The murder of lawyer Joseph Acquaro might have opened another chapter in Melbourne’s gangland wars. But it’s also part of the longer story of the Calabrian Mafia’s seeming ability to avoid investigation and prosecution. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Joseph Acquaro and the Calabrian Mafia

In June 2007, the giant freighter MV Monica berthed at Melbourne port. Its progress had been monitored by an Australian clan of senior Calabrian Mafia – known as the ‘Ndrangheta – who had conspired to stuff tonnes of ecstasy pills into one of its shipping containers. They were brazen and deliriously ambitious. At the time of the plot, colleagues were facing charges for a separate importation of ecstasy. This fact, apparently, wasn’t chastening.

The chief organiser was Pasquale Barbaro, a dynastically empowered clan leader. With trusted others, the group had conspired with Italian counterparts, insinuated themselves with foreign docks, and brokered deals with industrial-scale illicit drug manufacturers in Europe. The clans comprise ruthless and greedy men, but they’re not without the logistical sophistication that comes with global connections.

And so, following an intricate exchange of capital and promises, shipping container MEDU1250218 was stacked with almost 4000 large tins, labelled as tomatoes, filled mostly with ecstasy tablets, and a minority with gravel to ensure compliance with the declared weight. Anticipating their market, the drug-makers stamped many of the pills with kangaroos. It would take five weeks for the freight ship to traverse the oceans to Melbourne. Five weeks to fall under the scrutiny of Australian police.

There are measurements of things that are hard to comprehend. Cosmology might offer the most extreme examples. Infinity. The speed of light. The fact that, peering through encircled thumb and forefinger at the night sky, there is contained in our arbitrary frame countless stars and galaxies. There are more prosaic extremes here on Earth, though: ones that inspire astonishment rather than awe. The drug trafficking of the Calabrian Mafia offers one.

Picture four-and-a-half tonnes of ecstasy, each pill the size of an M&M chocolate. To achieve such weight requires 15 million tablets, in this case contained within thousands of tomato tins, which were, ultimately, spread over hundreds of pallets that filled a warehouse the size of an aircraft hangar. Depending on purity and use – and these pills were potent – the sum would induce about 40 million hours of abnormal serotonin production in the brains of its consumers. At this point, assuming the pills had made it to Australian streets, there would follow a vastly intricate and unknowable matrix of consequences.

For the Calabrian Mafia in Australia, there followed just one consequence: awesome profit. The 15 million pills cost just $10 million to import, or roughly 70 cents a unit. These pills would have ultimately sold to individuals for about $30 each. Such is the lure of the Australian market – street prices for illicit drugs here are some of the highest in the world. The problem was, the shipment had been inspected in port by customs. Federal authorities had painstakingly emptied the tins and replaced the contents with ersatz pills, and kept watch for the pick-up. Barbaro’s crew was now under surveillance and almost a year later federal authorities conducted large raids across two states. One of the men arrested was Francesco Madafferi. His lawyer would be a man named Joseph Acquaro.

1 . ‘Australian Crimine’

In a few years, the Calabrian Mafia, also known as The Honoured Society, will mark their centenary of Australian influence. That is, if a 1965 ASIO report is correct. The report, written by ASIO officer Colin Brown and never fully made public, specified December 18, 1922, as the date the first Calabrian Mafioso stepped ashore from the ship that bore them – the King of Italy. The report identified three founders of the clan, two of whose names were known – Domenico Strano and Antonio “The Toad” Barbaro. Fruit and vegetable businesses were established, and monopolies secured through intimidation. Later, the clans would graduate to drugs, protecting themselves with fiercely patrilineal organisation, mixing legitimate business with criminality, and making appeals to “cultural solidarity” among Italian communities. An expert in the Calabrian Mafia in Australia, academic Anna Sergi, published a paper on the organisation last year. She described the Australian emulation of organisation structures back in the south of Italy:

“According to the [Italian anti-Mafia prosecutors] there is in fact an ‘Australian Crimine’, headquarters of the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia, which preserves the unity and the co-ordination of the organisation far from Italy. The ‘Australian Crimine’ does not allow the organisation to fall apart. When, for example, Vincenzo Angiletta attempted to fill the gap of power left after the death of Domenico Italiano – the boss of Melbourne known as ‘The Pope’ who died in 1962 – the Australian Crimine ordered his murder in 1963 to avoid the proliferation of ‘bastard’ clans.” 

The murders, though, were not only inside the crime syndicate. In the 1970s, the group was responsible for a high-profile killing in Griffith. The New South Wales town had become a stronghold for the ‘Ndrangheta, a place where they ran fruit and veg markets and grew massive marijuana crops. Local man Donald Mackay – a furniture store owner and serial political candidate – had become angry with the proliferation of drugs and corruption in his town. Mackay became an indefatigable anti-drug campaigner, until his disappearance on July 15, 1977. His bloodied car, and spent .22 shells, were found, but his body never was. A royal commission would find, however, that Mackay had been murdered by a “hit man” on behalf of the ‘Ndrangheta.

In 1994, Detective Sergeant Geoffrey Bowen, an officer with the National Crime Authority, was investigating ‘Ndrangheta drug distribution. A day before he was due to testify in court, he was killed when a parcel bomb detonated at his desk. No one was ever prosecuted.   

