What is the hierarchy of a mafia

Lawyer: "Have you ever heard of the Cosa Nostra criminal organization?"

Salvatore Riina: "No, never heard of it"

Lawyer: “So you don't know him? Have you only read about it in the newspapers? "

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Salvatore Riina: “Yes, good. I saw something on television, read something in the newspapers ”

Salvatore Riina, former boss of the bosses of the Cosa Nostra, during a trial


“Cosa Nostra” - our cause. It was the key witness Tommaso Buscetta who in 1984 revealed to the judge Giovanni Falcone the name with which the “men of honor” themselves described their organization.

Linguists argue about the origin of the word “Mafia”. It could come from Arabic, from “mu”, power, and “afah”, to protect. One thing is certain: In the Palermitan dialect, “mafia” means beauty, courage. A “mafiosa” is a lovely girl, a “mafioso” is a brave boy. The word first appeared in a letter from 1861. The lieutenant of the King of Sicily wrote: “There is also a Camorra here, no less dangerous than the one in Naples. It is called ‘maffia’ ”.

The Cosa Nostra originated in agricultural Sicily in the 19th century. In 1812 the feudal system on the island was abolished: mines, land, vegetable gardens - everything was managed by large tenants, the “gabelloti”. They formed the link between peasants and nobles, between the state and the local community. The big tenants leased the property to farmers for a price much higher than what they had paid. They also employed guards, the “campieri”, to protect their property. Every uprising was put down by force.

The mafia thrived under lemon trees: in 1872 the surgeon Gaspare Galati bequeathed a lemon grove, four hectares in size and only a few minutes' walk from the city limits of Palermo. Those who owned lemons did very well in the London and New York markets. But Galati couldn't look forward to the proceeds. The guardian of the plantation, Benedetto Carollo, behaves as if he were the real owner: he stole lemons that had already been paid for in order to sabotage the returns on the property, he wrote threatening letters. Galati chose a new guard, but he only stayed on for a short time. Carollo had him shot. Galati received no help from the police, rather the chief inspector appeared to be on the criminal's side. So Galati wrote to the Ministry of the Interior in Rome. He reports on cartels, murders and, for the first time, a code of honor for the Mafia. Carollo, Galati could tell, was working on behalf of an organized gang who first brought the guards on their side and then took control of the goods. The surgeon Galati had discovered a mafia-like structure. In the end he left the island anyway: the “Omertà”, the local authorities' vow of silence, had won for the first time.


The Cosa Nostra has a strict hierarchy, structured like a pyramid. Right at the bottom are the “Uomini d´Onore”, the “men of honor” - petty criminals who turn into murderers if necessary. Above them are the “Capodecina”, the “bosses of ten”. Around five such groups of ten form a “Cosca”, a family that does not necessarily have to consist of actual relatives.

Each Cosa Nostra family controls an area, usually a district or a village. Three families each determine a “Capo Mandamento” who represents them in the provincial commission. At the top is the “Cupola”, the dome, the high command. This structure still exists today, only the posts are held more secretly because key witnesses weakened the Cosa Nostra considerably in the 1990s. Now the members of a “Cosca” only know their direct boss and not the entire management.


From the countryside, the Cosa Nostra is pushing into the cities and spreading into the construction business and drug trafficking.

The Corleonese clan fought for power within the Cosa Nostra in a bloody war. Most of the Corleonese come from the town of Corleone - world-famous as the backdrop for the Sicilian episode in the first part of Coppola's “Godfather”. Led by Salvatore “Totò” Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, the Corleonesi carried out two of the biggest attacks on the Italian anti-mafia movement.

It is May 23, 1992. At 5:56 p.m. the seismographs from Monte Cammarata registered a violent tremor. It is quickly established that it is not an earthquake. The mafia judge Giovanni Falcone and his wife Francesca Morvillo, also a judge, landed shortly before at Punta Raisi airport. Falcone is a tireless investigator: he led the Maxi Trial in Palermo and, after 349 days of negotiations, convicted 360 Cosa Nostra members. So in Sicily he has more enemies than friends. The Cosa Nostra has tried to kill him before. On June 21, 1989, Falcones bodyguards discovered a bomb - on the beach of his vacation home in Addaura.

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On this sultry May day, too, Falcones bodyguards are waiting with three cars in Punta Raisi. Falcone and Morvillo get into a white Fiat Croma. The judge is at the wheel and drives towards Palermo. The city is close - only seven kilometers away.

It is 5:58 p.m. Salvatore Gambino, a 34-year-old farmer, loosens the soil in his field on the edge of the highway. Falcones car and that of the escort arrive at kilometer five of the A29 at the Capaci exit. Gambino, he will tell a policeman, hears a violent bang. The Cosa-Nostra has hidden around 500 kilos of explosives in a drainpipe under the roadway. The explosion hits the first car in which the bodyguards drive and knocks it through the air. Falcones car crashes violently against a wall of asphalt and pebbles that was created by the detonation. Salvatore Gambino now sees a black column of smoke.

Giovanni Falcone, Francesca Morvillo and the three bodyguards Vito Schifani, Rocco Dicillo and Antonio Montinaro died in the attack.

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Just a few months later, on July 19, 1992, shortly before 5 p.m., three cars turned into Via Mariano D’Amelio, in the west of Palermo. Prosecutor Paolo Borsellino wants to visit his mother this Sunday. The cars stop in front of house number 19/21. Borsellino gets out, followed by his bodyguards. A Fiat 126 is a few meters away.

When the public prosecutor reached the front door, the Fiat 126, which had been loaded with 100 kilos of explosives, exploded. The bomb kills Borsellino and his bodyguards - except for the driver who is waiting in the prosecutor's armored car. Cars are on fire, body parts are scattered around.

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In 1992 the Cosa Nostra, under the leadership of Totò Riina, shows an unimaginable brutality in its fight against the state.

After Riina was arrested in 1993, power passed to Bernardo Provenzano. He is developing a new strategy for the Cosa Nostra: Less blood, more corruption. Little violence, but money laundering, in Italy and abroad. Provenzano, known as “Binnu u tratturi” (Bernardo the tractor), was arrested on April 11, 2006 near Corleone. He was in hiding for 43 years. But the most wanted boss of the Cosa Nostra hid in a farm hut not far from his hometown Corleone. Since then it has been assumed that the boss Matteo Messina Denaro has power in the Cosa Nostra.

Territorial expansion

In Italy you can find the Cosa Nostra, outside of Sicily, in Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Liguria, Latium and in Tuscany. In Germany, Cosa Nostra is particularly active in Hamburg, Cologne, Mannheim, Nuremberg and Wuppertal.

From the report of the Italian Anti-Mafia Commission (submitted on February 25, 2015)

“The Cosa Nostra was particularly lively this year, especially in the area around Palermo. (...) This analysis does not correspond to the information of other observers of the Mafia phenomenon, who report on the sinking of the Cosa Nostra. (…) Since the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the Cosa Nostra has been experiencing a phase of transit, not only because new leadership is being sought, but also because new organizational schemes and new strategies are being considered. The investigations and the trials confirm that the Cosa Nostra is looking for an inner balance. In doing so, she is constantly inhibited by the investigators. Nevertheless, every arrest has been followed by the appointment of a successor. (…) Matteo Messina Denaro, head of the families from Trapani, is still wanted. He rules well beyond this area. His arrest remains an absolute priority because it would be a great deal of damage to the Cosa Nostra, also on a symbolic level. "

Read all parts of the series “The Mafia - A Brief Explanation”:

# 2: the ‘Ndrangheta

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