Italy has produced three of the world’s most infamous criminal groups. Cosa Nostra from Sicily, the Camorra from Campania, and the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria continue to hold the country in a stranglehold. But as Italians migrated to other countries, so did these criminal gangs. Steven Ralph has researched the presence of these Italian mafia groups in Australia for Gangsters Inc. and in this article sheds light on the dark history of the 'Ndrangheta in Australia.
The early booms in immigration to Australia by southern and western Europeans would taper off by the early decades of the 20th century. The following decades saw the majority of Italy’s migrants heading towards greater ‘La Merica’, chiefly the United States, but also Canada. However, between the Immigration Act ratified in 1917 and the imposition of migrant quota systems in the U.S., the Italian masses once again sought new shores for prosperity. Hence, while immigration rates in Australia had stayed moderate yet steady during this period, following the war years and Italy’s subsequent surrender (during which some 18,000 Italians were interred as enemy aliens in Australia), migration rates yet again exploded into Australia.
Ever vigorous, Italian families established communities across Australia, settling more prominently in the southern and eastern states of New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria (the latter of which today accounts for some 40% of the entire settled Italian-Australian population). Naturalisation spread widely, and by the 1950’s the greater majority of Italians in Australia were identifying as Australian citizens in the national census.
Unique ‘Little Italy(s)’ sprung up around the city centres of Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne. Members of these communities plunged into their labours with a fierce work ethic and gregarious libation that serves a culture in good stead. Italian populations spread throughout the eastern and south-eastern seaboards and the outlying hinterlands and further rural districts and townships; the Riverina of New South Wales, the Barossa Valley region in South Australia and inlying Victorian towns such as Shepparton and Mildura. Also, to lesser extents, populations settled across Australia’s ‘North End’, in Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory. While Brisbane and Darwin have relatively small Italian populations, substantial migration to the cane-field belts and arable land has helped to develop Italian communities in these areas.
An oft-cited, albeit rough figure, claims that some 5000 of the 9000 strong population of Plati (Calabria) migrated to Australia between 1950 and 1970, settled in Melbourne, Adelaide and around the Griffith and Riverina district of New South Wales, though they had been coming well before this time, albeit in smaller numbers. A small, rural town in Calabria known as a ‘mafia stronghold’ heralds links between a handful of Plati-born families and their Australian kin which has manifested in several joint investigations between Italian and Australian investigators over the years, investigations which have continued into recent years. Other historically poverty stricken Calabrian townships such as Altomonte, San Remo, San Luca and Locri traditionally provided the steadiest stream of migrants to Australia. As with Plati, many of these towns had their own long histories with the ‘Ndrangheta.
A GROWING AWARENESS OF CRIMINALITY
In the early sixties, a string of murders linked to Italian criminal identities in the Australian state of Victoria convinced Federal authorities to commission reports from a number of organised crime investigators. Chief amongst them were reports by John T. Cusack; then District supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Dr Ugo Macera; then the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Calabria and director of Criminalpol. Both men were flown to Australia at the behest of Federal authorities and investigators, recognised for their experience and insight into such matters.
On the back of alarming intelligence alleged in both the Cusack and Macera reports, Colin Brown, an agent for the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was appointed to chair a federal inquiry into Italian organised crime in Australia in November 1964. His subsequent 147-page report titled “The Italian Criminal Society in Australia” was tabled in 1965. While never made public in their entireties, portions of these reports have been published, and a number of literary sources and works of public record investigative journalism have referenced and cited certain tracts found within. They fundamentally formed the basis of intelligence regarding the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia for decades, naming a number of its earlier organisers and identifying then current leading characters.
