Breaking the silence on a deadly syndicate
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