Quick access: Gang hopefuls only have to buy a $70 T-shirt to be a part of the criminal group. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Almost a year ago one of NSW's most highly regarded and experienced police officers, Detective Superintendent Deb Wallace, stepped out to grab a pizza.
As she walked through the streets of Parramatta that evening she came across 10 young men, of solid build and Middle Eastern descent, each sporting a beard, sitting at a table outside a restaurant.
Each had on a black T-shirt with the letters ''BFL'' printed across the front.
Convicted: Bassam Hamzy is believed to have inspired the BFL insignia. Photo: Supplied
For the head of the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, the face acronym was recognisable instantly - ''Brothers for Life'', the name adopted by a gang of crooks based in the Bankstown-Greenacre area in Sydney's south-west. The group had ''floated in and out'' of the police radar but had been largely unheard of since 2010.
At first Wallace thought it might have been a coincidence - the initials BFL could stand for a range of things. None of the men sitting around that table was among those who associated themselves with that group.
But as she took a closer look at the backs of their shirts there was no mistaking it.
There was the group's insignia of two crossed AK-47 machineguns surrounded by the words ''Brothers for Life''. The night out was interrupted as Wallace called the local highway patrol, who came and took the names of all 10 men.
''They were a different group. These were people we had not really seen before,'' Wallace said.
''Some had a history with the Hells Angels, some had a history with the Rebels, but they were different to the [the Bankstown-Greenacre gang].''
In the 12 months since, the name Brothers for Life has appeared more and more frequently. Their black T-shirts have surfaced at other crime scenes and courtrooms across Sydney's west.
This week, two members of Brothers for Life were charged over the supply of ice in the Parramatta region. Last week a member was allegedly involved in a foiled robbery of $400,000 worth of handbags from the flagship Sydney store of high-end fashion retailer Prada.
Other members have been charged and put before the court for shootings, drug matters and affray. A ''BFL'' banner has been hung from a major motorway in the city's south-west.
But police want it known that Brothers for Life is not an organised criminal group but rather a group of criminals.
''It doesn't matter what banner they use or what they call themselves, we just identify them as criminals and we target them that way,'' Wallace said.
''They have no structure. They have no leader. They don't have office bearers.''
And if you want to wear their name, you do not have to go through an initiation process like you would to join established outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Comanchero or Hells Angels.
You just have to be willing to part with $70 to buy a T-shirt. Brothers for Life are big on merchandising.
''We've started seeing hoodies for the winter season,'' Wallace said. ''We also pulled over a car recently and they had 30 pairs of shorts with the BFL logo.
''Really good criminals try to keep under the radar,'' she said. ''These people are trying to be very in your face. There's a lot of bravado and I would suggest it allows them then to grow a reputation, albeit undeserving, to carry out [crimes].''
Brothers for Life first came to the attention of the NSW police in 2008, when convicted murderer Bassam Hamzy was caught running a sophisticated drug supply network while in Lithgow jail.
Hamzy, who had been in custody since March 1999 for a series of crimes including drug supply, murder and conspiracy to murder, was able to make 19,523 calls using a mobile phone hidden in his cell to direct the drug deals between Sydney and Melbourne.
It was during this time that the BFL ''banner'' as police called it, began to appear. Most of those who associated themselves with it were direct relatives of Hamzy and police believe the name was intended as a ''show of support'' and ''loyalty'' to their imprisoned ''brother''.
Supporters wore black T-shirts bearing the Brothers for Life logo to court as Hamzy and his co-accused appeared. But any mention of the group went quiet again until 2010, when police received reports a group calling themselves Brothers for Life were involved in half-baked extortion attempts on businesses in the Guildford area.
Business owners were reluctant to come forward but police targeted the suspected members and charged a small number for their involvement in criminal activities. BFL then vanished again.
A senior detective who has closely monitored the group's activities said at the time they were hardly even ''brothers for a day'', let alone ''brothers for life'', due to the amount of times they kept floating in and out of the criminal world.
But the group's presence was felt again at the end of last year.
Along with Wallace's chance meeting at the pizza shop, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the leg in a driveway scrawled with Brothers for Life graffiti last August, a month later T-shirts with the insignia were seen among the crowd at the violent Muslim protest in Hyde Park and, last October Yehya Amoud was shot dead as he and a friend, Bassam Hijazi, sat on Greenacre Road in a Mercedes with the number plate BFL. It is understood Amoud, 27, was the victim of an internal conflict within the gang.
Wallace said the recent sentencing of Hamzy for his involvement in the drug ring and the emergence of young people wearing the T-shirts have attracted more recent attention for Brothers for Life.
''The myth can perpetuate,'' she said. ''Brothers for Life appears in the media, the media report about it, and that gives them the power they need to do stand-overs or extortions. They become bigger than the reality.''
Today, the group has two types of members. First, there is the small group of core members, who have lengthy criminal histories and are well known to police. They are still based in the Bankstown-Greenacre area. It was this gang who originally associated with Hamzy, and although he may have held some influence as he was transferred between jails recently, awaiting sentencing over the drug ring, he's now back in super-maximum security and his influence has greatly diminished. He has ''very little to no control over their activities'', police say.
The other members are the ''lower-level mob'' who want to link themselves to the core group. They are 17-year-olds or 18-year-olds who are attracted to the criminal underworld and the group's ''perceived power''. They wear the T-shirt to try to look tough.
These boys aren't recruited as such, but get involved through social family lines such as their brothers, cousins, mates and their mate's brothers. They are attracted to the money and the power, until they experience jail.
''Sometimes people say they are BFL because it helps their notoriety, but the reality is they may just be drug runners or what I would call cannon-fodder, being used by senior people in a criminal networks,'' Wallace said.
''A lot of young men seem to embrace the romance of gang life and say 'I'm with them', when the reality is they are just being used to do others' low-level crime.''
What is also concerning is their ''idolisation'' of Hamzy.
Police recently encountered one man, barely 18 years old, who was telling anyone and everyone Hamzy was ''his brother'', and even had his name tattooed on his arm, although had misspelt ''Bassam''.
Wallace said many of the youth who look up to the convicted killer would not even know what he looked like.
''It is misguided role modelling,'' she said. ''We often see these up-and-coming street hoodlums, who want to have an identity and get off on that gang mentality or be part of a group, get access to a T-shirt and before long they are BFL. But in reality they are not.''
Wallace sees parallels between Brothers for Life and the Asian gangs that she helped to bring down in and around Cabramatta in the 1990s.
''I remember saying to an Asian gang member years ago, and it's what we are trying to say to these ones, that you have three choices when you take this life,'' she said. ''You either get killed, you go to jail or, if you stay alive long enough, you may get enough common sense to get out.''