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Victoria Police had reportedly warned Joseph Acquaro, who was gunned down in Brunswick this week, that he was a target of mafia groups. AAP/Mal Fairclough

Acquaro murder: what is the mafia and where does it operate?

The murder in Melbourne this week of Joseph Acquaro, a lawyer with links to the Calabrian mafia in Australia, has brought the activities of a group that largely operates under the public radar back into the spotlight.

But exactly what role does the mafia play in organised crime? And should Australian law enforcement agencies be reassessing their priorities?

Overseas experience

The FBI describes the mafia as the most notorious and widespread of all criminal societies. It outlines four main groups:

  • the Sicilian mafia;

  • the Camorra or Neapolitan mafia;

  • the ’Ndrangheta or Calabrian Mafia; and

  • the Sacra Corona Unita, or United Sacred Crown.

The FBI estimates the worldwide value of the mafia’s criminal enterprise to be US$100 billion annually.

Traditionally originating from Italy, the mafia is still active today in its country of origin. The World Economic Forum’s 2015/2016 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Italy 130th out of 140 countries for organised crime activity (the lower the ranking the worse the result).

A 2013 Europol threat assessment listed the mafia’s main markets as drug trafficking, corruption, counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking of waste. The report noted the infiltration of the legal economy and the attractiveness of internet-based crime to the mafia.

A 2015 report from the European Joint Research Centre on Transnational Crime argued that not only is the mafia – especially the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta – involved in illicit activity, but it is also heavily investing in legitimate businesses.

There is little doubt that the mafia is a major player in transnational crime markets.

The mafia threat in Australia

The Italian mafia has operated in Australia for a long time.

The 1977 murder of political campaigner Donald Mackay at the hands of the Calabrian mafia placed the mafia in the spotlight. In the 1990s, law enforcement agencies were aware of intelligence in relation to the mafia’s criminal activities in Australia.

A recent ABC expose highlighted how the mafia is alive and well in Australia as a major player in organised crime. Just last month, Italian authorities raided ‘Ndrangheta members in a cocaine-trafficking ring in Italy that had strong ties to Australia.

What is striking about Acquaro’s murder is that law enforcement knew it was potentially coming. On the basis of what could only have been reliable intelligence, Victorian Police saw fit to warn him only months ago that he was possibly being targeted.

Police also visited a person of interest in the matter in an attempt to disrupt further criminal action. However, this week’s events highlight that certain criminal elements will do as they please. It sends a message to law enforcement – and also to those dealing with them – that no-one can protect you.

As one senior police investigator noted recently:

What we’ve seen is that these groups are very difficult to defeat.

Missing the unusual suspects

Organised Crime in Australia 2015 is the Australian Crime Commission’s biennial public report. It seeks to provide a picture of the serious and organised crime environment in Australia by outlining existing and emerging organised crime threats.

Yet, in this report, the mafia rated only two passing mentions. While the report is sanitised for public consumption – and restricted intelligence is removed – it is telling that bikie gangs feature much more prominently. One reason for this is that bikies are so obvious and easy to understand. The mafia is not.

The National Ice Taskforce’s final report replicated this. It had much focus on bikie gangs, made no mention of the mafia, and had only a generalised reference to transnational crime groups.

Yet six years’ worth of data I obtained from the Queensland Police Service showed that bikies accounted for only 0.9% of all reported drug trafficking offences in Queensland over that period. This prompts the question: who is responsible for the other 99%?

This is reflected in the FBI’s national gang intelligence report. Of law enforcement officials surveyed, only 11% saw bikies as the most problematic gang. Only 10% rated them as a significant threat.

Evidence of this type of tunnel vision was seen in the the 2015 Queensland Organised Crime Commission of Inquiry. This recommended the Queensland Police Service extend the focus of its policing strategies beyond bikie gangs to other areas of organised crime that pose a risk.

Australia’s law enforcement agencies need to look beyond the usual and visible suspects and start to examine the activities of those groups that do not seek public attention and operate under the radar. One astute reporter commented earlier this year that:

For most of the past 90 years the ’Ndrangheta has not had to convince Australians that it did not exist because politicians and law enforcement agencies have saved it the trouble.

This echoes the recent comments of former NSW Police assistant commissioner Clive Small that:

If we say it doesn’t exist, then we don’t have to do anything because there’s nothing to respond to and I think that’s the problem. It’s been hidden from the public because it’s too big a political problem.

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