Melaleuca Media
The Myth in the Mafia

For a short period, the letter bomb looked like joining the shotgun, the knife and the marijuana leaf as a potent symbol of Australia's long struggle with a shadowy Italian criminal fraternity usually misnamed as "The Mafia".

However the connection between the letter bomb delivered to the NCA office in Adelaide which killed a West Australian police officer and the Mafia now seems more tenuous and police chiefs have been hosing down the wilder claims in the spate of Mafia stories that followed the bombing.

In Australia, as in the rest of the world, the Mafia remains the most potent symbol of organised crime. In good part however, much of our understanding of the mafia is little more than mythology owing much to Hollywood.

In the US, it is increasingly being asked whether the FBI's determined pursuit of the mythical all powerful mafia it had a hand in creating has allowed other criminal groups to establish themselves relatively unhindered.

Separating fact from tabloid and celluloid myth is difficult. The Mafia is brand name criminality only in the context of a predatory criminal society based historically and predominantly in western Sicily.

Otherwise the term should be regarded as a shorthand generic label for the crime and racketeering of persons with predominantly Italian surnames, although it has lately been extended to cover Gypsies, Russians and even Afro-Americans.

In Sicily the mafia has been around for some centuries but contrary to popular myth for much of that time was either benign (briefly and initially) or impotent and irrelevant. Then and now it has been malignant and notorious only in company with powerful and usually thoroughly establishment allies - for most of its history the owners of the great estates for whom the men of honour became enforcers and labor organisers. With that job went the licence to organise predatory scams of their own on the meagre pickings of an otherwise subsistence village economy.

Exponents of the mafia's mythical power have two fundamental difficulties with its earlier history - the organisation's inability to exert any influence over even the eastern half of Sicily and Mussolini's ability, without any undue expenditure of effort, to almost do the mafia in before military posturing in North Africa became a more consuming passion.

The Mafia's postwar prominence derives again from outside friends. American intelligence enlisted the aging don of the declining town of Villalba to organise the mafia to prepare the groundwork for its invasion of Sicily. By all dispassionate accounts, the mafia's performance in partisanry was unimpressive; this was unsurprising because in military terms a far more rational course of action would have been to seek assistance from the far more active and dispersed Communist partisans. Even then, however, this was unacceptable - in intelligence networks the process of shifting the focus of paranoia from Berlin to Moscow was relatively well advanced.

The Americans then re-established mafia infrastructure by conferring upon the don the responsibility for organising local government in much of Sicily. The mafia took to the task with relish but its interpretation of the task as one of reviving earlier extortions had two predictable results - an increase in the membership of both the Communist party and opposition groups of brigands in the hills.

The Americans, still pulling strings in the background, assisted in establishing an unholy but durable alliance between the Mafia and the church and its political associates. With the brigands in the hills switching sides until they too were wiped out Sicily's war against communism was anything but cold.

In Marseilles, American intelligence provided similar support to predominantly Corsican criminals who displayed a willingness to eradicate - often literally - Communist labor influence in this important southern French port. Their political activism was only ever part-time, however - the Corse, as they were known, soon teamed up with Turkish opium exporters, the resurgent Sicilian Mafia and Jewish and Italian American criminal heavyweights to set up the heroin pipeline back to the United States that was later celebrated in the film The French Connection.

The alliances established after the Second World War enabled the Sicilian mafia to prosper but there are now indications that it is in considerable decline. Judicial assasinations by bombing are a confirmation rather than a denial of decline - until recently, it would not have been possible to mount prosecutions of the scale and success of those which followed exposure of the mafia's pizza and heroin franchise in the United States in the mid-80s. The bombs have, if anything, hastened decline - far from being intimidated, Sicilians have led Italy in renouncing the Mafia and its political friends.

Most of our Mafia myths, however, come from the United States and not Sicily. The myth, most persuasively constructed in Hollywood celluloid but also spelt out in numerous government reports of the 50s and 60s, is of a virtual underground government of crime headed up by the godfathers or dons of Sicilian American crime families.

The reality, as discerned by more dispassionate and thorough historians and criminologists, is a little more prosaic. Successive waves of immigrants into the United States have found themselves at the bottom of the social pecking order; some among them have seen in crime a possibility of upward social mobility. But politics, the clergy and the professions are also a means to upward social mobility and as the ethnic group as a whole moved up, successful criminals became more of an embarrassment than a role model. In what has become known as ethnic succession, organised vice and racketeering was at first an Irish concern, then a Jewish and Italian concern and now the vestiges of the Italian groups are fending off challenges from a host of aggressive newcomers in the form of Cubans, Jamaicans and Afro-Americans.

Italian, and to a lesser extent Jewish criminals, also benefited from external influences. Just as the Italian and Jewish criminals were coming into predominance and busily polishing off the last of the Irish gangs, the US government decided in its wisdom to dramatically increase the size and influence of the illegal economy by adding alcohol to a list of banned drugs that had been growing since about 1910. Prohibition turned organised crime from a nuisance mainly to persons of the same ethnic background to the criminals to large, highly lucrative organisations with the ability to practice their predations upon society as a whole.

