Break­ing the si­lence on a deadly syn­di­cate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Al­though Aus­tralia’s old­est and largest crime syn­di­cate, the ’ Ndrangheta or Cal­abrian Mafia, has suc­cess­fully shrouded much of its nearly cen­tury-long pres­ence here in se­crecy, Clive Small and Tom Gilling’s his­tory of the or­gan­i­sa­tion has defini­tively bro­ken this long si­lence.

In Evil Life, the first sub­stan­tial his­tor­i­cal ac­count of the Aus­tralian ’Ndrangheta, Small draws on nearly 40 years on the case, first as in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the Wood­ward royal com­mis­sion’s in­quiry into the ’ Ndrangheta’s mur­der of Grif­fith, NSW, anti-drugs cam­paigner Don­ald Mackay, and later as as­sis­tant po­lice com­mis­sioner in NSW.

Small’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­cess to con­fi­den­tial po­lice doc­u­ments and in­for­mants takes us far be­yond what has pre­vi­ously been known pub­licly about this highly se­cre­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion, the only one of the three south­ern Ital­ian “crim­i­nal broth­er­hoods” known to have es­tab­lished a pres­ence in Aus­tralia.

Al­though Si­cily’s Cosa Nos­tra needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion and the Neapoli­tan Camorra is bet­ter known since Roberto Sa­viano’s sen­sa­tional 2006 ex­pose Go­mor­rah, the ’Ndrangheta has been lit­tle known or un­der­stood un­til re­cently, even in Italy. Af­ter Cosa Nos­tra emerged se­verely weak­ened from its reck­less frontal as­sault on the Ital­ian state in a cam­paign of bomb­ings in the early 1990s, the ’Ndrangheta stepped into the breach, emerg­ing as a lead­ing player in the global co­caine trade and ex­tend­ing its net­work through­out north­ern Italy, many parts of Europe and else­where.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ori­gins in Aus­tralia are of­ten traced back to the ar­rival in De­cem­ber 1922 of the steamship Re d’Italia. On board were at least three ’ndranghetisti who went on to es­tab­lish cells in Perth, Syd­ney and Mel­bourne. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Aus­tralia first came to wide­spread at­ten­tion in the 1930s Black Hand crime wave in the far north Queens­land cane­fields, be­fore re-emerg­ing in the post­war pe­riod, no­tably in Mel­bourne, Grif­fith and the River­land.

Po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the 1963 Vic­to­ria Mar­ket mur­ders re­vealed a well-or­gan­ised ex­tor­tion racket tar­get­ing Ital­ian pri­mary pro­duc­ers across Vic­to­ria. A boom in de­mand for cannabis from the 1970s pro­vided the ’Ndrangheta with a lu­cra­tive cash crop, al­though the or­gan­i­sa­tion has di­ver­si­fied more re­cently into co­caine, ec­stasy and methy­lam­phetamine.

In 1994, the ’Ndrangheta’s bomb­ing of the Na­tional Crime Au­thor­ity’s Ade­laide of­fice killed a po­lice of­fi­cer and badly wounded a pros­e­cu­tor, while re­cent Fairfax me­dia in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­firm its tra­di­tional ex­tor­tion racket tar­get­ing Ital­ian busi­nesses in Mel­bourne is still in op­er­a­tion. Much of this was known pre­vi­ously, but Small pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails on the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s reach in Ade­laide, Queens­land, Syd­ney and Western Aus­tralia.

The Ital­ian-Aus­tralian com­mu­nity has of­ten felt un­fairly tar­geted by some­times sen­sa­tion­al­ist me­dia cov­er­age fo­cus­ing on the ac­tiv­i­ties of a small crim­i­nal el­e­ment in the Cal­abrian com­mu­nity. This un­der­stand­ably de­fen­sive re­sponse has led at times to a ten­dency to deny or play down the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ex­is­tence, as well as a re­luc­tance among Aus­tralian politi­cians to tackle the is­sue for fear of alien­at­ing their Ital­ian vot­ers. But, as high­lighted in last year’s Four Cor­ners ex­pose of re­cent ’Ndrangheta in­flu­ence in the Lib­eral Party, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has been ex­pert at play­ing on th­ese sen­si­tiv­i­ties, by con­vinc­ing both La­bor and Lib­eral politi­cians it is ca­pa­ble of di­rect­ing the Ital­ian vote their way.

It has been said that “by far the most pow­er­ful crim­i­nal syn­di­cate fig­ures in 1970s Syd­ney were very much … of English, Ir­ish or Scot­tish ori­gin, with names like Smith, Free­man, McPherson or An­der­son”. Why then the fo­cus on crim­i­nal­ity within a sin­gle eth­nic group?

While the 70s Syd­ney syn­di­cates are long gone, the ’ Ndrangheta has shown a hydra-like ca­pac­ity to re­gen­er­ate it­self in the wake of po­lice re­pres­sion, and is still go­ing strong nearly 100 years af­ter its ar­rival in Aus­tralia, with wellestab­lished branches in ev­ery state ex­cept Tas­ma­nia. Re­cruit­ment based on close blood ties has made the group ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult to pen­e­trate, and also pro­vided or­gan­i­sa­tional sta­bil­ity over time. The group is thought to have been re­spon­si­ble for nearly 40 mur­ders in Aus­tralia since the mid-70s and con­tin­ues to main­tain close ad­min­is­tra­tive and fi­nan­cial ties with its Cal­abrian mother or­gan­i­sa­tion. The ’Ndrangheta’s tra­di­tional crim­i­nal know-how has been suc­cess­fully trans­ferred to the Aus­tralian con­text through the or­gan­i­sa­tion of rack­ets, in­tim­i­da­tion of wit­nesses, cul­ti­va­tion of Aus­tralian politi­cians, judges and po­lice, and by im­pos­ing its code of omerta — si­lence — on

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