Dons, Capos and Consiglieres: The Structure of the American Mafia

Wikimedia Commons

For the average law-abiding citizen, it can be difficult to distinguish between the Hollywood version of the Mafia (as depicted in Goodfellas, The Sopranos, the Godfather trilogy, and countless other movies and TV shows) and the real-life criminal organization on which it is based. Also known as the Mob or La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia is an organized-crime syndicate founded and run by Italian-Americans, most of whom can trace their ancestry back to Sicily. Part of what has made the Mob so successful—and so difficult to eradicate—is its stable organizational structure, with various families directed from the top by powerful bosses and underbosses and staffed by soldiers and capos. Here's a look at who's who on the Mafia org charts, ranging from the least influential (the "associates" who can be whacked at will) to the most deadly (the mythical capo di tutti capi, or "boss of all bosses.")

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Jimmy Hoffa, a known Mob associate. Getty Images

To judge by their depiction in movies and TV shows, associates of the mob are kind of like ensigns on the U.S.S. Enterprise—they exist solely to get whacked in hostile territory, while their bosses and capos manage to scuttle away unscathed. In real life, though, the designation "associate" covers a wide range of individuals affiliated with, but not actually belonging to, the Mafia. Wannabe gangsters who have not yet been officially inducted into the Mob are technically associates, as are restaurant owners, union delegates, politicians and businessmen whose dealings with organized crime are more than skin-deep and occasional. The most important thing that distinguishes an associate from the other ranks on this list is that this person can be harassed, beaten and/or murdered at will, since he doesn't enjoy the "hands off" status accorded to more important soldiers, capos and bosses.

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Al Capone, who started his crime career as a soldier. Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers are the worker bees of organized crime--these are the men who collect debts (peaceably or otherwise), intimidate witnesses, and oversee illegal enterprises like brothels and casinos, and they are occasionally ordered to beat or kill the associates, or even the soldiers, of rival families. A soldier can't be whacked as offhandedly as a mere associate; technically, permission must first be obtained from the victim's boss, who may be willing to sacrifice a troublesome employee rather than risk a full-out war. A few generations ago, a prospective soldier had to trace the ancestry of both of his parents back to Sicily, but today it's often only necessary that he has an Italian father. The ritual by which an associate is turned into a soldier is still something of a mystery, but it probably involves some of kind of blood oath, in which the finger of the candidate is pricked and his blood smeared on the picture of a saint (which is then burned).

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mugshot of Paul Castellano
Paul Castellano, who was once a capo under Albert Anastasia. Wikimedia Commons

The middle managers of the Mob, capos (short for caporegimes) are the appointed heads of crews, that is, groups of ten to twenty soldiers and a comparable or larger number of associates. Capos take a percentage of the earnings of their underlings, and kick up a percentage of their own earnings to the boss or underboss. (This is one of the crucial ways in which a mob family differs from a law-abiding corporation: at IBM, for example, salaries trickle down from the top of the organizational chart, but in the Mafia the money moves in the opposite direction.) Capos are usually given responsibility for delicate tasks (like infiltrating union locals), and they are also the individuals held to blame when a task ordered by the boss, and executed by a soldier, goes awry. If a capo grows too powerful, he may be perceived as a threat to the boss or underboss, at which point the Mafia version of a corporate reorganization ensues (we'll leave the specifics up to your imagination).

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The Consigliere

Frank Costello, consigliere to Lucky Luciano.

A cross between a lawyer, a politician, and a human resources manager, the consigliere (Italian for "counselor") functions as the Mob's voice of reason. A good consigliere knows how to mediate disputes both within the family (say, if a soldier feels he's being over-taxed by his capo) and outside it (say, if there is a dispute over which family is in charge of which territory), and he will often be the face of the family when dealing with high-level associates or government investigators. Ideally, a consigliere can talk his boss out of ill-thought-out plans of action (like whacking a municipal employee who won't issue a crucial building permit), and will also suggest viable solutions or compromises in tense situations. However, in the actual, day-to-day working of the Mob, it's unclear how much influence a consigliere really wields (or, indeed, whether all Mafia families have classic consiglieres to begin with—it's not like these guys carry around business cards!).

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The Underboss

picture of Sammy Gravano with hand raised
Sammy Gravano, underboss of the Gambino family.

The underboss is effectively the executive officer of a Mafia family: the boss whispers instructions in his ear (or who knows, in this day and age, texts them over a secure cell-phone network), and the underboss ensures that his orders are carried out. In some families, the underboss is the boss's son, nephew or brother, which supposedly ensures his complete loyalty (though the history of organized crime is littered with notorious counterexamples). If the boss is whacked, imprisoned or otherwise incapacitated, the underboss assumes control of the family; however, if a powerful capo objects to this arrangement and chooses to take over instead, the underboss might find himself at the bottom of the Hudson River. All that said, though, the position of underboss is fairly fluid; some underbosses are actually more powerful than their nominal bosses, who function as figureheads, while others are barely more respected or influential than a high-earning capo.

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The Boss (or Don)

Lucky Luciano, one of the most notorious Mafia dons. Wikimedia Commons

The most feared member of any Mafia family—and if he's not, something has gone seriously wrong at the shop—the boss, or don, sets policy, issues commands, and keeps underlings in line. Like managers in the English Premier League, the style of bosses varies from family to family; some are soft-spoken and blend into the background (but are still capable of shocking violence when circumstances demand), some are loud, brash and well-dressed (like the late, unlamented John Gotti), and some are so incompetent that they are eventually eliminated and replaced by ambitious capos. In a way, the main function of a Mafia boss is to stay out of trouble: a family can survive, more or less intact, if the feds pick off a capo or underboss, but the imprisonment of a powerful boss can cause a family to disintegrate completely, or open it up to depredation by a competing syndicate.

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The Capo di Tutti Capi

scene from Boardwalk Empire
Giampiero Judica plays Salvatore Maranzano on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

All of the Mafia ranks listed above exist in real life, albeit vastly distorted in the popular imagination by the Godfather movies and the adventures of TV's Soprano family. But the capo di tutti capi, or "boss of all bosses," is a fiction rooted in distant fact. In 1931, Salvatore Maranzano briefly set himself up as "boss of bosses" in New York, demanding tribute from each of the five existing crime families, but he was soon whacked on the orders of Lucky Luciano--who then set up "The Commission," a governing Mafia body that didn't play favorites. Today, the honorific "boss of all bosses" is often loosely given to the most powerful boss of the five New York families, but it's not as if this person can bend the other New York bosses to his will. As for the far more euphonious Italian phrase "capo di tutti capi," that was popularized in 1950 by the U.S. Senate's Kefauver Commission on organized crime, which was hungry for newspaper and TV coverage.