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The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos... whatever combination of media you get your Mafia information from, you're probably not entirely correct. Sometimes, these tales hew very close to the truth. Even when they do though, organized crime is constantly changing, moving, and evolving. What might have been true at one time, in one place, may not be a hard rule of the game. Our fascination with organized crime has led to a multitude of media productions that depict the group in particular ways, ingraining certain myths about the Mafia into our heads.
The Mafia doesn't play well with others.
Well, obviously this is partially true: The Mafia certainly doesn't have a reputation for being endlessly forgiving and friendly. The myth that the Italian Mafia has always been at war with rival organized crime groups is, in fact, a myth. The truth of the matter is, at various points in the history of the Mafia, they have partnered and allied with a number of other crime groups, with relationships that ranged from tense business partners to genuinely coming to like each other. Of course, the American-Italian Mafia has often had a positive relationship with the Sicilian Mafia, but as these groups have shared origins, and that's only to be expected. However, more surprisingly, they have also been known to have positive relationships with other criminal elements like the Russian Mafia.
The Mafia has all but died out.
The Italian-American Mafia is considered to have peaked between 1940 and 1970, and then, seemingly, the fall of an empire took place in Mafia history. This is one area where Goodfellas does a good job of showing the changing climates surrounding the Mafia, as you watch from the early, glory days, to what seem like the dying days of the group. The truth of the matter is that the scope and activity of the Mafia has certainly diminished and been diluted over the course of the last half-century. However, the Mafia is currently estimated to maintain about 3,000 members around the United States. Some hypothesize a genuine downturn in the power and number of Mafia members; others, however, believe that the crime element is simply laying low for the time being, making money and staying relatively out of trouble as they quietly grow.
Once you're in, there's no way out.
Most TV shows, movies, and news articles show the sometimes-bloody aftermath of getting caught crossing the Mafia. As a result, there are many myths about the Mafia with regards to loyalty. In the days of The Godfather Part II, there was no such thing as Witness Protection, and so it may have been much more difficult—and daunting—to stay safe if you've broken the code, a crime generally punishable by death. However, since 1971, the FBI has given as many as 10,000 witnesses and even more family members protection and new lives, meaning that the number of informants and defectors has, at many times, been quite high.
Witness protection is a life-long contract.
Witness Protection programs have often been highly successful, and resulted in cooperation between former Mafia members and the criminal justice agencies in many cases. However, there are quite possibly just as many myths about Witness Protection programs as there are myths about the Mafia. The biggest of these myths is that witnesses stay under government protection for the rest of their lives. The truth is, depending on the case, witnesses may only have such protection for a year or so. Furthermore, a hugely significant number of these witnesses choose to break early, as the strain of being isolated from all friends and family can be overwhelming.
The drug trade is a recent business change.
There's something appealing to the American public about Vito Corleone's refusal to enter the drug business in The Godfather. That same attitude has led many to believe—or want to believe—that the Mafia's code of honor and standards have kept them out of the drug business, period. Others may believe the myths about the Mafia that fall on the other extreme, as portrayed by Tony Montana's Al Capone in Scarface, one of the best drug cartel movies of all time. The truth is, they're both myths.
The former is rooted, partially, in fact: Many Mafia bosses, as recently as the 1990s, have officially banned their element's involvement in the drug trade. However, the FBI believes that many billions of dollars have been made by the Mafia in the drug trade, and many known members—including high-ranking members in John Gotti's Gambino crime family—have been implicated in drug investigations.
It's a "family" business.
You hear a lot of talk about crime "families" in place of criminal organization. There are, however, a lot of myths about the Mafia's "family" structure circulating out there. The major players are known as the Five Families, structured in 1931 to distribute control in NYC. At this time, the founders of each family gave the families their name. To this day, the names and territories stand. However, that does not mean that the crime bosses of each families are descendants of, or even related to, their predecessors. The passage of power has long left bloodlines within these "families," and so the term refers only to the local crime element, which is structured in the way set down back in 1931, rather than indicating a familial relationship between members of that element.
The Mafia originated in the United States.
Many people misunderstand, or have not thought about, the origin myths about the Mafia. Tony Soprano gives a rousing speech to his therapist in The Sopranos about his ancestors, the early Italian-American immigrants, carving a name for themselves by organizing a criminal element, and thriving within it. The fact remains that the Mafia was not formed by previously unattached immigrants, per se. The roots of the Italian-American Mafia, in fact, go back to Sicily. Today, there is still a heavily active Sicilian Mafia in that area, with which the American Mafia has been known to work. It is from this group which our American Mafia came.
The Mafia works mainly around New York City.
The scope of the American Mafia has shrunk and grown throughout its history in the United States. It is true that New York City has often been the center-point of power: In fact, the Five Families, which run the Mafia to this day, preside in New York City. However, the Mafia has been very active across the country, most significantly in major urban cities. This means that heavily populated areas, like the hub of activity that is Boston, NYC, and others in New England, have significant Mafia activity as well. However, it also means that major Midwest cities like Detroit and Chicago, and major West Coast and Southern Cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, all have their share of Mafia activity.
The government knows very little about the Mafia.
The Omerta, or code of silence, of the Mafia has given it a reputation as a genuine unknown, an opaque entity to the government. Often, the only times we see or hear of government agents gaining information on organized criminal elements is when it goes wrong. Otherwise, it often seems the only information the government ever really has is a few names and affiliations. However, the number of former Mafia members or affiliates who agree to testify or give information to the government has grown drastically in the last half-century, leading to a wealthy of information and insight into the organization that had been previously unattainable.
They're at permanent war with the U.S. government.
It seems that just about every crime show has a few episodes or a story arc dedicated to the Mafia—some revolve entirely around it, in fact. It seems every movie and TV show about the Mafia includes its fair share of antagonistic run-ins with the government. However, the animosity between the Italian-American Mafia and the U.S. government has, at times, been, for better or worse, suspended. In WWII, for example, the government made an agreement with Lucky Luciano to help them protect NYC from foreign saboteurs, implicitly signing off on criminal actions to attain these ends. As recently as 2007, there have been reports that indicate Mafia members had been asked by the FBI to investigate particular murders, again working with a criminal element to implicitly condone illegal methods and being one of the more surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries.