In America, they are called the “Five Families”. The term refers to the five major New York organised crime families of the Mafia, with a history that can be traced in the United States back to 1931.
Thanks to Hollywood, the family names are almost as well-known in Australia as they are in New York. The Gambino, Lucchese, Bonanno, Colombo and Genovese crime families have been mythologised in film and filled hours of true-crime television shows.
What is less well known is that, in Calabria, they also speak in hushed tones of another group.
They are called “the Seven Families of Adelaide”. The term refers to the Calabrian Mafia’s history in Australia, which tracks back to 1922, when the ship Re D’Italia docked in Adelaide.
According to an ASIO report from the 1960s, the Re D’Italia carried three ‘Ndrangheta members – the name for the Calabrian Mafia – who would set up cells in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Family members soon followed from the old country. Within a decade, those seven families were starting to exert control over the fruit and vegetable trade in Australia.
A British-based criminologist, Dr Anna Sergi, detailed some of this history at a parliamentary inquiry into methamphetamine trade back in 2014.
“In Italy we call [them] the ‘Five Families of New York’ and we call [them] ‘the Seven Families of Adelaide’,” Dr Sergi told the parliamentary inquiry. “[In Calabria] it is not even contemporary debate. It is a given.”
By 1940, more than 10 murders and 30 bombings had been attributed to the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia. By the end of the century, from the corridors of power to the aisles of the nation’s biggest supermarket chains, there was barely an Australian who hadn’t been touched in some way by the influence of the Calabrian Mafia.
The scam netted tens of millions of dollars, all of which was ultimately paid for by consumers.
A confidential police report, which formed the basis of a joint Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation last year, alleged a similar racket operated out of Sydney’s seafood markets, only this time it was control of the supply chain for prawns, rather than fresh produce, that netted millions for the mob.
Extortion, bribery, cannabis cultivation and racketeering have been the hallmarks of the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia for almost a century. But Italian investigators warn that the new generation of mobsters are involved in a much more damaging trade.
The Melbourne and Sydney families are believed to be the liaison between Calabria and the trafficking of drugs to Australia. They are believed to control the supply and trafficking of large quantities of methamphetamine into Australia.
Franco Roberti, who comes from Naples, is known for prosecutions against members of the Naples Mafia, the Camorra. He was appointed Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutor in 2013. He has been particularly outspoken about the changing role of the Mafia in Italy. He spoke publicly this week about how the Mafia was simply using the threat of violence to intimidate a growing number of businesses in Italy. “Only when they don’t get what they want, do they take violent action,” he told the national daily, La Repubblica, on Wednesday.
But, generally, the Mafia gets what it wants. In Australia, it wants the methamphetamine trade.
In 2014, the Parliament of Victoria’s Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee conducted an inquiry into “the supply and use of methamphetamines, particularly ice, in Victoria”.
The committee was told the key organisation behind the trafficking of large quantities of ice out of Europe was the Calabrian Mafia.
Evidence was given by Dr Sergi, who has worked closely with Italian anti-Mafia investigators.
Dr Sergi told the inquiry the path for ice to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney was controlled by Italian crime families via “brokers”, who tend to be Spanish and Armenian, and Italian authorities were aware of the trade.
“The channels to Australia for methamphetamines that we found to have been organised by Italians generally go from Armenia, where they are transported on foot to Bilbao, and then on flights from Bilbao to Europe, mainly in the plastic parts of suitcases, that is the favourite way,” Dr Sergi told the inquiry. “From Prague and Frankfurt, they are … shipped to Australia.”
Dr Sergi said Italian investigators knew the trafficking of methamphetamines from Armenia to Australia was controlled by the Calabrian Mafia. “The branches of the ‘Ndrangheta are identified and known to Italian authorities and have been known for more than 50 years,” she said.
“They have names of families, and they believe that there are at least from seven to 15 active clans in Australia at the moment … Italian organised crime is trusted to complete the trafficking, precisely for reasons that are related to the fact that they are the trustworthier [criminal] group in circulation for Australia.”
Italian authorities may be aware of the pathway of ice from Armenia to Australia, but they have been unable to stop it. That is due, they say, to a breakdown in communications between Australia and Italy.
When lawyer Joseph Acquaro was gunned down on Melbourne’s streets this week, Italian prosecutors were quick to call for a joint investigation. Solving a murder in faraway Australia was the least of their priorities. The key game was re-opening communications between Australia and Italy.
Outside of Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta has three known strongholds. Dr Sergi calls them the Mafia’s “chambers of control”. One is Lombardia, in Italy’s north. The second is Canada. The third is Australia.
“For Italians, this is more than certain: the Australian chamber of control is one of the three generic chambers of control of this type of Mafia. To be honest with you, when we talk about this with Italian prosecutors they are always very angry about Australians in this sense, because apparently there is the problem that they have with intelligence sharing.”
In the wake of the Acquaro shooting, Italian investigators are still waiting for Australian police to get on the phone.