Cosa Nostra | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Cosa Nostra is a term used to refer to the Sicilian Mafia, which is a criminal organization that originated in Sicily, Italy.

Cosa Nostra, a term that literally translates to “Our Thing,” refers to the notorious criminal organization known as the Sicilian Mafia. Originating from the island of Sicily, Italy, this group is one of the most infamous and influential organized crime syndicates globally. With a long history steeped in various criminal activities such as extortion, loan sharking, drug trafficking, and murder, Cosa Nostra has garnered both fear and fascination worldwide.

History and Origins of the Sicilian Mafia

The Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, has roots that trace back to the 19th century in Sicily. Historically, it arose as a response to the political turmoil and lawlessness in Sicily following the unification of Italy in 1861. The Mafia started as groups of vigilantes who offered protection services to landowners and businesses in return for loyalty and monetary benefits. Over time, these groups evolved into organized criminal networks deeply embedded within Sicilian society.

Structure and Operation of Cosa Nostra

Cosa Nostra’s organizational structure is intricate, with a network of local groups or “families” that operate across Sicily and other parts of Italy. The term “family” does not necessarily denote biological relationships; instead, it signifies a unit of mafia members bonded by shared criminal objectives.

Each family is governed by a boss, the highest authority within the group. The boss is typically a respected and feared figure with significant influence and power. Assisting the boss is an underboss, often a family member or a trusted ally, who assumes leadership if the boss is imprisoned or incapacitated.

Below them is a group of advisors, known as “consiglieres,” who provide counsel on the family’s operations. The bulk of the family consists of “soldiers” or “made men”— full-fledged members who have sworn allegiance to the family and proven their loyalty through criminal activities.

Cosa Nostra is notorious for its strict code of silence, known as “omerta.” This rule prohibits members from cooperating with law enforcement or discussing internal affairs with outsiders. Breaching this code can result in severe punishment, including death. This code, coupled with the use of violence and intimidation, allows Cosa Nostra to maintain control, eliminate critics, and operate without interference.

Criminal Activities of the Sicilian Mafia

The Sicilian Mafia’s illegal ventures span a broad spectrum, from traditional rackets like extortion and loan sharking to large-scale drug trafficking. Extortion involves demanding money from businesses under the threat of violence, while loan sharking refers to lending money at exorbitant interest rates, with the failure to repay often resulting in physical harm.

However, it’s the global drug trade that has significantly amplified the Mafia’s wealth and power. Cosa Nostra has played a significant role in the international narcotics trade since the 20th century, particularly in the smuggling of heroin and cocaine.

The Mafia is also known for its involvement in white-collar crimes, such as fraud, money laundering, and corruption. Through these activities, Mafia families infiltrate legitimate businesses and public institutions, further extending their influence and power.

Law Enforcement Efforts and the Persistence of Cosa Nostra

In recent years, Italy and other countries have ramped up efforts to dismantle the Sicilian Mafia. Numerous members and leaders have been arrested, and significant legal measures have been put in place to fight organized crime. These efforts culminated in the historic “Maxi Trial” in the late 1980s, which saw hundreds of Mafia members convicted.

Despite these efforts, Cosa Nostra continues to operate, adapting to new circumstances and finding ways to survive. The organization’s resilience is attributed to its deep societal roots, its complex network structure, and its ability to exploit political and economic instability.


The Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, remains a significant threat to public safety and the rule of law. This criminal organization, with its reach extending far beyond Sicily, continues to influence the world’s criminal landscape. Understanding its history, structure, and operations is vital in the ongoing global fight against organized crime.

Cosa Nostra’s power comes from its ability to instill fear, demand respect, and maintain loyalty among its members. The Mafia’s longstanding history and entrenched presence in society make it difficult to eradicate entirely. In addition, its adaptability allows it to thrive even in the face of significant law enforcement pressure and changing socio-political landscapes.

Moreover, Cosa Nostra’s influence is not limited to criminal circles. The organization has historically infiltrated various sectors of society, including politics, business, and even the church, further complicating efforts to combat its influence.

The Sicilian Mafia’s reach is not confined to Italy. Over the years, it has developed a significant presence in several other countries, notably the United States, through immigration and alliances with other criminal organizations. The American Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra, shares many similarities with its Sicilian counterpart, including its organizational structure and code of silence.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/15/2023

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