Pubdate: Sat, 25 Mar 2006
Source: Age, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2006 The Age Company Ltd
Author: Nick McKenzie
Note: With additional reporting from Italy by GIULIA SIRIGNANI


An Italian prosecutor tells Nick McKenzie it is time Australian police woke 
up to the Mafia menace in their midst.

MANY of the towns scattered across the picturesque region of Calabria in 
southern Italy seem frozen in time. Local dialects spill from ancient 
shopfronts and, while cars have mostly replaced carts, the streets are 
still lined with cobblestones.

Another tradition is that the Calabrian Mafia, known as the " 'Ndrangheta" 
or "Honoured Society", frustrates the authorities and the Government. So it 
was something of a coup when, about four years ago, an undercover operative 
infiltrated the Mancuso family, as part of an investigation codenamed 
Operation Decollo. As the evidence grew, so did the belief of Italian 
investigators that they stood a good chance of crushing one of Calabria's 
leading crime syndicates.

But even more remarkable was what they learned about the global reach of 
their targets. In early 2004, an Italian judge issued documents ordering 
the arrest of more than 100 individuals. Scattered among residences in 
Europe and South America were addresses in Kew, Rowville and Mildura, and 
the names of men the Italian authorities allege are involved in a plan to 
smuggle up to 500 kilograms of cocaine into the Port of Melbourne.

Italian authorities are, once again, fingering Australia as a significant 
site in the operations of the Calabrian Mafia. While such a view has been 
played down by Australian investigators, revelations that Operation Decollo 
arrest warrants for a handful of Australians have been outstanding for more 
than two years are raising concerns that authorities here may have shifted 
their sights too far away from Italo-Australian crime syndicates.

A report released 18 months ago by Italy's Interior Ministry singled out 
Australia and Canada as overseas locations where the 'Ndrangheta is most 
"active and involved in trans-national criminal activity". The report also 
claimed the organisation is the most "internationally dangerous" of Italy's 
Mafia groups. Earlier this week in Calabria, police arrested an Honoured 
Society member suspected of murdering the deputy president of the region's 

Not surprisingly, when The Age first met Calabrian anti-Mafia prosecutor Dr 
Salvatore Curcio in Rome last year, he was accompanied by a bodyguard. 
Curcio is a key figure in Operation Decollo, an investigation he says has 
been able to penetrate the blood ties, strict hierarchy and code of silence 
that characterises the Honoured Society.

But for the sharply dressed and slightly paunchy lawyer, Operation Decollo 
is a job unfinished. The Age revealed earlier this week that for more than 
a year, Curcio has been seeking the extradition of at least four 
Australians whose arrest was ordered by a Calabrian court in 2004.

"Operation Decollo has ascertained the existence of solid links between the 
organisation dedicated to international drug trafficking based in Calabria 
and one of its arms in Australian territory," he says.

The first hints that the Calabrian Mafia once again had its eyes on 
Australia came when Italian authorities and the Australian Federal Police 
realised they had separately investigated the same drug importation 
involving Italian-born Adelaide man Pietro Antonio Cerullo. In 2000, he was 
charged by Australian police with possessing 317 kilograms of cocaine that 
had been shipped from Colombia to Australia, and in 2004 he was sentenced 
to 20 years' jail. But what alarmed investigators, apart from the huge 
amount of cocaine seized (according to Italian authorities, an additional 
130 kilograms still made it through to the Australian market) was a visit 
to Adelaide by a Calabrian to meet Cerullo before his arrest.

To most, Vincenzo Barbieri would have passed for just another European 
tourist. But back home, investigators had him placed in the "upper 
echelons" of one of the local Honoured Society clans and as a key target of 
Operation Decollo. In early 2002, 18 months after Cerullo's arrest in 
Adelaide, Italian police began secretly recording phone calls between 
Barbieri and a man living in Rowville, in Melbourne's outer east.

The Victorian on the phone to Barbieri was Nicola Ciconte, the son of 
Calabrian migrants who settled in Wonthaggi in southern Gippsland in 1955. 
After completing a tool-making apprenticeship, Ciconte moved into finance, 
first as an insurance salesman and then as a broker.

Ciconte first aroused the interest of the AFP when, in 1999, it began 
investigating his role in a scam to defraud the government of millions of 
dollars in cigarette import tax. He was charged in 2001 and jailed in March 
last year for 12 months. But according to Curcio, in the months after that 
first brush with the law, Ciconte was busy forging a close relationship 
with Barbieri.

"There were feverish contacts recorded, especially during 2002, 2003 and 
the first months of 2004, between this Australian component and the 
Italian  let's call it 'mother'  organisation," Curcio says. Italian court 
documents provide more details, outlining a plan to "import into Australian 
territory enormous quantities of cocaine".

The men's planning also included the organisation of a dry run. In 2002, a 
shipping container successfully made its way from Italy to Melbourne. 
Curcio alleges that Ciconte also intended to apply his financial training 
to the venture.

"What we've been able to establish from the documentation seized at the 
home and at the company of the (Italian) defendants, was that the money was 
being laundered, sent to Italy from Australia," he says.

But Ciconte's relationship with Barbieri became strained after the 
Australian failed to deliver on numerous promises, including the delivery 
of money to Italy. There were questions raised in Australia about why 
Barbieri was persisting with Ciconte, given the high stakes of the venture. 
Italian investigators replied that Ciconte had the right connections back 
in Calabria.

In January 2004, after Italian authorities decided they had enough evidence 
to lay charges, Decollo officials co-ordinated a series of raids across the 
globe. Barbieri was arrested and, in May last year, sentenced to 18 years 
in prison.

