stipends from the common people would go out to a series of bosses (capos). On instructions from the capos, low-level workers would pay personal visits to the targeted sources of money, accompanied by armed men to enforce the command. Neither Al Capone nor Tony Soprano could have drawn up a more appropriate model for the system that enriched them.

The withdrawal from the countryside of the Spanish lords, and their replacement by appointed bosses, served as inspiration for Sicilians to begin to assume control of their own destinies. Coinciding with the belated rise of the middle class, who sought affluence through the new (to Sicily) role of playing middleman, the mould to achieve wealth and power had been created, and it remained in place after the Spanish withdrew in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Spanish departure created a vacuum of authority. For a thousand years, Sicily had no effective governing body, and with the withdrawal of the Spanish only one organization existed to fill that role: the Mafia. The Italian nation-builder and liberator Garibaldi arrived in 1860 to bring Sicily into the Italian kingdom, but those hundreds of years of secrecy and independence could not be undone overnight. In fact, as history has proven, they were not undone at all. The Mafia continued to exert its power and influence over government institutions imposed on Sicily by Rome, and within a few years virtually every Sicilian political office and court was infiltrated and controlled by Mafia elements.

Centuries of dominance by outside powers had carved a scar across the face of Sicily that prevented most of the island's citizens from trusting any imposed authority, no matter how legitimate its power or how even-handed its approach. The law, as enforced by government, could not be trusted to deliver justice. To most Sicilians only a vendetta was effective, because all crimes were personal and all vengeance was to be meted out by the oppressed victim and his family, as dictated by omerta.

The code of omerta decreed that any man who appealed for law enforcers to right a wrong was either a fool or a coward, and any wounded or offended man who would name his assailant was beneath contempt. The classic response of a wounded man to his assailant, spoken aloud or silently, was “If I live, I will kill you. If I die, you are forgiven.”

The Mafia's strength originated with, and continues to be drawn from, its organizational structure. Primitive in terms of other, more beneficent institutions such as governments and the Catholic Church, the Mafia nevertheless managed to develop a configuration that exerted discipline and control over its members. Over time, it crafted the group into an effective power in the same manner that disorganized guerrillas are transformed into an effective fighting force by adapting the techniques of a regimented and motivated army.

Ranked from the top down, the organization of the Sicilian Mafia included the following:

Capo Crimini/Capo de tutti capi (Super Boss/Boss of bosses)
Capo Bastone (Underboss, or second-in-command)
Contabile (Financial adviser)
Caporegime or Capodecima (Head of a crew consisting of ten sgarristas)
Sgarrista (Foot-soldier carrying out daily business of the family;
in the U.S., referred to as a “made” member)
Piciotto (Low-ranking soldiers; enforcers, “button men”)
Giovane D'Honore (Non-Sicilian or non-Italian associate)

Italians correctly maintain that the Mafia's existence has created offensive stereotypes. Not every Italian is a Mafia member, of course, just as not every Chinese is a triad member or every Muslim a supporter of Al Qaeda. But even the most vociferous Italian patriot must agree that the Mafia is not unique among Italian secret societies bent on crime and violence. While criminal gangs exist in virtually every large urban center the world over, the Italian breed remains distinctive in its fixed structure and reliance on violence as a means of achieving its goals.

Nor does the Mafia represent the only Italian secret criminal society. In reality, at least three other extensive organizations with Italian roots remain active, their existence inspired, if not nurtured, by the Mafia.

Of these, the ’Ndrangheta is most closely associated with the Mafia, both geographically and historically. Operating in the rugged rural regions of Calabria, the southernmost part of the Italian “boot,” the ’Ndrangheta resulted from the Italian government's ill-fated efforts to break up the Mafia by banishing its most violent and powerful leaders and their families from Sicily in the 1860s.

It was a foolish move. The families simply relocated on the mainland directly across the Straits of Messina where, in remote Calabrian villages, they formed a secret society that differed from the Mafia in two distinct ways: it became even more secretive, and arguably more violent. A high-ranking Italian government official recently described ’Ndrangheta as “the most powerful and dangerous criminal organization in Italy because of its viciousness.”

The organization derives its name from the Greek word andragathes, meaning a noble and courageous man worthy of respect. Reflecting its origins—those violent families banished from their ancestral Sicilian homes—the ’Ndrangheta is organized exclusively along family lines, which produces a profound difference between it and the Sicilian Mafia. The Sicilians are bound by oaths, the ’Ndrangheta by blood. In addition, the ’Ndrangheta reportedly uses women in active roles from time to time, although its structure remains clearly male-dominated.