Former NSW assistant commissioner of police Clive Small believes the mendacious influence of the gang is increasing, and yet it has never attracted the proportionate attention of law enforcement or the public’s imagination. One reason, he says, is how assiduously they have developed political contacts. The ‘Ndrangheta employ “clean” intermediaries – respected figures who avoid criminality and launder their reputations. But their connections, Small says, run deeper. “By establishing links with both political parties, the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia has insured itself against aggressive scrutiny and surveillance by either party. These political links show no sign of weakening.”

There is another possible reason the crime clan has received so little attention. In a condensation of an academic paper published in February, Stephen Bennetts of University College London’s ‘Ndrangheta research group wrote:

“Australia’s journalists have long reported ‘Ndrangheta activities, sometimes in overly sensationalist terms that have risked criminalising an entire ethnic group. In response, Australian scholars have almost universally tended to downplay evidence for the ‘Ndrangheta’s existence or significance, or avoided the topic altogether.

“There is a compelling parallel to this form of ‘liberal progressive denialism’ in the US. There, scholars have also sought to defend the honour of the Italian community from the ‘Mafia stain’. This sometimes occurs even by dismissing discussion of the Mafia as an expression of xenophobia.

“In both the US and Australia, Mafia ‘denialism’ has been strongly associated with progressive cultural politics – notably in the case of former immigration minister Al Grassby. In Italy, the opposite is the case. Mafia ‘denialism’ is more closely associated with conservative politicians, while the anti-Mafia movement is strongly identified with progressive politics.”

Al Grassby served in Gough Whitlam’s cabinet, and the prime minister himself believed discussions of Mafia influence were fatuous. In 1972 he expressed his contempt for the “latest sensation-mongering about the so-called Mafia”. Bennetts believes that a judicious balance must be sought between hysteria and denialism – but he suggests that we have come down too firmly on the latter.

2 . Acquaro’s “excellent murder”

Joseph Acquaro’s body was found by garbage collectors, in a dark street before most had woken. A father and community fixture, shot in the head beside some bins. An “excellent murder”, in the parlance of Melbourne’s Calabrian Mafia. Acquaro was confident and ambitious – working as a lawyer by day, at night he was the owner-manager of a gelato store. Born in western Melbourne in 1961, he was a year old when Melbourne’s “Godfather”, Domenico Italiano, died, leaving a vacuum of authority that would soon be filled with blood.

Acquaro would be pressed into service, and he represented some of the state’s most notorious criminals. They include the Madafferis, for whom he once worked before the relationship badly soured. Police warned him in the middle of last year that there was a lucrative contract out on his life, and suggested the security of witness protection. Acquaro shrugged it off, employing no security detail nor altering his habits.

Acquaro had been in trouble before. In 2002, the Calabrian-born mobster Mario Condello – a former lawyer, then gifted launderer – suspected Acquaro of informing on his operations. Acquaro was lured to a Carlton restaurant, where he was stripped naked, tied to a chair and pistol-whipped for two hours. Condello believed that the torture would induce confession. It didn’t. Four years later, Condello would be shot dead in his driveway.

3 . Another funeral

This week, in St Mary Star of the Sea, one of the most beautiful churches in Melbourne, the life of Joseph “Pino” Acquaro was acknowledged. A stream of black, perfectly polished Rolls-Royces emptied passengers at the church’s entrance. The cover of the funeral service sheet declared a requiem mass for the soul of the slain man.

It was the final spin on a life spent dubiously. The spiritual gravitas of the church – so assiduously ignored in life – was suddenly, theatrically, observed during the service. It was in the same church that drug trafficker Jason Moran – and the man he was suspected of murdering, Alphonse Gangitano – were laid for their funerals, the stained-glass windows spilling coloured light upon their coffins.

Here was a gathering of The Honoured Society – those who stress the primacy of marriage but celebrate affairs; who promote “cultural solidarity” while extorting Italians; who admonish the modern diminishment of artisans but parasitically extract from others’ work; who genuflect to Madonna but murder when convenient. There is a long history of organised criminals killing and thieving, while wreathing their barbarism in the platitudes of tradition. 

There is a desultory meme, celebrated by teenagers and crooks. It shows a portrait of Al Capone – in 2016, still a martyr to thugs – alongside an image of an anonymous African-American youth, captured from behind, wearing loose jeans and a cap. Beneath Capone is written “Gangster” and beneath its straw man is written “moron”. The meme was enjoyed by one of Acquaro’s sons, and lists the virtues of the mob boss: he dresses well, respects women and is actually capable of killing you, not just boasting about it.

It is the work of mental impoverishment that a serial killer’s crimes might be excused for his insistence on three-piece suits and a syrupy deference to his mother. But such is the world of The Honoured Society. Friends might be murdered, compatriots betrayed and mistresses taken, but never shall it disrupt appeals to nobility. These are, after all, the people that coined the phrase “excellent murder” to describe “necessary” killings. Like grappling with infinity, there is something awesome in contemplating men who would order another to be shot in the back and to rationalise it as “excellent”.

4 . Mafia impunity

There are questions now about law enforcement priorities, to ask if the Calabrian Mafia has been overlooked, deemed too politically thorny to properly arrest. Each year, the Australian Crime Commission releases a report on organised crime. Sterilised of any critical intelligence, the report nonetheless attempts to share the scope of the problem. Except each year there is a notable omission – the ‘Ndrangheta. Of the omission, Clive Small says, “By naming the ‘Ndrangheta, the ACC might actually be forced to address the problem.”

Meanwhile, Victoria Police homicide detectives, alongside members of the Purana organised crime taskforce, are hunting Acquaro’s killer. There are rumours that no local hit man would take the job, and that an Italian assassin was flown in – and out – quickly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2016 as "Mob rule".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.