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A crime family is a unit of an organized crime syndicate, particularly the Mafia (both in Sicily and in the United States), often operating within a specific geographic territory. In its strictest sense, a family (or clan) is a criminal gang, operating either on a unitary basis or as an organized collection of smaller gangs (e.g., cells, factions, crews, etc.). In turn, a family can be a sole "enterprise", or part of a larger syndicate or cartel.
The origins of the term come from the Sicilian Mafia. In the Sicilian language, the word cosca, which literally translates into artichoke (a vegetable whose multiple layers surround and protect a vital core), is also used for clan. In the early days of the Mafia, loose groups of bandits organized themselves into associations that over time became more organized, and they adopted the term based on both of its meanings.
The term can be a point of confusion, especially in popular culture and Hollywood, because in the truest sense, crime families are not necessarily blood families who happen to be involved in criminal activity, and not necessarily based on blood relationships. In Sicily and America, most Mafia bosses are not related to their predecessors. Films like The Godfather and a spate of late-1980s "Mafia princess" television movies underscore this confusion.
It can further be speculated that the Mafia was simply emulating, to a certain degree, a more medieval order in which a noble family would more or less serve as the power in a local village, in a sort of inverted hacienda culture.
Nevertheless, the term stuck, both in the minds of popular culture as well as the national law enforcement community, and eventually began to be used to describe individual units of not only Sicilian gangsters, but those whose origins lie in other parts of Italy (e.g., the aforementioned 'Ndrangheta, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita, etc.). Indeed, the "family" mystique is to such a great degree that in the late 1990s, after many Camorra leaders were imprisoned during a large-scale crackdown in Naples, many of their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and even mothers took temporary control of their gangs, in a widespread phenomenon of Camorra "godmothers".
Sometimes the term is used to describe distinct units of crime syndicates of other ethnic and national origin, such as the Irish Mob, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Tongs and Triads, Indian Mafia, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, Chechen mafia, Russian Mafia, Maltese Mafia , the Thief in law and Eastern European families. Some of these entities, like the 'Ndrangheta, may also be organized along blood-family lines.