Unlike the classic pyramid structure of the Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta is organized on a horizontal basis and divided into clearly defined family segments or ’ ndrinas. No overlap occurs between the activities or geographic region of two neighboring families; each has full control within its own territory and a monopoly on all activity there. The combination of tight structure and family blood provides the ’Ndrangheta with an enormous ability to maintain both secrecy and loyalty, consolidated through carefully arranged marriages between ’ndrinas. Nothing in Sicilian and Calabrian culture is more sacrosanct than family, and where linkages exist through marriage it would be an act of serious dishonor for one family to perform any act that would threaten the security of a related family. As one Sicilian parish priest explained: “There is strength in the sacred and impregnable structure of the family, the only secure place. Only blood does not betray.” (italics added).

Compared with ’Ndrangheta, the Mafia appears almost lax and sloppy in its internal discipline. Sons of Mafia members may choose to follow their fathers into the organization or not; sons of the ’ ndranghettisti have no choice. To become a member of the criminal family is their diritto di sangue (right of blood), assigned at birth. While being groomed for their life's work, a process that begins shortly after puberty, male children are giovani d'onore, or “boys of honor.” At maturity, they become picciotti d'onore, soldiers expected to carry out orders from their superiors without question and without fail. The best of these are chosen as cammorista, in charge of groups of picciottis. When they have risen to the next level as a santista, they can finally claim a fixed share of the spoils instead of the small stipend paid to the lower ranks.

Through exceptional work, and after solemnly swearing his dedication on a Bible, a santista may be promoted to the level of vengelista, perhaps later to join the quintino, five privileged sub-bosses with direct linkage to the capobastone, the highest power within the ’Ndrangheta family. Members of the quintino are permitted to identify themselves with a tattoo of a five-pointed star.

Tight secrecy, together with a reputation for extreme violence, has been the ’Ndrangheta's strength in maintaining its power and expanding its influence. Unlike the Mafia, no one can confidently estimate the size and global extent of its criminal activities, although in 2004 the Italian government suggested the ’Ndrangheta consisted of 155 family clans and a total membership of over 6000.

Either as a result of honest ignorance, the organization's extreme secrecy, or an effort to downplay the ’Ndrangheta's power, some observers suggest the group is harmless to non-Italians, and Italians themselves are quick to endorse this perception. Promoting the region as a holiday destination, the Calabrian tourism office admits “you will find no Florences or Venices in Calabria.” Instead, in an act of remarkable candor, the tourism office notes, “Calabrian roads can be brutal, and occasionally they are obstructed by police roadblocks.” The office, which organizes tours of Calabria, promises: “We have avoided planning itineraries in certain inland areas which are virtual strongholds of the ’Ndrangheta, the local Mafia, whose main source of revenue is kidnapping the children of wealthy northern industrialists and hiding them in inaccessible caves in the Aspromonte until astronomical ransoms are paid for their release. It should be said that tourists are never the object of this type of crime and indeed, if you travel to Calabria, you will probably never encounter any of these dangers.”

Reassuring. Of course, you may also enter a Calabrian village and encounter a sight similar to that witnessed by the citizens of Taurianova, a town not far from Reggio di Calabria, where local ’ndrina first beheaded a councilor who opposed their control of the region, then used his severed head for target practice in the town square. This was not a medieval era act, nor even an event that took place 100 years ago. It occurred in 1995.

In the 1860s, a traveler to Naples arriving by sea noticed that, moments after he handed his boatman the fare, a man appeared at the boatman's side, muttered a word, and received a portion of the traveler's payment before vanishing into the shadows. The same traveler, stepping from the carriage that brought him to his hotel that day, observed a similar incident—a man appeared at the driver's side and inspected the fare before claiming a portion of it. Reaching the door to his hotel room, the traveler paused to watch the porter, whom he had just tipped for carrying his luggage to his room, stop to hand part of the gratuity to another man, as furtive and silent as the first two. That evening, the tourist attended the opera to find men of a similar dress and demeanor, carefully counting the money that changed hands from patrons to ticket seller. When the tourist described these events to an Italian acquaintance the next day, anticipating an explanation, the friend closed his eyes, shook his head slightly, and said simply, “Camorra.”