Neopolitan Al Capone became public enemy number one and John Dewey launched a notable political career by prosecuting (and inflating the significance of) one Charles "Lucky" Luciano. But the contribution of both to public education was miniscule campared to that of Hollywood.

The celluloid myths are critical to understanding how the mythical mafia developed and became accepted as the reality. Jewish influence was strong in Hollywood and when Hollywood looked at bootleggers and organised crime it found Corleones and Luciano and Capone and Anastasia and until very, very recently failed to recognise the equally prominent Rothstein, Lepke, Lansky, Buchalter, Seigal and Schultz. But and most influentially, Hollywood also found and popularised a new term for organised crime - the dread word Mafia, borrowed from an essentially unconnected predatory secret society in remote Sicily.

Even as Hollywood was developing its theme, that theme was being taken up by American law enforcement agencies, congressional committees and Presidential commissions. The mafia was also sensationalised through the stories of a number of turncoats. Turncoats in the early days being very few, it seems that most were treated as witnesses of extraordinary truthfulness and insight rather than the small time hustlers whose knowledge outside their own particular patch or racket may have been rather limited.

The first such witness, the renowned Joseph Valachi, dropped a term no-one had ever heard before. The organisation, he said, was known to its members as La Cosa Nostra, loosely translated "our thing".

Valachi's label - and there is some indications that the term started with him - has stuck and while the FBI has been preoccupied with pursuit of the LCN as it is known in jargonese, a host of new criminal groupings have made their presence felt in the United States ... motorcycle gangs, Jamaican posses, Cuban refugees, Asian gangs, the corporate face of the Yakusa from Japan, the tentacles of Columbian cocaine cartels and various Afro-American syndicates.

As for the American mafia, it would seem to be in decline and only partly because of the relentless assault of law enforcement agencies. Other factors contributing to decline are the progression into legitimate enterprise and, most significantly, the poaching of the Mafia's criminal turf by the upwardly mobile criminals of the next generation of ethnic syndicates.

Australia's Italian criminals have very, very little to do with any Sicilian or American manifestation of the Mafia. To the degree that they profess allegiance to any feudal society it is to the 'Ndrangheta or the self-applied label of the predatory brigands of Calabria, the southernmost province of mainland Italy and the poorest.

In contrast to their Sicilian cousins, the 'Ndrangheta has rarely had the backing of great and powerful friends and has never been perceived as an important front in the war against communism. As a consequence, the group in Italy is most noted for modern day brigandage, such as kidnapping and extortion.

The poverty of Calabria has led many residents, including those of the extorting classes, to seek residence elsewhere, many in Australia. Once here, the pattern of extortion quickly reasserted itself, breaking out into public view in Queensland in 1928-37 and again in Melbourne in 1963. This latter outbreak led the Victorian police to import a mafia expert from the United States; not surprisingly he percieved that a Calabrian mafia was operational in Australia. This was an advance in understanding at least - a NSW police commissioner had earlier identified an Italian criminal society known as the Camorra (traditionally associated with the city of Naples.)

A study conducted by an ASIO agent was much more exacting. Agent Brown (really) tracked back through police records in all states and through the dusty files of the immigartion department as well. He found that an amazing number of the Italian criminals who had come to notice came from a small area of Calabria centering on the town of Plati, that many had sponsored each other to come to Australia and that at least some had ongoing relationships or meetings.

Brown recommended action to curtail this criminal threat. Only in fairly recent times has action tended to be in the slightest bit effective, with state police forces, the NCA and the CJC all deserving a share of the credit.

Still, in Australia as in the United States, there are risks in overstating the so-called Mafia threat. In the 70 or so years that we can be relatively certain of 'Ndrangheta presence in Australia members or suspected members have been prominently involved in murder, extortion and fraud and more recently, as the self appointed Marijuana Marketing Board of Australia.

The murder tally over 70 years is about 40 - although the tally includes Italians who resisted extortion, a council worker with the wrong name in the wrong place at the wrong time, the political candidate who first raised concern about "kings in grass castles" and now, possibly, a police officer, most victims have been members or suspected members of 'Ndrangheta.

The second often ignored factor is that until the sudden surge in the popularity of cannabis in the 1960s the predations of the 'Ndrangheta members were largely limited to their own ethnic community. Cannabis provided the 'Ndrangheta with a substantial economic base, with connections with powerful and influential friends among Australian criminal sydicates and with the ability to corrupt law enforcement agencies and exert at least some political influence.

There are links between Calabrian criminals in Australia and those who stayed home in, or returned, to Calabria but the significance of these is easily overstated. Also, cannabis money on its way to a laundry is no respecter of national borders.

But this is scant evidence to support any image of an international criminal conspiracy operating out of either Griffith, NSW or Plati, Calabria. The organisational significance of 'Ndrangheta may well be, in the words of American criminologist Mark Haller, as the equivalent of a Rotary club for otherwise self employed criminal entrepreneurs of mainly Italian descent.