The term ‘Mafia’ traces its roots to Sicily, where it emerged as a covert international organisation. Initially perceived as a group formed to resist oppression, it swiftly morphed into a nefarious criminal organisation. This transformation was notably transported to the United States in the late 19th Century by Italian immigrants. Known by various monikers such as the Syndicate, the Mob, and Cosa Nostra (literally ‘Our Thing’), the Mafia has etched a distinct identity in the criminal underworld. In today’s global landscape, while the classic Italian-American Mafia persists, there has been a significant proliferation of similar criminal syndicates worldwide, with several attaining international notoriety. This has led to the term ‘Mafia’ becoming a broader, informal descriptor for criminal organisations bearing a striking resemblance to the traditional Italian model.
The original Mafia cemented its authority primarily through extortion, compelling tradesmen and shopkeepers to purchase its ‘protection’ against potential harm. Additionally, it gained significant influence by monopolising the bootlegging industry, which involved the illicit production and distribution of alcohol, particularly during the Prohibition era. Modern-day mafias have expanded their sphere of activities which include (but are not limited to) drug trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering, prostitution etc. In the developing world, mafia organisations frequently engage in illicit activities such as land grabbing and human trafficking, among other serious crimes. In Nigeria, organised crime groups are involved in a range of illicit activities, including drug trafficking, fraud, human trafficking, and arms smuggling. These groups operate both within Nigeria and internationally, with sophisticated networks. In India, organised crime syndicates like D-Company, led by Dawood Ibrahim, are notorious. Their activities include illegal arms sales, drug trafficking, and extortion. These groups also have a strong influence in the Bollywood film industry and real estate. In Brazil, criminal gangs operating in favelas (slums) are involved in drug trafficking, arms dealing, and violent crimes. Groups like the Red Command and the First Capital Command have substantial control over various favelas in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Members of these groups often lead seemingly respectable lives, maintaining a facade of legitimacy through various legal businesses. These enterprises serve as a front, skillfully concealing their underlying criminal operations. This dual existence allows them to blend into society while continuing their unlawful activities covertly.
Mafia members distinguish themselves from typical criminals in various ways. They exhibit unwavering loyalty to their ‘crime family,’ often adhering to a unique code of honour. This sense of allegiance fosters a deep-rooted loyalty, and members typically choose an honourable death over betraying their organisation. Mafias generally seek a parallel relationship with governmental entities, rather than directly opposing them as a rival power. However, when faced with challenging circumstances, they do not hesitate to resort to extreme measures, including eliminating individuals who pose a threat to their interests or stability.
Usually, mafias induct their members from economically deprived areas with low education levels. To strengthen adherence to the ‘family’, mafias (such as Cosa Nostra or the Chinese Triads) tend to create founder myths with detailed stories about the forming of the family. To achieve their goals their modus operandi usually includes influence peddling among political elite and government officials, violence to create fear, corruption etc. As discussed earlier, common crime areas include gambling, exploiting prostitution, extortion and racketeering, drug trafficking, and (most recently) diversion of public funds. While gangs and ordinary crime rings are usually destroyed following the arrest of their leader, mafias continue to exist as social structures independent of human beings.
Historically, mafias remained successful as well as secret because of their code of ‘omerta’ which requires them to maintain silence about criminal activities and refusal to give evidence to the police or other Law Enforcement Agencies. Additionally, they also used bribes and intimidation of government officials, business entities, judges and witnesses to avoid prosecution, making the law enforcement system ineffective.
Another term, ‘syndicate’ is more general in nature and refers to any organised group, including those involved in organised crime. However, a syndicate does not have a family system.
In contemporary times, numerous countries, particularly in the developing world, grapple with a complex web of mafias and criminal syndicates. These organisations often extend beyond the traditional family system, incorporating a diverse array of organised criminals engaged in various illicit activities. Within this framework, the family system often plays a pivotal role in political arenas, thereby gaining the capacity to provide cover and support for other criminal groups. This entanglement of crime and politics not only strengthens these organisations but also complicates efforts to combat them effectively.
Beginning in the Italian South, or Mezzogiorno, the nexus between organised crime and politics has always been a constant and deeply integrated aspect, though the nature of this relationship has evolved over time. Historically, governments have not only utilised the services of the Mafia but have also offered pardons in return. A notable example of this occurred during the Second World War. The United States strategically deployed expatriate Sicilians, particularly those with Mafia connections and who were previously incarcerated, back into Sicily. Their mission, carried out well before the summer of 1943, was to infiltrate and gather intelligence from the local population. Following the Allied victory, these Mafia members were not only pardoned but also actively assisted in regaining their lost strength, respect, and authority, illustrating the complex and often reciprocal relationship between organised crime and political power.
In today’s interconnected world, nations have the ability to collaborate with third-party countries in efforts to track financial transactions, drug trafficking networks, and apprehend criminals. This increased international cooperation has prompted a strategic shift among mafias, syndicates, and organised crime groups. Rather than solely relying on political support to navigate legal obstacles, these entities are increasingly striving to acquire or maintain political power directly. This pursuit of political influence often leads to situations where even rival groups may collaborate or support each other when circumstances demand it. This trend underscores the evolving tactics of organised crime in response to the changing dynamics of global law enforcement and international relations.
For any nation to prosper and progress, rule of law is essential. While mafias, syndicates and other criminal groups have successfully survived for a long time, they can be controlled with focused and unified effort at the national level. During the 1980s and 1990s, prosecutors in the US and Italy began successfully employing tough anti-racketeering laws to convict top-ranking mobsters. In fact, by the start of the 21st Century, the mafia, after enduring hundreds of high-profile arrests over several decades, seemed to be significantly weakened in both countries. While not entirely eradicated, this scenario exemplifies the effective utilisation of legal systems in combating organised crime. In fact, the potential for mafias to seize political power necessitates vigilance. The electoral process can be an important tool in combating such influence. While legal efforts have debilitated mafia organisations, their persistence underscores the need for ongoing diligence by governments, with the support of their citizens. Learning from the experiences of the US and Italy, other nations, particularly those in the developing world, can apply similar strategies to control and mitigate the influence of various mafia groups within their borders, regardless of their specific forms.
The author is a retired Air Marshal of the PAF who served as Pakistan’s Air Advisor at New Delhi from 2002-06, presently working as Advisor CAS and Director Technologies and International Coordination at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published in The Nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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