Camorra—the word's origins may lie in the Spanish term for dispute, although today it's more simply translated as “gang”—sprang up as a Neapolitan strain of the same breed of secret society as the Mafia and ’Ndrangheta. Unlike these two criminal branches, Camorra was spawned not within blood-related families but from prison gangs who, released from custody, carried their talent for organization and intimidation to the streets.

Camorra established itself in and around Naples as a paternal organization, dedicated to providing assurance to the citizens and businesses of Naples that they would not be harassed by anyone except, of course, Camorra members in the event that its payments were not received. Mafia families in the U.S. adapted this ploy during the 1920s, where it became known as “the protection racket.” Members were also ready to settle disputes and offer assistance to poorer families or victims of accidents and disease.

The organization proved as vicious in handling its own members as in intimidating the public, whose income it siphoned. Admission into the order required that newcomers commit a major crime to prove their courage and dedication. The very act of being asked to qualify for Camorra membership represented a crisis, because any man who refused the opportunity to join the group by committing the crime risked signing his own death warrant if his killing became the task assigned to a more courageous and less scrupulous candidate.

Whether they considered it futile to battle the Camorristi or to fulfill its own Machiavellian strategies, Neapolitan government officials not only tolerated the group but reportedly employed it for the government's own ends. For years, Neapolitan jails and prisons were administered and disciplined by the Camorra, and the organization reportedly worked with local police to track down and punish criminal acts carried out by anyone who was not Camorristi.

The group's structure reflects the Mafia's for the most part, with a capo di Camorra collecting and distributing payments to several smaller groups made up of second-tier leaders and their soldiers. Unlike the Mafia, however, it appears to shun mystical initiations and procedures.

Like other secret organizations engaged in criminal activities, the fortunes of Camorra ebb and flow. From time to time, crusading politicians claim it has been laid to rest, or so weakened that it is no longer a serious factor. Recent assessments suggest the Camorra consist of over 100 different clans with about 7000 members.

Through much of the twentieth century, the Camorra's principal source of income was cigarette smuggling throughout Italy and neighboring countries, performed with such efficiency that Camorra combined forces with the Mafia to handle that organization's European drug distribution, an immensely profitable move. This led to a series of territorial battles within the Camorra resulting in an estimated 400 violent deaths and driving as many as 200 Camorra members to the U.S., where they quickly set up gangs to deal in money laundering, extortion, robbery, blackmail, kidnapping and counterfeiting. Despite that flurry of expansion, Camorra remains primarily a Naples-based operation, lacking the mystique and historical fascination of the Mafia.

Yet another Mafia-oriented group germinated in southern Italy, this one in Puglia (often called Apulia in English), the peninsula that forms the heel of the “boot.” Sacra Corona Unita, or United Sacred Crown, began like the Camorra with prison gangs who gathered in remote regions where they could be free from surveillance by central authorities. Headquartered in the port city of Brindisi, the Sacra Corona earned much of its income by smuggling travelers to and from Croatia, Albania, and other countries across the Adriatic. It has never achieved the scale of operations of the Mafia or Camorra, either in Italy or in the U.S.

Had the Mafia remained in Italy, it would hardly have registered on any books other than those dealing exclusively with criminal organizations. Its arrival in the U.S. on the cusp of the twentieth century, and its metamorphosis into a purely American strain of secret society, vaulted it into the public consciousness and secured it a place in popular culture. Everyone in the U.S. knows “Mafia”; few, however, fully understand its structure, operations and influence.

10 Journalists often write La Cosa Nostra, which is grammatically incorrect.

For example, the term “Mafia” is not entirely correct when referring to the U.S. counterparts, whose members refer to their organization as Cosa Nostra, “this thing of ours.”10 And while omerta and other tools to ensure secrecy remain in place, the American branch has attempted to structure itself as a reflection of U.S. business principles rather than an extension of mystical medieval vows. In the Americas at least, the perceived values of Wall Street carry more authority than thousand-year-old rituals of Sicily.

The first recorded incident of Mafia-based crime occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when a Sicilian crime family murdered the local chief of police, who had been pressuring them with arrests and harassment. The family leaders were tried for murder, but thanks to some witnesses being bribed and others being threatened with death, they were all acquitted. Before they could be released, however, an angry lynch mob shouting anti-Italian slogans stormed the jailhouse, dragged the culprits into the street, and shot or hanged sixteen of them. A lesson may have been learned; while New Orleans has one of the highest crime rates of any city its size in the country, the influence of Cosa Nostra there has never reached the level of other communities, notwithstanding Oliver Stone's claims in his movie JFK.

