Omertà /oʊˈmɛərtə/ (Italian pronunciation: [omerˈta]) is a code of honor that places importance on silence, non-cooperation with authorities, and non-interference in the illegal actions of others. It originated and remains common in Southern Italy, where banditry or brigandage and Mafia-type criminal organizations (like the Camorra, Cosa Nostra, 'Ndrangheta and Sacra Corona Unita) are strong. It is also deeply rooted in rural Spain, Crete (Greece),and Corsica, all of which share a common or similar historic culture with Southern Italy.
It also exists, to a lesser extent, in certain Italian-American, Jewish, African-American, Spanish, and Hispanic neighborhoods where the deep rooted Mediterranean culture has influence, as well as in Italian ethnic enclaves in countries such as Germany, Canada, and Australia, where Italian organized crime exists. Retaliation against informers is common in criminal circles, where informers are known as "rats" or "snitches".
The basic principle of omertà is that it is not "manly" to seek aid from legally constituted authorities to settle personal grievances. The suspicion of being a cascittuni (an informant) constitutes the blackest mark against manhood, according to Cutrera. An individual who has been wronged is obligated to look out for his own interests by avenging that wrong himself, or finding a patron—but not the State—to do the job.
Omertà implies "...the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services, even when one has been victim of a crime."A person should absolutely avoid interfering in the business of others and should not inform the authorities of a crime under any circumstances (though if justified he may personally avenge a physical attack on himself or on his family by vendetta, literally a taking of revenge, a feud). Even if somebody is convicted of a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if that criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
Omertà is an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority. One of its absolute tenets is that it is deeply demeaning and shameful to betray even one's deadliest enemy to the authorities. For this reason, many Mafia-related crimes go unsolved. Observers of the Mafia debate whether omertà should best be understood as an expression of social consensus surrounding the Mafia or whether it is instead a pragmatic response based primarily on fear, as implied by a popular Sicilian proverb Cu è surdu, orbu e taci, campa cent'anni 'mpaci ("He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace").
It has also been described that: "Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward. Whoever cannot take care of himself without police protection is both. It is as cowardly to betray an offender to justice, even though his offences be against yourself, as it is not to avenge an injury by violence. It is dastardly and contemptible in a wounded man to betray the name of his assailant, because if he recovers, he must naturally expect to take vengeance himself."
The OED traces the word to the Spanish word hombredad, meaning manliness, modified after the Sicilian word omu for man. According to a different theory, the word comes from Latin humilitas (humility), which became umirtà and then finally omertà in some southern Italian dialects. Sicilians adopted the code long before the emergence of Cosa Nostra, and it may have been heavily influenced by centuries of state oppression and foreign colonization. It has been observed at least as far back as the 16th century as a way of opposing Spanish rule.
Omertà is a code of silence, according to one of the first Mafia researchers Antonio Cutrera, a former officer of public security, that seals lips of men even in their own defense and even when the accused is innocent of charged crimes. Cutrera quoted a native saying which was first uttered (so goes the legend) by a wounded man to his assailant: "If I live, I'll kill you. If I die, I forgive you".
The Italian-American mafioso Joe Valachi famously broke the omertà code when, in 1963, he publicly spoke out about the existence of the Mafia and testified before the United States Congress, becoming the first in the modern history of the American Mafia to break his blood oath. In Sicily, the phenomenon of pentito (Italian he who has repented) broke omertà.
Among the most famous Mafia pentiti is Tommaso Buscetta, the first important State witness who helped prosecutor Giovanni Falcone to understand the inner workings of Cosa Nostra and described the Sicilian Mafia Commission or Cupola, the leadership of the Sicilian Mafia. A predecessor, Leonardo Vitale, who gave himself up to the police in 1973, was judged mentally ill, so his testimony led only to the conviction of himself and his uncle.