A weakened Sicilian mafia has cut a deal with machete-wielding Nigerians whose trade is slavery and prostitution
Palermo flying squad officers thought they had heard it all when it came to mafia oaths, rites and blood ceremonies. They had not counted on voodoo.
But there are newcomers in the narrow streets where Cosa Nostra once ruled, members of a Nigerian mafia called the Black Axe.
They have changed the traditional map of organised crime, profiting from human trafficking, drug trading and rural slavery rackets thanks to the surge of illegal migration across the Mediterranean.
The Sicilian mafia, weakened by years of trials and arrests, has cut a deal with the Black Axe to split up territory and divide the spoils, according to police and prosecutors.
As usual with the mafia, there are rules. The Africans have agreed not to carry guns, so they settle accounts with machetes. And they have unabashedly cashed in on a trade once considered shameful by the old dons — prostitution.
Like the Black Axe, the women come from Benin City in southern Nigeria. They are not aware of what awaits them.
“When a girl wants to make the journey she asks around the nightclubs at home in Benin City to find a ‘mama’,” said Isoke Aikpitanyi, 33, who was sent to Italy by people traffickers and later escaped from the vice trade.
“The mama puts her through a voodoo ritual where she swears an oath of obedience to the ‘mother of water’ to protect her from the desert and the sea. On arrival [she finds] the only way to be freed from the pledge is to pay €25,000 [£22,000] earned from her customers.”
Other Nigerian women, sitting with Aikpitanyi at a centre for migrants in a whitewashed alley, told stories of girls deceived into thinking they would find good jobs, only to vanish into safe houses run by Nigerian mamas and gangsters deep in the Ballaro quarter, a warren of streets and markets in Palermo.
Beatings, confinement and voodoo threats to a girl’s family at home are common, the women said. Every year Nigerian women vanish or are found murdered, according to the Italian media. Recently a 10-year-old girl arrived at the migrant centre pregnant.
Aikpitanyi can testify to the Black Axe gang’s ruthlessness and to its skill at running rings around European officialdom.
“They simply use an ID document over and over again so that different people borrow it,” she explained. She knows because an ID document she had used was later found on the badly burnt body of a murdered Nigerian prostitute.
We shouldn’t be throwing migrants out of Europe, we should be throwing out states who won’t accept them
Italy’s reception facilities are buckling, with 200,000 migrants expected to come this year, but it has failed to persuade its European partners to take in more people or to let rescue ships dock in their ports. According to Frontex, the EU border agency, Nigerians were the biggest group among the more than 85,000 migrants who have been taken ashore in Italy so far this year, accounting for some 10,000 of those saved at sea by naval ships and aid groups.
Almost all the women from Nigeria who risk the desert journey through Libya to cross the Mediterranean come from Benin City. Aikpitanyi said there is no security threat there — it lies far from territory ravaged by the Boko Haram jihadist group in northern Nigeria — but there are plenty of fine houses built by people who have made a success of the trek to Europe.
Police say the huge migrant influx is fuelling the supply of illicit labour and reaping profits for the Black Axe.
Some of the girls come ashore with Sim cards and numbers to call so that they can contact the gangsters as soon as they have been rescued, according to police, city officials and women activists. Boys, mostly minors, are lured from migrant reception centres and used as drug couriers, while men and women are put to work in the fields and vineyards of southern Italy, where recent court cases and trade union investigations show that forced labour is rife.
The Black Axe originated in the 1980s at Benin University as one of Nigeria’s “campus cults” — anti-elitist student confraternities that later became associated with violence. Its tentacles extend around the worldwide Nigerian diaspora. Initiates are beaten and made to pledge allegiance in a toast of blood and spirits.
“These Nigerian groups have the same characteristics and operate in the same way as the mafia,” said Leonardo Agueci, an Italian prosecutor.
Although the vows of silence and loyalty mimic the Sicilian tradition and have kept the law at bay, the Palermo flying squad had a breakthrough last November after investigators found their first informer from inside the Black Axe. Nineteen men were arrested across Italy on charges including human trafficking.
Anti-migrant sentiment is not strong in the Sicilian capital. “The fact is Palermo has always been a city where races got along well. We have 14 nationalities and 25 languages spoken here,” said Massimo Castiglia, newly elected head of the Ballaro district as he walked through a market, greeting stallholders.
The city has picked Leoluca Orlando, a veteran anti-mafia campaigner who believes that Europe should welcome migrants, as its mayor for the fifth time. He has transformed Palermo into a tourist destination better known for great street food than for assassinations. Nobody wants a new outbreak of gang warfare or a spike in racial conflict.
Orlando argues that the “prohibitionist” policy on migration serves to make the mafia richer. For him the solution is not to turn migrants away. Europe should open its doors because it needs people.
“We’re dying, Europe’s dying,” he said, sitting in his booklined office in the 18th-century Villa Niscemi. “We shouldn’t be throwing migrants out of Europe, we should be throwing states who won’t accept them out of Europe.”
He added: “Our position here in Palermo is that international migration is a basic human right. So, make it legal.”
The Italian government disagrees. Last week it sent the interior minister, Marco Minniti, to Tripoli to offer financial aid plus training and equipment for Libya’s border forces to try to stop the traffic.
In the two-day period around his visit about 7,300 migrants arrived in Italy aboard 10 ships.
Additional reporting: Adriana Urbano