While Cosa Nostra's roots were well established by the end of World War i, two events—one in Italy and the other in the U.S.—propelled the organization into a major force.

The introduction of Prohibition in 1919 created a low-cost, high-demand and high-profit opportunity for criminals, especially those operating within an organization that could manufacture, import and distribute its products under the noses (or with the collaboration) of law enforcement. No other criminal activity promised such enormous profits.

Meanwhile, the dictator Benito Mussolini was rising to power in Italy with the promise of eradicating crime and ensuring that the trains ran on time, among other pledges. He succeeded at both. His fascist administration was the only one brutal enough to threaten Mafia control, and soon many Mafia families were emigrating across the Atlantic, where they joined families reaping massive amounts of money from illegal alcohol.

Northern cities like New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit are most closely identified with Cosa Nostra activities but more than two dozen communities, as bucolic in nature as Des Moines, Iowa, and San Jose, California, also became operational centers. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 left an intact organization that turned its attention to other illegal means of making a profit. Again, timing was fortuitous for the criminals and disastrous for the public. Two years before Prohibition, the state of Nevada legalized gambling, and on the brink of World War ii, America developed a taste for narcotics. Both events were quickly and efficiently exploited by Cosa Nostra families. By the 1950s, Cosa Nostra was a dominant factor in almost every criminal activity in the U.S., and the major milker of the Las Vegas cash cow, reaping tens of millions of dollars annually from gambling, prostitution, narcotics and the age-old protection racket.

Reflecting strategies perfected by ’Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra maintained the family structure, although it waived the Calabrian organization's requirement for a blood connection. In fact, it easily overlooked any prerequisite for Italian heritage among its partners, welcoming Jewish and Irish criminals on an associate basis.

While every U.S. city center was placed under the aegis of one or more families, the five families in New York and adjacent New Jersey became the most celebrated due to their power and to the media that covered their activities. The five included these:

BONANNO: Founded by Joseph (Joe Bananas) Bonanno, the family once was a presence in the garment trade but became deeply infiltrated by the fbi, as told in the movie Donnie Brasco. As we'll see, its most recent boss, Joe Massino, has caused the family even more grief than Brasco did.

COLOMBO: The original boss was Joe Profaci, who ran the family from 1930 until his death in 1963 when Joe Colombo assumed leadership. Colombo was an effective boss right up to the day in 1971 when he was shot at an Italo-American rally. He survived, although he remained in a coma for seven years before expiring. An extended war developed within the family, with Carmine Persico emerging as the victor until he was sentenced to 139 years in prison for murder and racketeering.

His son, Alphonse (Allie Boy) Persico, is one of the few Cosa Nostra family bosses to secure a college education, where he appears to have majored in wardrobe selection. Allie Boy likes to dress well, even when tooling around the waters of the Florida Keys in his fifty-foot speedboat christened Lookin’ Good. One day the U.S. Coast Guard, taking a good look at Persico and his boat, found a hand gun and a shotgun on board. They ordered the guns to be unloaded, inspected the boat, found everything in order, and went on their way.

Allie Boy had lucked out because no one on the coast guard boat checked his criminal record. Only when the coast guard crew returned to port did they learn that Persico had served time for federal racketeering and, banned from owning any firearms, was subject to a ten-year prison term upon conviction. Most college graduates would have tossed the guns overboard as soon as the coast guard was out of sight, but Persico apparently skipped his college classes on logic because, a few hours later when the coast guard cutter pulled alongside the Lookin’ Good at dock in Key West, the weapons were still on board and Persico was lookin’ at a decade in the slammer. Lapses in judgment like that one have made Allie Boy such an ineffective boss that other New York families no longer acknowledge the Colombo group.

GAMBINO: This was the infamous John Gotti's family, dating back to the 1920s and named for Carlo Gambino, who ran the family from 1956 to 1976. Gambino, considered one of the most effective family heads (“dons”) in Cosa Nostra, kept a low profile, avoided publicity, stayed in touch with family members, and built the family into a financial powerhouse through narcotics and gambling. In the 1970s he added car theft to the operations, sending stolen luxury automobiles to the Middle East via Kuwait. Gambino's successor, his cousin Paul (Big Paulie) Castellano, alienated various capos including John Gotti and his underboss Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, who orchestrated Castellano's murder in 1985. Gotti died in prison, where he was serving a life sentence, in 2001, and Gravano, responsible for a reported twenty murders, entered the witness protection program. Through a series of successions, Gotti's son John Jr. now heads the family.