It was envisaged that similar arrests would be made worldwide. Indeed, the 
Italian police were told by their Australian counterparts that this would 
happen. But when the AFP sent their evidence to the Commonwealth Director 
of Public Prosecutions, it's believed the DPP decided the case would be too 
confusing to present to a jury. Not even an offer from Curcio to send his 
critical undercover operative to Australia to testify would sway the DPP.

Meanwhile, the Court of Catanzaro in Calabria had already issued arrest 
warrants naming Ciconte and three of his associates  Mildura man Vincenzo 
Medici, Melbourne man Michael Calleja and South Australian Carmelo Loprete.

"The trips that these men took to Italy were filmed, the telephone calls 
and conversations were intercepted, so we were able to supply the judge's 
office with (evidence)  that these people were involved in this 
international trafficking of cocaine," Curcio says. "We requested the 
activation of international procedures of extradition."

Just how far the extradition request has progressed is unclear. Earlier 
this week, an AFP spokeswoman said she could not comment on the details of 
the case and that extradition requests were a matter for the Federal 
Attorney-General's department. A spokesman for Justice Minister Chris 
Ellison refused to answer questions about what action, if any, the 
Government had undertaken in relation to a possible extradition request.

However, it is believed that the Italian Government has yet to detail all 
of its evidence to the AFP or to send Australia the information required to 
initiate an extradition request.

Whatever the reason, it means the Australians wanted in Italy are at 
liberty; Nicola Ciconte walked free from prison just over a week ago, after 
finishing a 12-month sentence for fraud and failing to answer questions 
before the Australian Crime Commission.

While the outstanding warrants may say more about the difficulty of 
international investigations than the Mafia's Australian activities, the 
role of the Honoured Society, in what would have been one of the nation's 
biggest cocaine importations, is hard to ignore.

Italian investigators still refer to the findings of Australia's most 
public exploration of the Honoured Society, the Woodward Royal Commission, 
which concluded more than two decades ago. It named several Australian 
residents as organisation members and highlighted their involvement in the 
murder of Griffith furniture maker and anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay.

However, the most recent major investigation into the state of Italian 
organised crime came up with a rather different finding. In 1995, the 
National Crime Authority's Operation Cerberus declared an Honoured Society 
in Australia was more myth than reality and that "Italo-Australian 
organised crime" was declining.

Former chairman of the NCA John Broome says those findings were based on 
sound analysis. But he also says the resulting shift of state and federal 
police resources away from such organised crime went too far. "If they 
think law enforcement is looking somewhere else, they will inevitably try 
to utilise that capacity to get on the blind side of the police," he said 
this week.

Broome also believes the focus on terrorism is coming at a cost.

"There is absolutely no doubt that drug trafficking in Australia still 
causes far more damage to far more Australians than all the terrorist acts 
that have been contemplated  let alone carried out  in Australia in the 
last 10 years, and yet the resources of the AFP (and) the resources of 
state police forces are now being largely directed towards the terrorist 
threat, perceived or real. It's a response to a political assessment as 
much as to a law enforcement assessment," he says.

The experiences of the NSW Crime Commission add some weight to Broome's 
analysis. Its annual report of 2003-04 refers to an investigation into 
"large-scale outdoor cannabis cultivation by identities associated with 
Italo-Australian organised crime". The report further notes "the Italian 
organised crime network has received relatively little law enforcement 
attention over the past decade, yet continues to generate substantial wealth".

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty declined a request to be interviewed for this 
article, although earlier this week he dismissed criticism about the AFP's 
resourcing. He also confined the AFP's link to Operation Decollo to a 
failure to gain enough evidence to sustain charges.

In his recently released book Undercover, former Victoria Police detective 
Damian Marrett describes his 1992 infiltration of a drugs syndicate in 
Mildura headed by local man Matteo Rosario Medici. More than a decade 
later, Matteo Medici's brother, Vincenzo, is one of those listed on 
Operation Decollo's arrest warrants. The brothers have long attracted the 
attention of authorities, as had their father, Marco Medici snr, until his 
murder on the family's Mildura property in the early '80s.

"Like anything, as the strong roots die it's going to get weaker and 
weaker," said Marrett in a recent interview. "But I think that is still a 
fair way off. It can happen with any group  as long as they keep that 
discipline and structure there, it could go on for another hundred years."

Marrett's work also took him undercover into what was once the nation's 
most infamous Italian crime patch, Griffith in NSW.

In Undercover, he describes his pursuit of Ross Trimbole, the nephew of 
crime boss Robert Trimbole, and recalls a question he posed to Trimbole in 
the mid-'90s.

When he asked Trimbole if he considered himself Mafia, Trimbole allegedly 
replied: "We don't use that word  we just call ourselves family. We look 
after each other. We have family in all states. We have family in Italy."

Over a decade later in Calabria, and it is family connections that remain a 
concern to Salvatore Curcio. He does not claim there is a distinct Honoured 
Society in Australia, but that the group is present here, he says, is 
beyond dispute. "To think these people are chicken thieves is a gross 
error. And to think that 'Ndrangheta continues to operate in the way and 
form it did 50 years ago is exceedingly misleading. Fax, internet, 
computer, the ease of moving by plane  (are used by) mafioso 
organisations," he says.

When questioned about the view commonly held by Australian police that 
Italy's anti-Mafia authorities have both a vested interest and a track 
record in talking up the presence of the Mafia overseas, Curcio's response 
is blunt. He points to Operation Decollo and says many of its targets are 
already serving lengthy prison sentences. "We have issued our judicial 
measures. Then it will be for the Australian authorities to decide what to do."

With additional reporting from Italy by GIULIA SIRIGNANI
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