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Why the Calabrian mafia in Australia is so little recognised and understood

Much about the ‘Ndrangheta’s history and current operations in Australia remains shrouded in mystery. Marco Derksen

Why the Calabrian mafia in Australia is so little recognised and understood

Four Corners’ 2015 investigation into the activities of the Calabrian mafia (‘Ndrangheta) raised serious questions about how the organisation has so often managed to evade appropriate scrutiny in Australia. It has done so despite its well-documented cultivation of local politicians, and its ongoing involvement in major drug importations, racketeering and murder.

The successful imposition of omertà (silence) on the ‘Ndrangheta’s initiated members, as well as terrified non-members in the wider Italian community, has been a key factor in shrouding its activities in secrecy.

Yet other forms of omertà have also played a role – including the denial of the ‘Ndrangheta’s very existence.

‘Sensationalism’ vs ‘denialism’

Australia’s journalists have long reported ‘Ndrangheta activities, sometimes in overly sensationalist terms that have risked criminalising an entire ethnic group. In response, Australian scholars have almost universally tended to downplay evidence for the ‘Ndrangheta’s existence or significance, or avoided the topic altogether.

There is a compelling parallel to this form of “liberal progressive denialism” in the US. There, scholars have also sought to defend the honour of the Italian community from the “mafia stain”. This sometimes occurs even by dismissing discussion of the mafia as an expression of xenophobia.

Yet recent research has established that the ‘Ndrangheta has been active in Australia since at least 1922. It has also been able to reproduce its traditional structures effectively over time, far from its southern Italian homeland.

In both the US and Australia, mafia “denialism” has been strongly associated with progressive cultural politics – notably in the case of former immigration minister Al Grassby. In Italy, the opposite is the case. Mafia “denialism” is more closely associated with conservative politicians, while the anti-Mafia movement is strongly identified with progressive politics.

‘Ndrangheta figures in Australia also appear to have successfully promoted the – perhaps doubtful – notion that they can favourably influence the Italian vote, especially in marginal electorates. Australian politicians have shown a conspicuous lack of zeal over many years in speaking out against the group. This seems to reflect their view that there are no Italian votes to be gained in highlighting its presence.

Law enforcement and silence

A similar silence around the ‘Ndrangheta seems to echo through Australian Crime Commission (ACC) reports on organised crime over many years. These have consistently omitted any reference to the group. This is despite its long and well-established presence in Australia, its major control of the global cocaine trade and known role in major drug shipments and money laundering in Australia.

Clive Small, former assistant NSW police commissioner and veteran of the Woodward investigation into Donald Mackay’s disappearance, suggests one possible reason for this silence may be that:

… by naming the ‘Ndrangheta, the ACC might actually be forced to address the problem.

A similar anxiety seems to be reflected in a 2002 Australian Institute of Criminology paper, which makes the (counterfactual) claim that it is a “myth” that “ethnicity is a valid dimension for describing organised crime”. This is despite Calabrian birth, or at least ancestry, long having been an established criterion for ‘Ndrangheta membership in Calabria, the US and Australia.

A 1966 NSW police report highlights the ‘Ndrangheta’s well-integrated cross-border network linking Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Griffith and the Riverland, with annual meetings held in Mildura to co-ordinate nationwide criminal activities. Yet policing of the group’s activities still seems to be hamstrung by jurisdictional boundaries between state and federal agencies.

There also seems to be a general lack of appropriate cultural and linguistic knowledge about this highly secretive group, which has been little understood until very recently, even in Italy.

Even in successful Australian police bugging operations, translating Calabrian dialect has sometimes proved a significant intelligence obstacle. In contrast to the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta’s recruitment through close blood ties has made the organisation extremely difficult to penetrate in Italy and Australia. This has also led to fewer “pentiti” (collaborators with justice).

Italian anti-mafia investigators have provided their Australian counterparts with valuable data on the ‘Ndrangheta’s structure and inner workings, as well as documenting the close links still maintained between Australian cells and the mother organisation in Italy. They have often warned that Australia is consistently underestimating the ‘Ndrangheta threat, especially since September 11.

Since then, Australian police attention and resources have been diverted away from organised crime to counter-terrorism operations. The Australian Federal Police liaison post in Rome was closed down in the wake of September 11.

The 'Ndrangheta’s recent evolution

Although several traditional ‘Ndrangheta initiation texts were discovered in various parts of Australia until the late 1980s, none seem to have come to light more recently. So, has the group evolved from traditional models into a more hybrid and localised “Australian ‘Ndrangheta”?

A 2015 report by Italy’s peak anti-mafia body highlights the ‘Ndrangheta’s social mobility, vast financial resources and recent evolution within urban rather than traditional rural environments.

In Australia, these same dynamics – along with the successful cultivation of political influence and social capital – have helped the ‘Ndrangheta camouflage its more recent activities under a “respectable” veneer.

Investment in legitimate business activity is a core element of its business model worldwide. Australia seems to have played an important role in the ‘Ndrangheta’s large-scale global money-laundering operations since the 1970s. Yet few details are available on exactly how and where it is investing in the legitimate Australian business sector.

Much else about the ‘Ndrangheta’s history and current operations in Australia remains shrouded in mystery. National Archives Australia recently released documents illuminating the group’s nearly 100-year presence in Australia.

But other important materials have been withheld on the basis they may compromise ongoing intelligence operations, or put informants (or even their descendants) at risk, even many years on.

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