Paul (Big Paulie) Castellano at the height of his powers and notoriety.

GENOVESE: Another New York family dating back to the 1920s, the Genovese gang was originally associated with Charles (Lucky) Luciano and Frank Costello. More than 50 years before John Gotti smirked and strutted across the newspaper pages and tv news like an escapee from a Saks Fifth Avenue window display, Frank Costello set the mark for class, or as much class as a Cosa Nostra boss can display.

Costello, possessed of political smarts and a talent for strategic planning, acquired the title “Prime Minister” among gang leaders, a man who preferred smooth talk and bribes over revolvers and shotguns, although he often resorted to the latter when necessary. For several years mayors, governors, judges and police officers throughout the northeast United States smiled at the sight or even the mention of Frank Costello because both tended to be accompanied by an envelope of cash. Costello was the original dapper don, sporting thousand-dollar tailored suits, custom-made shoes, perfect manicures and a bullet-proof haircut. Appearances were everything to Frank. Facing charges of tax evasion, Costello was advised by his lawyer not to appear in court dressed so elegantly because it appeared to be alienating the working-class jury. “Start wearing cheap suits, old shoes, a lousy tie,” the lawyer said. “You'll do better with the jury.”


Big Paulie Castellano in a New York gutter, murdered on the orders of John Gotti.


Frank Costello chose good grooming over beating the rap.

Frank disagreed. “I'd rather lose the goddamn case,” he replied.

And he did. While serving his time, Costello tried managing the family from behind bars but Vito Genovese, the family's ruthless namesake, had other ideas. Genovese wanted to replace Costello at the top and he followed the most widely employed method of succession. While walking down a New York street soon after being released from prison, Costello heard someone shout, “This is for you, Frank!” At the sound of his name, Costello turned his head, and the bullet from the talkative hitman's gun merely grazed his scalp.

Frank could take a hint. Recovering in hospital, Costello spread the word that he was retiring from the family business and he handed leadership over to Albert Anastasia who, lacking both Luciano's and Costello's good fortune, was gunned down in October 1957 while lying back in a barber's chair awaiting a shave. Genovese assumed leadership and gave his name to the family, but he had little time to enjoy the notoriety; within a few years he received a fifteen-year sentence for racketeering and died of cancer in a federal penitentiary. The current boss is Dominick (Quiet Dom) Cirillo, a man out of the Gambino mould who has made this family the most powerful and cohesive group in New York.

As for Frank Costello, he spent the last few years of his life socializing among New York's elite, hosting parties in his Manhattan apartment and his Long Island estate. His guest list included some of the most famous society and political figures of their time, including fbi boss J. Edgar Hoover, whose closet homosexuality and preference for cross-dressing Costello exploited for his own gain. When the Cosa Nostra “Prime Minister” died in his sleep in 1973, his most prominent legacy perhaps was the raspy voice borrowed directly from Costello's manner of speaking, adapted by Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

LUCHESE: Gaetano (Thomas) Luchese was active in New York's garment industry during his tenure from 1953 to 1967. Among his capos was a man named Paul Vario, the model for the character Paul Cicero in the movie Goodfellas. The family has been weakened in recent years with the turning of three key members—Alfonse (Little Al) D'Arco, underboss Anthony (Gas Pipe) Casso and Peter (Fat Pete) Chiodo—into government witnesses.

As Cosa Nostra's public profile grew in the minds of the public, an aura of glamour rose around the gangsters, fueled by celebrity associations. Frank Sinatra was often seen in the company of Cosa Nostra bosses throughout his career as were many of his cronies, including Dean Martin, Al Martino, George Raft and, supposedly, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante. Sinatra's heritage—his paternal grandparents were Sicilian—lent at least a blood linkage. The singer vehemently denied any association with crime families, but a famous photograph showing Sinatra arm-in-arm with crime bosses Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano, and hit-man Jimmy Fratianno, suggests they were all close buddies. Whether the singer was attracted to the gangsters or the gangsters to the Sicilian-rooted singer remains debatable.


