A flurry of attention, then collective forgetfulness – 100 years of the 'ndrangheta Calabrian mafia in Australia

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In a recent media release, Australian Federal Police said:

We have about 51 Italian organised crime clans in Australia. We have identified 14 confirmed ‘ndrangheta clans across Australia, involving thousands of members.

The ‘ndrangheta, widely considered Italy’s wealthiest and most powerful mafia group, are connected with Calabria, a region in southern Italy. They have important international links with – and are sometimes in a superior position to – local groups, such as bikies.

A flurry of recent reporting and police comment on the 'ndrangheta may give the impression their activity in Australia is a relatively new phenomenon.

But in truth, the ‘ndrangheta has been successfully planting seeds into Australian society for 100 years. It is integrated into Australian society; it’s not an alien guest or recent virus.

Read more: Meet the ’Ndrangheta – and why it's time to bust some myths about the Calabrian mafia

A long history

The recent AFP statement was celebrating first anniversary of “the overt action taken under Operation Ironside, the biggest and most significant organised crime operation” in AFP history.

Operation Ironside – otherwise known as operation AN0M or Trojan Horse in the United States – involved a joint action between the FBI and the AFP that took place on June 8 last year.

According to the AFP statement, “globally, excluding Australian statistics, more than 700 alleged offenders have been charged”, thanks to Ironside. In Australia, it said, 383 alleged offenders have been charged with 2,340 offences.

The recent anniversary of this joint action led to a spike in media reports about the ‘ndrangheta in Australia, with AFP Assistant Commissioner Nigel Ryan quoted as saying:

It’s entirely possible that people will be living next door to members of the ‘ndrangheta without knowing.

I thought it was notable the AFP’s press release mentioned 51 Italian crime groups, of which only 14 are recognised ‘ndrangheta clans; this begs the question of who are the remaining groups.

The AFP’s statement didn’t specify, and focused chiefly on the ‘ndrangheta.

As someone who has researched the ‘ndrangheta for a decade – and specifically the Australian ‘ndrangheta since 2014 – I didn’t think there was much urgent or new in the recent “revelations” tied to the anniversary of the Ironside arrests.

The ‘ndrangheta – also known as “the honoured society” – has operated in Australia in a structured way for at least a century.

The ‘ndrangheta in Australia

The criminal organisation even has an Australian “birthday”: December 18, 1922 when the ship King of Italy docked at the Western Australian port of Fremantle, then in Adelaide and then in Melbourne. It left in each of these ports one of the three founders of the ‘ndrangheta.

The ‘ndrangheta has capitalised on Calabrian/Italian migration to Australia to grow and entrench its power in Australia.

Australian institutions were quicker than their Italian counterparts to recognise the specificities of the ‘ndrangheta between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. At this time, Italian authorities were largely focused on the more famous Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.

Australia’s approach to countering the ‘ndrangheta in Australia tends to swing between visibility and forgetfulness or sensationalism and denialism. As investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, put it:

The history of the AFP’s policing of Italian organised crime in this country is marked by widely spruiked success, rarely mentioned failure and extended periods of malaise.

As his report noted, in the past 20 years alone Australian law enforcement has produced maps of ‘ndrangheta families and confidential reports about its members and activities.

Drugs, political infiltration and power

Much media and police focus has been on ‘ndrangheta and the drug trade (Operation Ironside is, so far, no exception).

Yes, the drug trade is fundamental to ‘ndrangheta wealth and power in Australia and has been for many years.

However, as outlined in my recent book, Chasing the Mafia and by investigative reporters, there is a world of political infiltration, too. Legal businesses have been born on the back of proceeds of crime, and powerful men who have a say in the Calabrian/Italian community.

This is less talked out, partly due to fear and intimidation but also due to consensus, friendships, and exploitation of ethnic solidarity.

The ‘ndrangheta is deeply integrated into Australian society; it is a phenomenon with many heads.

As such, it needs a strategy that does not stop at countering drugs importation but considers, for example, the social impact of this mafia on society and the transcultural identity of Italian migrants in contemporary Australia.

When it comes to the ‘ndrangheta in Australia, the combined knowledge of the AFP, the NSW police and the Victorian police is unparalleled. Much of this knowledge is, of course, left out of official statements. These statements have arguably one good effect: they raise the level of attention yet again.

But any attempt to take the ‘ndrangheta seriously requires sustained political will and resources. Swinging between a flurry of attention on the ‘ndrangheta and collective forgetfulness of the issue does not help.

Read more: How mafia and corruption scandals rocked Italian football and left fans with a crisis of faith

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Anna Sergi, University of Essex.

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Anna Sergi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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