Mafia – criminal fraternities

I have been watching a dramatic series on SBS online called Zero Zero Zero. It follows the journey of a cocaine shipment, from the time a cartel of Italian criminals (the mafia) decides to buy it until the cargo is delivered and paid for, passing through its packaging in Mexico and shipment across the Atlantic Ocean. Its worth watching. If you liked Narcos and The Godfather this mashes them together with a bit of an African road trip thrown in.

Zero Zero Zero‘s focus on the Ndrangheta, the organised crime group originating in the Southern Italian region of Calabria, piqued my curiosity on the words we use for the mafia.


We often talk about the “Italian mafia”, the “Russian mafia” or the “Japanese mafia”. In these usages “mafia” is used to refer generically to secret societies of criminals that operate primarily as private protection firms, acting as the arbitrators between criminals and extorting money. Mafia activities in gambling, drugs, money-laundering, etcetera are secondary activities to their role as criminal go-betweens. Extreme violence is used to enforce contracts and to deter competitors.

The United Nations reported that 19 per cent of all homicides recorded globally in 2017 were related to organized crime and gangs—approximately 65,000 compared to 89,000 killed in armed conflict. However, since the start of the twenty- first century, organized crime has resulted in roughly the same number of killings as all armed conflicts across the world combined (2017 figures).

The mafias usually operate under a code of silence, the Omerta, which may derive from an old Spanish word “hombredad”, meaning manliness, after the Sicilian word omu “man”. Retaliation is brutal for breaking the code.


The term mafia” was originally applied only to the Sicilian Mafia and originates in Sicily. A member is a mafioso (from about 1870), fem. mafiosa, plural mafiosi. The word is thought to come from Arabic. The Arabs ruled Sicily for more than two centuries in the Middle Ages. However, which Arabic word is disputed.

The immediate source of mafioso is Sicilian mafiusu, a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud. The online Etymological Dictionary favors the Arabic source as the adjective from marfud rejected.

Cosa Nostra—the Sicilians

The Sicilian mafia prefers to call itself the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian for our thing).

Ndrangheta—the Calabrians

Ndrangheta derives from Greek ἀνδραγαθία (andragathía) for “heroism” and manly “virtue” or ἀνδράγαθος (andrágathos) compound words meaning a courageous man. The Ndrangheta are now considered the largest mafia group in the world.

They do operate in Australia and were known as the Black Hand in the 1920s to 1940s were they were associated with ten murders and other crimes. Robert Trimbole a criminal man implicated in the murder of Donald Mackay in 1977 was a Calabrian. He is alleged to have been running the marijuana trade in Griffith, NSW.

Camorra—the Neopolitans

The Neopolitan mafia, are the Camorra but they have a less hierarchical structure with clans led by individual “capos” (bosses). The name is likely a portmanteau word made up of “capo” and a Neapolitan street gambling game, the “morra” essentially meaning the boss of morra. The Camorra may have arisen protecting players of the game against officialdom when it was banned in the 18th century.

Other Italian mafia groups

Other Italian groups include Sacra Corona Unita (Italian for ”United Sacred Crown”). They are also known as the fourth mafia. It operates in the Apulia region in Southern Italy (Brindisi, Lecce, and Taranto). The Società foggiana (Society of Foggia) also known as the fifth mafia operating in the Province of Foggia.


The Japanese Mafia calls itself “Ninkyō dantai” (chivalrous groups) but the Japanese police and media call them bōryokudan (violent groups). They are commonly known as “Yakuza” by the public which just means “gangster”.


The Russian mafia groups often call themselves “Bratva” (meaning “brotherhood”). They have grown in influence since the fall of the USSR. They have filled the power vacuum that occured with the weakening of state control. Their traditional code of conduct is called “Vory v Zakone,” or thieves in law and is thought to have evolved in forced labour camps and later the Soviet gulags.


Despite all their chivalrous, virtuous names and codes of conduct, the mafia gangs are simply the worst of criminals organising together to protect themselves from justice.