Despite his objections, Frank Sinatra was linked with Mafia bosses such as his buddies Paul Castellano (far left) and Carlo Gambino (third from right).

Much of the glamour and intrigue that outsiders associate with Cosa Nostra flowed from omerta, the code of honor sealed in a secret induction ceremony that pressed the sanctity of the code upon new members. The secrecy was broken, along with other mystiques of the group, in 1990 when the fbi recorded an induction ritual admitting Robert (Bobby Dee) Deluca into Boston's Patriarca family. Gathered in a small Bedford, Massachusetts, house, the head of the family began by stating loudly, in a Sicilian dialect, “In onore della Famiglia, la Famiglia e abbraccio” (In honor of the Family, the Family is open).

FBI lurkers heard Deluca instructed to repeat an oath spoken by the boss: “I, Robert Deluca, want to enter this organization to protect my family and to protect my friends. I swear not to divulge this secret and to obey, with love and omerta.”

Next, each of the eight men pricked their index finger and dropped their blood onto a holy card bearing an image of the Patriarca family saint. The card was set afire, and as it burned Deluca repeated the second oath: “As burns this saint, so will burn my soul. I enter alive into this organization and leave it dead.”

The allure of a secret society, the macho posturing of its leaders, and the immense wealth at the fingertips of its most successful members attracted women to the Cosa Nostra men almost from the beginning. Of course, the reverse was true as well: many ambitious young Italian men wanted to join because Cosa Nostra members had no trouble attracting good-looking women. Any woman who associates herself with Cosa Nostra quickly learns that the lessons imprinted on Sicilian society by Muslims 1000 years earlier remain embedded in the attitudes of Cosa Nostra men. To them, women fulfill one of two available roles: angel or whore, wife or mistress.

Wives of Cosa Nostra men enjoy attractive benefits at a price. The benefits include the prospect that her man will rise high enough in the ranks to generate an impressive flow of income, permitting her and her family to enjoy the perks of wealth—a large home, expensive clothes, luxury cars and first-class vacations. Another perk is respect from her husband and his cohorts. The family remains a powerful unifying force among Sicilians and especially among Cosa Nostra members. You don't embarrass your wife, and you don't abuse her either. Exceptions exist, but any Cosa Nostra man known to beat his wife or act disdainful of her loses a measure of respect.

The price paid by the wives is substantial and acknowledged. Male promiscuity within the group is considered a sign of manliness, and the sexuality of any “wise guy” who is without a mistress or two may be suspect. Wives are expected to understand and accept this, just as they understand that they are to maintain a level of decorum. Any woman who swears risks being labeled a puttana, a prostitute, and cheating on a husband who happens to be a “made” man is a capital crime.

To avoid embarrassing their wives, Cosa Nostra men set Friday nights aside for their girlfriends; Saturday nights are for wives. The arrangement is strictly observed, avoiding the possibility of a Cosa Nostra man and his spouse encountering an acquaintance with a woman to whom he is not married. In other situations, the tradition becomes flexible—more than one Cosa Nostra wise guy has taken both his wife and mistress on a luxury cruise, the spouse staying with him in a suite and the mistress closeted in a lower stateroom.

Sex and murder collide in the Mafia environment with unique consequences. Vito Genovese reportedly had a man killed because Vito wanted the victim's wife for himself. The murder was excused by Genovese's confreres because a man of passion knows that rules and honor cannot always control his heart's desire. And while a Cosa Nostra man's excessive heterosexual activity elevates his status, the smallest degree of homosexual interest can be lethal regardless of his standing within the organization, as the fate of John (Johnny Boy) D'Amato proved.

D'Amato was head of the DeCavalcante family, the largest in New Jersey and reputed to be the basis of the popular Sopranos television series. He had also been a confidante of the notorious John Gotti, a relationship that might have protected him in other times and other circumstances. With his girlfriend Kelly, D'Amato began frequenting clubs where men and women swapped partners and engaged in group sex. At more than one of these events, D'Amato's girlfriend witnessed him performing oral sex on other men, and she tearfully confessed it to one of D'Amato's wise-guy friends. When the friend reported the incident to Mafia heavyweight Vincent (Vinnie Ocean) Palermo, the mob boss ordered D'Amato's murder. The motive was clear. “Nobody's gonna respect us if we have a gay homosexual boss sitting down discussing business,” D'Amato's killer testified in court.

