The Mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra (Italian: Our Thing), is a loose association of people in Sicily, bound by a code of conduct and similar organisational structure, who operate in certain ways outside the laws of the state in Italy. Originating in the 19th century, it developed as a kind of natural aristocracy or self-appointed police in a place where the state was not strong following the Italian unification and the enforced transition to a society based on liberalism. During its earlier existence the organisation typically took part in racketering and extortion for protection, as well as mediating between bandits and victims of cattle-rustling around World War I.
During the reign of Benito Mussolini and fascism, the organisation was suppressed. This was largely because the Fascists were opposed to any power which held sway outside of the state, whether it be the Freemasons, Capitalists or any other group. The Fascists sought to solve the social problems caused by liberalism by giving the Italian state a real and positive presence in Sicily, thus making the Mafia's original self-proclaimed function surplus to requirements. Some Mafiosi reformed themselves, others fled to the United States to join the American Mafia; amongst these, traitors such as Lucky Luciano worked with Jewish criminals such as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel as well as the United States government to conquer Italy during World War II.
Offshoots of the Mafia emerged in the United States, Canada, and in Australia during the late 19th century following waves of Italian emigration (see Italian-American Mafia). However, outside Italy the term "Mafia" is also employed to name any organization operating under a similar structure, whether Sicilian or not; such as the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta or the Sacra Corona Unita, as well as foreign organized groups such as the Russian Mafia. In more recent times the Mafia has been involved in disreputable actions such as trafficking drugs, usury and movement of waste to unhealthy places. The nature of the Mafia in Italy has changed since the 1960s from its old rural, paternalistic disposition to what is objectively amoral criminality. Because they operate outside the law, they have also been blackmailed to carry out killings during the years of led and associated with P2 freemasons (such as the killing of Roberto Calvi).
A popular urban legend exists which claims that Giuseppe Mazzini, the leader of Young Italy and one of the most prominent figures in the quest for Italian unification, founded the Mafia and that the name Mafia means Mazzini Autorizza Furti Incendi Avvelenamenti (Mazzini authorizes theft, arson and poisoning). This claim is particularly prominent on the internet in some American alternative media websites (it has fed back into Italy). There is no explicit evidence for this. However, the secret society of the Carbonari (an organisation Mazzini belonged to) did have a similar ritual to the Mafia. Both organisations began operating around the same time (Carbonari in 1811 and the Mafia following the de-feudalisation of Sicily in 1812) and there was a Sicilian branch of the Carbonari, as well as the Grande Oriente di Palermo. Some have suggested the ritual may have passed through members of both groups being in prison at the same time.
- Omerta in the Antipodes, Time, 31 January 1964
- Origins of the Sicilian Mafia by Filippo Spadafora