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One of the criminal groups on the radar of the Australian Federal Police is the ’Ndrangheta, a branch of the Italian mafia that is believed to have been operating in Australia for more than a century.

Unlike some other criminal groups, Australia’s ’Ndrangheta (pronounced “in-drang-geta) don’t like to draw attention to themselves. Earlier this year, AFP Assistant Commissioner Nigel Ryan said it was “entirely possible that people would be living next door to… ’Ndrangheta without knowing it”.

He said the gang with Calabrian origins prided themselves on having an “omerta”, a code of silence, which meant they worked in secrecy and lived “modest” lifestyles.

But now the AFP is actively targeting the shadowy crime and money laundering syndicate, which it says is washing billions of dollars a year through the Australian economy.

Intelligence obtained through the 2021 international police sting Operation Ironside has given the AFP new insights into the scale of illicit drug imports facilitated by the ’Ndrangheta, the profits they make and how they work with outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs).

The ’Ndrangheta are the ones pulling the strings, the AFP says. “They have become so powerful they almost own some OMCGs, who will move drugs around for their ’Ndrangheta financiers or carry out acts of violence on their behalf.”

Assisted by the FBI, Italian police and other European law enforcement agencies, the AFP has been assessing the familial relationships, through blood and marriage, that are at the heart of the ’Ndrangheta network. It has identified 51 Italian crime clans in Australia, of which 14 are ’Ndrangheta. Overall membership is estimated at about 4700.

If it sounds like something out of a movie, it certainly has all the elements of a Godfather-style screenplay. The ’Ndrangheta, also known as “The Honoured Society”, have shared behaviours taught within ’Ndrangheta families. These include maintaining a low profile, attempting to demonstrate a legitimate purpose, intimidation due to reputation, threats or use of violence, obtaining financial benefits via corruption and not displaying overt wealth.

They have been able to stay under the radar by living modest lives, in modest homes, says AC Ryan. “They mix illegitimate money with money from legitimate construction, agricultural or catering businesses.”

They are believed to be assisted, directed and facilitated by members of the ’Ndrangheta in Italy and also collaborate with organised crime groups in Asia and the Middle East. The gang is responsible for trafficking 70 per cent of the world’s cocaine.

In 2016, Italian journalist Roberto Saviano’s expose of the black-market cocaine economy, ZeroZeroZero, detailed the spread of the ’Ndrangheta to countries such as Canada and Australia. He said New Zealand’s banking system had also been used for narco-trafficking proceeds.

Professor Anna Sergi, a criminology specialist from the University of Essex, has been researching the ’Ndrangheta since 2014. In a recent paper, she reported that the gang has “an Australian birthday” – December 18, 1922, when the ship King of Italy docked at the Western Australian port of Fremantle, then Adelaide and on to Melbourne. “It left in each of these ports one of the three founders of the ’Ndrangheta.”

She said the ’Ndrangheta capitalised on Calabrian/Italian migration to Australia to grow and entrench its power there. The combined knowledge of the gang from the AFP, the NSW police and the Victorian police was unparalleled, she said, “but any attempt to take the ’Ndrangheta seriously requires sustained political will and resources”.

“These mafia structures, mostly connected to the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta’s modus operandi and ethnic origins, rely on very old codes and norms that were valid at the time of migration and are often quite different from those practised In Calabria.”

AC Ryan says AFP is issuing a warning to Italian organised crime “that they’re on our radar” and it intends to “cut off the head and tail” of the ’Ndrangheta in Australia.

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