A millennium of secrecy and ruthless activity may appear to ensure the Mafia's survival in Italy, where its future seems assured despite periodic claims by that country's law enforcement groups that they have “broken” the society. In the U.S., however, the future of Cosa Nostra is not nearly as certain. Unlike Italian Mafia, the American Cosa Nostra faces wider competition from rivals often more ruthless than themselves, including Colombian drug lords, Vietnamese street gangs and Russian mobsters.

Even more critical to Cosa Nostra's survival, respect for the long-standing code of omerta is breaking down just when the society needs it most, a situation best demonstrated with a comparison between the actions of the two Mafia members we met earlier: Louis (Lepke) Buchalter and Joseph (Big Joey) Massino.

Buchalter rose through the ranks during the Mafia's glory days of the 1920s and 30s as a muscle-man in New York's garment district, where he became notorious for his callous, violent ways. Any manufacturer or shopkeeper who failed to pay his allotted protection money was not merely warned or risked having his legs broken. He was simply killed, usually on the site of his business. Buchalter's standard modus operandi after each killing was to ransack the premises and torch the business, burning the evidence.


The late Johnny D'Amato. All the sex you want, as long as it's hetero.


Louis (Lepke) Buchalter. He sat in the electric chair as though riding the subway to work.

Thanks to his notoriety and a few traitorous colleagues, Buchalter was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair on March 4, 1944. In spite of appeals by his lawyers for a commutation, Lepke's death sentence was carried out, and he was executed along with two associates. Buchalter was the last of the three to die, and while the first two men had stumbled quivering with fear into the execution chamber, Lepke strode in confidently, plopped himself into the electric chair, and sat as impassively as though he were riding the subway to work. Five minutes after being strapped in, he was pronounced dead.

The next day, Buchalter's widow hosted a press conference at a hotel near the prison in Ossining, New York, where her husband had been executed. “My husband dictated this statement in his death cell,” she told reporters, “and I wrote it down, word for word.” According to Beatrice Buchalter, Lepke had insisted that his statement receive the widest possible coverage, and reporters wrote down every word that Beatrice read from his note.

“I am anxious to have it clearly understood,” Lepke dictated, “that I did not offer to talk and give information in exchange for any promise of commutation of my death sentence. I did not ask for that!” According to his widow, Lepke insisted on the exclamation point.

Buchalter, everyone agreed, was providing a clear signal to Mafia cohorts that he had not broken omerta. Some observers believed he did this to prevent reprisals against his family, but others suggested his motive was less practical and more emotional. Even in death, it was important that others understood he had acted in an honorable fashion towards his colleagues, if not towards his victims. This was a matter of personal pride that the prospect of having 5000 volts of electricity blasting through his body within a few hours could not divert.

Sixty years later, Big Joey Massino was boss of New York's Bonanno family, the top man of one of Manhattan's five most powerful Mafia. But the 400-pound leader of a group that practiced extortion among the same garment district that Lepke Buchalter terrorized proved to be a very different kind of man. Omerta may have meant honor to Buchalter but it meant nothing to Big Joey—not when he was looking at a hard-time life sentence after being convicted of murder and racketeering. Out on bail in September 2004, the Mafia boss did the unthinkable for a man of his stature in the world's most powerful criminal society: he agreed to wear an fbi microphone and record a colleague discussing the slaying of an associate and the planned murder of a federal prosecutor. Through his cooperation, dozens of his family members were brought to justice, and Massino avoided a potential life sentence.

When news of Massino's turncoat behavior became known, it hit Cosa Nostra members with the impact of an express train. Massino was hardly the first to break the omerta code; Joe Valachi set that mark back in 1963 when he testified to the U.S. Congress about the Mafia's presence, using the term “Cosa Nostra” in public for the first time. Since then, dozens of members have sought lighter sentences by cooperating with prosecutors. In every previous case, however, these were lower-level wise guys, with limited knowledge of the family's operations, no hope of reaching the higher levels where the big money was earned, and perhaps with a grudge or two against the men above them. The turning of a family boss was unprecedented and foreshadowed the possibility of a total breakdown of discipline within the organization. How can any Cosa Nostra family generate respect and loyalty, and exert discipline among the lower levels, when a family head betrays the entire organization?

The future of secrecy within the American branch of the Mafia/Cosa Nostra is in doubt. The prospect of its continued existence, and the strength of its control over criminal activities long associated with it, are even less certain.

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