A silent handshake between crime syndicates bosses. Corruption at the highest level. People with authority who are willing to gain something.
In Italy, criminologists call it a “grey area”; the often dark and ambiguous relationship between the Mafia and the country’s law enforcement.
Some researchers prefer to call it a gray zone, of complicity and collusion.
Beneath that gray hue are those who would not normally be involved in crime – a shooting, for example – but who benefit by looking the other way.
The gray has long crept into Australia: organized crime is borderless, says Professor Andreas Schloenhardt of the University of Queensland, and crossed our borders years ago.
And as Australian authorities deal with juvenile delinquency, that gray area can cast longer shadows.
The Yakuza on the Gold Coast in the 1980s; Russian organized crime infiltrating Australia since the fall of the Soviet Union; the ever-present scourge of outlaw biker gangs.
More recently, Australian casinos’ ties to Chinese high-roller criminals have come to light.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Schloenhardt.
“We want foreign investment … we want high rollers to come and gamble here and we fly them in for that, so that means, you know, don’t ask too many questions about that.”
Serena Forlati, an international law professor focusing on organized crime and mafia groups in Italy, flew to Brisbane this month to take UQ’s Transnational Organized Crime course with Schloenhardt.
Several universities around the world participate to raise awareness and educate students about the weaknesses in organized crime legislation.
A gaping hole, says Schloenhardt, is the previous lack of a federal anti-corruption commission.
The Australian government has taken steps to establish the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is expected to become operational by mid-2023.
“I think what makes Australia a particular target or very attractive to organized crime is that you can make a lot of money here and there is a very high demand for illegal drugs,” says Schloenhardt.
“Australians use a lot of drugs and we pay a lot for it.
“If you’re a Colombian drug cartel, you say, ‘Hey, that’s an easy target.’ The supply of cocaine in particular goes through the roof.”
Forlati, who teaches at Italy’s University of Ferrara, says the mafia has infiltrated many aspects of that country’s criminal justice system, killing several judges in recent decades.
Gang lifestyles extend into family homes, as mothers try to cooperate with the police to prevent sons from following in their father’s footsteps, she says.
And juvenile delinquency, a topic on the lips of many politicians, lawyers and crime victims in Queensland at the moment, is much more serious in Italy.
Syndicates recruit children to do their jobs because the sentence for a minor is less harsh than for an adult with longer prison sentences.
“There are criminal organizations that deliberately use minors to commit crimes, drug offenses or even shootings because of the lenient sentences, as they may not be punishable under a certain age,” says Forlati.
“It is clear that there is a strong link between situations of educational deprivation and the ease of entering these types of frameworks.
“Prison is not the way out.
“Minors are often a problem, but they are also often the key to breaking old patterns of silence (not to mention the mafia), and so on.
“The treatment of minors and more generally youth policy are, I think, a key element for a successful fight against organized crime.”
Following a heated forum in Toowoomba on juvenile delinquency, the Queensland Government has announced that dedicated teams of police and juvenile justice workers will patrol hotspots to “engage with at-risk youth” in the region.
But Schloenhardt is adamant that juvenile delinquency across Australia is not the same scale, or the same harm, as organized crime.
“I think if you want to give criminal organizations more fuel and more members, you have to send young people to prison, because that’s where they make the connections and they get out,” says Schloenhardt.
“If they weren’t criminals before, they’ll come out as criminals.
“It’s so counterproductive. We have debates about why young offenders shouldn’t be incarcerated in the 21st century… (it’s) really frightening because (prison) is a breeding ground for organized crime.”
Schloenhardt emphasizes that there is no evidence that organized crime groups recruit children in Australia.
But both professors say more can be done between international partners to fight this kind of crime before it overruns Australian courts and prisons.
“Some things are similar and other things are really specific to each criminal organization and we need to know how to tackle them properly,” says Forlati.
“And that is also where international cooperation is important.”