Half the guys I know can't remember anything that happened before lunch, and worse, they have no idea about their roots. They think that anyone over 50 is a dinosaur and lived in a different world. It was a different world for the older generation, but the rules of the game haven't changed much. Anyone who wants to take charge needs to understand the history of the mafia; otherwise he'll end up making the same mistakes and looking like twice the stronzo for his ignorance.
Wise guys didn't just spring out of the earth. Guys who practice the trade today are only the latest of a long tradition, and they offer the same primary service that the first guys did back in the middle ages: Protection from the real criminals -- the government. The men who started this racket didn't open up a strip club and kick their feet up. They were regular Sicilians who saw their country falling into disarray and decided that they weren't going to allow that to happen without having something to say about it.
Roots in Palermo and Sicily
Sicily and Palermo became the cradle of the Mafia. They were outlaws then as much as they are today, but in Palermo their means of making money differed from modern times. Rather than run drugs or guns, they borrowed other people's cattle and stood guard over property -- unglamorous property, like lemon orchards. Not exactly the bling we think of in 2007. The point of it all was to help the weak persevere over the strong, to form a group that had greater loyalty than that of the godless state that threatened the little man and even the wealthy.
In the 1700s, the Sicilian Mafia delivered images of a "Black Hand" to families, which might be thought of as an invoice for continued protection. Households that received the Black Hand either had to pay a tax for continued protection against invaders or they themselves became enemies of the Mafia.
Ranks and religion
In Italy they invented the rules, the initiation rights and the methods of doing business that still work today. They knew how to toe the line and follow the orders of their bosses. The Cosa Nostra has maintained its ranks for several hundred years, but it wasn't until the 19th century that they became a force within greater Italy and the United States.
They kept their religion close to them as well. The Sicilians in particular remained more faithful to the Pope, rejecting the new order of Italy, the government power that put the church in a secondary role. Because the nation posed a threat to the common people, the early Mafia turned their focus to the church as their common bond and rallying point.
Working in the cracks
The weaknesses and failures of the powers-that-be always provide cracks for motivated men to score some dough. After the formation of Italy, the outlaws quickly became organized and started staking out territory. The corruption in the Italian government officials aided the Mafia in getting a foothold in power, since bribes and threats managed to turn the loyalty of many lowly-paid bureaucrats away from their state job. Compared to wise guys in the United States, the Italian Mafia took a more active approach to changing government to work in their favor -- and they still do this today, always jumping into the cleavage of the government to get a handful.
Expanding the business
Hard times can lead to new opportunities. The Italian-American immigrants saw great opportunity in the new world for making money, particularly through prostitution, gambling and alcohol. The Mafia set up shop in every American city and started plying the trade of the old world.
One man in particular made the Mafia in the United States what it is today. Lucky Luciano is at the root of the history of the Mafia, as he murdered his way to the top of the organization and owned New York for most of his life. He was the “king pimp” of the city and ruled the Mafia during the era of prohibition -- a virtual gift from the U.S. government that allowed guys like Luciano and Al Capone to become extremely wealthy. This was the golden era of the Mafia in the United States, with all of the kingpins at play. There was Dutch Schultz, a Bronx bootlegger who later set up shop in New Jersey; Bugsy Siegel, a hit man who became one of the founders of Las Vegas; Meyer Lansky, a businessman who set up gambling operations all over the world long before globalization was even a word; and, of course, Al Capone, who whacked his way to the top and then ran Chicago's extremely profitable bootlegging business.
Working with the enemy
In desperate times, even the boss has to bend his rules. But a good boss will only do it when there is an incentive for the organization beneath him. The Cosa Nostra quieted during the period leading up to World War II. However, during the war they provided assistance to the United States and the Allies, since Lucky Luciano struck a deal with the U.S. Navy, such that he would give the Allies intelligence about Sicily and Italy if he could avoid going to prison. The Italian mob ran the ports and hated Mussolini, so Luciano's deal was music to both sides.
Re-organize after a war
Luciano came to be known as the "Boss of Bosses," not only because he put the fear of God into people but also for the way he managed the system. After the bloody Castellammarese War, a mob turf fight, Luciano called the five families of New York together to look at ways to keep their squabbles out of the media. He invented The Commission, which was a gathering of leaders of the families. This coordination of the families made the whole stronger.
After World War II, the Mafia in Italy returned to its previous state -- rather than running from Mussolini, they were running businesses. A new commodity became a moneymaker for the Cosa Nostra in the U.S.: Drugs, particularly heroin, made their way to the States via ships from Turkey, Vietnam and other places where the poppies grew.
In the years since, the families have risen and fallen in New York. The most recent one to make waves was the “Teflon Don,” John Gotti, a guy who the Feds could never nail with a crime. Over the course of his time as boss of the Gambino family, he was accused of not paying taxes, murder, racketeering, obstructing justice, loan sharking, illegal gambling, and more loan sharking.
Learning from your past
Along the way, the mob has grown in income and respect, owing to guys who knew when and how to take risks, as well as how to keep their mouths shut. If there is one thing that the government will never have over the Mafia, it's loyalty. This is mainly because when it comes to getting screwed, the beat cop is always over a barrel by both sides. A regular Joe six-pack cop will take a pass on going head-to-head with wise guys since he usually has a family at home that he wants to live another day for. The Mafia doesn't want to run the country, but they are always ready to make sure the owners of the country always remain afraid of the streets. And that's a brief history of the Mafia.
Thanks to Mr. Mafioso.
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