Hey Lifehacker, I just finished watching all six seasons of The Sopranos which got me to wondering: does the Mafia actually still exist, or is it just a Hollywood fantasy? If it's real, in which countries does it operate? It might influence my travel plans! Thanks, Don Speak
As the long-running Underbelly TV series will attest, organised crime is very much a living beast whose fingers can be found in every far-flung pie across the globe. Our publisher was recently lamenting the presence of bikie outlaws, youth gangs and drug cartels in his area — and that's just a single street in Marrickville!
However, when it comes to the Mafia specifically, things are a bit trickier to define. The Macquarie Dictionary defines "Mafia" thusly:
- (in Sicily) a popular spirit of hostility to legal restraint and to the law, often manifestting itself in criminal acts.
- a criminal secret society of Sicilians or other Italians at home or in foreign countries.
- (sometimes humorous) any group seen as resembling the Mafia by having a close-knit organisation, in-group feelings, etc.
The term Mafia was originally applied to a loose association of criminal groups originating in Sicily that called itself Cosa Nostra ("Our Thing".) This remains the most popular perception of the Mafia; in large part due to US movies and TV shows like Goodfellas and the aforementioned Sopranos. Indeed, the entertainment industry has been mythologising the exploits of Italian Mafioso for more than a century, starting with The Black Hand in 1906 — but that's not to say it's all fiction.
While its glory years are long behind it, Cosa Nostra continues to operate to this day, specialising in loan sharking, drug-trafficking, protection racketeering and fraud. Its presence can be found in parts of Italy, Canada, the UK, Germany, South America, South Africa and even Australia.
The organisation made headlines a few years ago following the INTERPOL capture of prominent Mafia member Vito Roberto Palazzolo. Palazzolo was sentenced for laundering money from the proceeds of drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling, among other crimes.
Since the 1990s, the Cosa Nostra has been all but supplanted by crime syndicates from other countries, particularly in the illegal drug trade. Confusingly, many of these rival groups have also been labelled "mafia"; either by themselves or the press. It's now considered a generic term for any organized criminal network with similar structure and interests to its old Sicilian namesake.
In other words, the Mafia definitely still exists. I wouldn't let it affect your travel plans though: one thing most mafia organisations share in common is a reluctance to target random civilians on the streets. It's risky, has an unpredictable cash flow and brings unwanted attention from local councils and law enforcement agencies.
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