The Bonanno Crime Family: A Legacy of Organized Crime

The Bonanno criminal syndicate is one of the most infamous and long-standing criminal organizations in the United States. 

Established in the early 20th century by Sicilian immigrants, the syndicate has become one of the Five Families of New York City and is recognized for its involvement in a wide range of illicit activities, including usury, narcotics, vice, and gaming. 

In this article, we will delve into the history of the Bonanno criminal organization, encompassing its inception, prominent figures, and noteworthy occurrences over the years.

Founding of the Bonanno Criminal Syndicate

The Bonanno syndicate emerged from the Castellammarese War in the early 1930s, a power struggle among Mafia members that resulted in as many as 60 senior mobsters being killed. 

At the crux of the conflict was a clash between traditional Italian Mafia members and those who had been raised in the United States and sought to modernize the organization. 

The war was fought between supporters of boss Salvatore Maranzano and backers of Giuseppe (“Joe the Boss”) Masseria. 

When Masseria was assassinated in April of 1931, Maranzano proclaimed himself the “boss of bosses” and appointed specific men as leaders of the other territories in New York, thus laying the groundwork for what would become the Five Families.

One of Maranzano’s appointees was a young military commander and enforcer named Joseph Bonanno, who served under him. 

When Maranzano was killed less than half a year later, Bonanno assumed control of the syndicate and remained in power for over three decades.

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Principal Figures of the Bonanno Criminal Syndicate

Joseph Bonanno, frequently referred to as “Joe Bananas,” was the syndicate’s boss for more than three decades. 

He led the syndicate during a period of rapid expansion in the 1950s and 1960s when they engaged in increasingly profitable criminal pursuits. Bonanno was known for his astute business acumen and for eschewing the extravagant displays of wealth and power that characterized some of his contemporaries.

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In 1964, at the peak of his power, Bonanno attempted to assassinate rival bosses Thomas (“Tommy”) Lucchese and Carlo Gambino in a bid for total control of the Mafia. 

However, the plot was thwarted when hit man Joseph Colombo, who would later become the boss of his own syndicate, betrayed Bonanno and informed Gambino of the plan. 

Bonanno then vanished, claiming to have been kidnapped. Some law enforcement officials alleged that he had gone into hiding to evade repercussions from his failed takeover and to evade testifying before a grand jury.

The Bonanno syndicate was thrown into disarray after Bonanno vanished, and a violent power struggle ensued, labeled the Banana Wars. 

This internal turmoil, coupled with the introduction of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in 1970 and the FBI’s pursuit of organized crime, weakened the syndicate in the ensuing decades.

Noteworthy Occurrences in the History of the Bonanno Criminal Syndicate

The Bonanno syndicate has been embroiled in a number of high-profile criminal activities over the years. 

In 1976, FBI agent Joseph Pistone, operating under the pseudonym “Donnie Brasco,” infiltrated the Bonanno syndicate and operated covertly for years, ascending through the ranks. 

His testimony led to more than 100 convictions and the loss of the syndicate’s seat on the Commission, the criminal board of directors composed of bosses from the Five Families. The syndicate regained its seat under Joseph Massino’s leadership in the 1990s.

Massino himself provided a notorious moment in the history of the Bonanno criminal syndicate. He became the first Mafia boss to testify against another boss when he took the witness stand in 2004 to testify against Vincent Basciano, also known as “Vinny Gorgeous.” 

Basciano had been charged with murder and racketeering, and Massino’s testimony helped secure his conviction.

After a long career in organized crime, Massino found himself in a precarious situation in 2005. Facing a death penalty trial and his eighth murder conviction, he made the unprecedented decision to become an informant, cooperating with the government in exchange for his life. 

He was eventually released into witness protection in 2013, but not before supposedly providing crucial information on countless crimes committed by his associates, including several bosses of the Bonanno syndicate. 

Despite Massino’s cooperation, the syndicate remains active in international drug trafficking, as well as white collar crimes like usury and extortion. 

In the early 21st century alone, at least four bosses of the syndicate have been convicted of various crimes including racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. 

Michael Mancuso, known as “the Nose,” held power as boss during much of the 2010s, cycling in and out of prison. The Bonanno syndicate may have seen a significant blow with Massino’s cooperation, but their criminal empire still thrives.

Media Depictions 

The Bonanno syndicate has been the subject of numerous media portrayals over the years, including some of Hollywood’s most iconic films. 

The first, and perhaps most well-known, is The Godfather (1972), which portrays a fictionalized version of the syndicate’s criminal activities. 

More recently, Donnie Brasco (1997) provided audiences with a glimpse into the real-life experiences of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonanno syndicate. 

But it wasn’t just filmmakers who were interested in documenting these infamous figures. Joseph Bonanno, former boss of the syndicate, published his autobiography, A Man of Honor, in 1983, breaking the Mafia’s code of silence and offering readers a firsthand account of his dealings. 

Other notable works include Honor Thy Father (1971), a nonfiction exploration of the Bonanno syndicate written by Gay Talese in collaboration with Bill Bonanno. 

These media portrayals and literary works have allowed audiences to gain a better understanding of the intricate world of organized crime.


The Bonanno criminal syndicate has a longstanding tradition of criminal activity, tracing back to its origins in the early 20th century. 

From its early days of involvement in the Castellammarese War to its recent struggles with the FBI and RICO Act, the syndicate has maintained a prominent presence in organized crime. 

Although its power has diminished in recent years, the Bonanno syndicate remains a noteworthy chapter in the history of Mafia activity in the United States.

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