The Brown report alleged that the earliest organised criminals of Calabrian extraction could be traced back to the arrival of the Italian ship ‘Re De Italia’ in Melbourne on the 18th of December, 1922. Amongst the arrivals were three men connected to Calabrian ‘Ndrine; Antonio Barbaro, known as “The Toad”, who stayed in Victoria, and Domenico Strano, who settled in New South Wales. The third was another figure who, to this day, has remained publically unidentified due to his still being alive (this unnamed figure is reported to have set up in Perth, Western Australia). Each would in later years become known to police and investigators as figures of authority amongst the Australian ‘Ndrine.
Within a few years after the arrival of the ‘Re De Italia’ began the murders which would subsequently be linked to Calabrian criminals. For example, according to contemporary newspaper articles, on the 24th of December 1925, Constable James Clare (of the Victoria Police) was walking with two other plainclothes policemen down Victoria Street in North Melbourne when a party of eight to twelve Italian men approached them. The news report claims that after bumping into Clare a heated exchange followed, whereupon a knife was drawn and Clare was stabbed in the heart. Arraigned in court on the 19th of January 1926, Domenico Condello was charged with the murder. Condello had lived in Australia for three years by the date of the murder, and via a court-appointed interpreter, claimed self-defence. Condello alleged that Clare had used derogatory language against the party and had failed to properly identify himself as a policeman. Backed up by the testimony of the rest of his party, Condello was acquitted of the murder. It was noted by certain sources that Antonio Barbaro himself had raised a fund for the defence.
In 1930, after he was murdered at the Newtown Railway Station in Sydney (see part one), letters found in the home of the former Queensland based criminal Domenico Belle indirectly identified Antonio Brando as a then leader of a Melbourne ‘Ndrina. In the correspondence between the two, Brando had responded to a letter from Belle, who had suggested that Brando had been deposed as a leader. Brando responded by stating that he was a native of Plati; sufficient pedigree in asserting his authority, according to himself.
On the 20th of January 1932, Rocco Tremarchi was executed in Griffith, New South Wales. The Cusack report would identify him as an early leader of the Griffith based cell of the ‘Ndrangheta (which would come to prominence in later years). His own son was charged with and acquitted of the murder; the facts, however, concluded that the body contained bullets of different calibre which indicated there was more than one shooter involved. Possible allusions to an ‘honour-killing’ have been put forward considering Tremarchi’s alleged ‘falling out’ with cohorts; later incidents have demonstrated the practice is alive within the Society; when a family name is dishonoured, the stain can be erased by the hand of other family members.
Also named in the Brown report were the identities of several other early Calabrian mob leaders including Guiseppe Rullo, a leader of a cell based in Mildura who died in 1964. Such was the respect he commanded Rullo was allegedly granted a mafia ‘pension’ following his retirement in 1956. His funeral in 1963 is recorded as one of the first big mafia funerals in the country, a tradition that became the norm for a number of high-ranking figures (for example, one of the named ‘founding fathers’, Domenico Strano, whom died in 1965, was also celebrated via a large funeral which was attended by numerous criminal and public figures from New South Wales and interstate). Rullo left behind two sons whom the Brown report alleged continued their father’s tradition, albeit not as leaders as the next boss installed was Rafaelle Romeo, an early patriarch of the Romeo family. Also named in the Brown report is one Domenico Alvaro, apparently known as “Mr Lenin”, born on July 7th 1910, in Calabria. He is claimed to have taken over a Sydney based cell in the 1960’s, after the previous boss, a supposed relative of his named Rafaelle Mafrici died. Mafrici’s mother’s maiden name had been Condello, a surname well known even today amongst the confines of the ‘Ndrangheta.
Investigations into the phenomenon of mafia cells in Australia have yielded a recurring theme amongst the greater Calabrian mafia; its bloodlines. Unlike the American Mafia, these “Families” are often just that; based on sanguinary and lineal family links. As in Calabria, cells were often comprised around certain familial units.
Often likened to New York’s infamous ‘Five Families’ are the ‘Seven Cells’ of Adelaide; Sergi, Barbaro, Trimboli, Romeo, Nirta, Alvaro, and Perre. Based in South Australia but with family established across the nation, the families of the so-called Seven Cells have been extensively linked to ‘Ndrine in Calabria. Similarly in Victoria the major families are named as Italiano, Arena, Muratore, Benvenuto, and Condello. Across the rural regions various families are often linked to the bigger names; the Medici, Musitano, Pochi, Pelle, Polimeni, and Agresta amongst others. A proportionally small number of families yield a proportionally high number of alleged criminals. Some of these names are well known amongst the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and many have come to be recognised as influential amongst the Calabrian-Australian clans, popping up again and again in investigations.
In the early years and even up to the late 50’s and early 60’s, Calabrian mobsters are alleged to have utilized a system of tattoos, which were supposedly markings indicative of belonging to the ‘Honoured Society’, and denoting rank. A number of individuals arrested were sporting said tattoos. For example, an unnamed Italian labourer referenced in the Brown report faced charges of assault and intimidation in 1960. When questioned about the five dots on the base of his thumb arranged in the shape of the dots on a dice, he claimed that his tattoos were “done for fun”, despite his being arrested while carrying a Black Hand style extortion letter. For obvious reasons, this branding died out before long. Also, it was during these early years that the Calabrian elements in the southern states of Australia began cultivating their ‘respectable’ personas; that is, the public image of mild mannered businessmen, far removed from the thuggish rackets they were ultimately known for by investigators.
(As a small disclaimer, by no means should everyone with such a name be automatically considered part of the mafia. However, said names are recognised by Australian and Italian authorities as being linked with Calabrian criminal cells deeply entwined with the ‘Ndrangheta in Italy, and in Australia).
THE MARKETS - A HOLD ON THE PRODUCE INDUSTRY
In the rural farmlands of the country the produce industry was one that any man could eke out a comfortable living in, provided he was a hard worker and had the land (which could be bought relatively cheap for many years). As an industry that didn’t necessarily require knowledge of language or custom and also required skills that came as second nature to many migrants, many families built a livelihood around the hard scrabble life of a mid-century farmer, building their fortunes through sweat and labour.
But if you, a) did not speak English, b) did not own a vehicle to transport your produce to the market, or c) could not otherwise sell your produce, what you were in need of was a contact at the markets, such as a commission agent, shop/stall owners and/or supermarket reps, in another words people in the city. Hence, where the honest folk set up, so did the dishonest and parasitic. Thus, rackets were carved out by the criminally industrious amongst certain families that had imported a different way of life from the Old Country.
Reported instances of murder and skulduggery amongst the fruit-and-veg industry would become inherent in the earliest days, revolving for the most part around crude Black Hander style extortion. However, in the south-eastern states alarming trends were arising due to the importation of the mysterious “Honoured Society”. They not only perfected the Black Hand method, but also implemented early forms of labour racketeering and public corruption tactics.
By controlling the flow of produce into the local markets, certain Calabrian groups were able to set prices and monopolise (a racket which would eventually create a stranglehold on the Victorian fruit-and-vegetable industry). Thrown in for good measure, extortion was utilised every step of the way; overcharging buyers, underpaying sellers, exorbitant fees for services, and imposing ‘right-to-operate’ payments (basically charging stall holders for the right to their position at the market).
The prime example is a Calabrian named Domenico Italiano, who had arrived in Australia during the 1930’s. In later years known as ‘The Pope’, he would team up with one of the founding fathers; Antonio Barbaro, known as ‘The Toad’. Together they would form a tightly knit cell of friends and relatives that would become a Melbourne based ‘Ndrina. As a commission agent in the produce industry based in the well-known Queen Victoria Markets (photo right) in Melbourne, Italiano, with Barbaro acting as his chief enforcer, would organise the theft in and extortion of the produce market into a racket that became the lynchpin of the cells activities, and would remain so for decades. Upon their deaths, the operation would break out into a struggle between different factions for control of the lucrative trade.
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