A steep rise in the number of Nigerian prostitutes working in Italy is being linked to the arrival in the country of well-organized Nigerian mafias, which are using violence and religious rites to terrify trafficked women into submission, police say.
Police say their operations this year have revealed the presence in Italy of a host of Nigerian gangs with names such as the Black Axe, the Vikings, the Buccaneers, the Eiye and the Maphites.
The gangs have arrived in Italy as the number of Nigerian women sailing to the country from Libya has risen from 1,454 in 2014 to 10,624 between January and the end of November.
Of those, as many as 80% are forced to work as prostitutes, according to the International Organization for Migration.
With prices for sex with girls as young as 14 starting at around $10, 1 in 2 street prostitutes in Italy today is Nigerian.
Seventeen members of the Black Axe mafia were arrested last month, including the group's "head of zone" for Italy, taken into custody in Verona, and the "minister of defense" in Palermo. The latter was said to be responsible for singling out errant members for machete attacks.
"Our probe showed how gangs like the Black Axe are running the whole prostitution pipeline, which brings trafficked women from Nigeria to Italy," said an investigator in Palermo who declined to be named because he was not allowed to speak on the record.
Women are usually fooled into believing they will be given regular jobs in Europe by traffickers who stage voodoo rites in which the women promise to pay back the cost of their travel, authorities said.
Upon arrival, police said, the women are told they must work as prostitutes until they pay off debts of about $30,000.
The police official said former prostitutes often manage the women, but mafia members are on hand to punish them if they try to escape.
"If women rebel, it won't be their madams who punish them, but Black Axe," he said.
Anna, 40, who declined to give her last name because of the sensitivity of the topic, said she was forced into prostitution for three years after being told by traffickers she would pick fruit in Italy. She said she was warned that her mother in Nigeria would be hurt if she fled.
"I stayed on the street, pressured by my madam, to save my mother," she said in an interview. "My message to girls back in Nigeria is, 'Don't come.'"
Fabio Sorgoni, an official with the charity On the Road, which helps prostitutes in Italy, said Italian men are attracted by the youth and low price of the women. "They think these girls come from a culture where it is normal to be a prostitute," he said. "Ironically, that is what Germans used to say about Italian women who immigrated to Germany."
Sorgoni said Nigerian women lodged applications for asylum in Italy when they arrived and then worked as prostitutes while their paperwork wound through Italy's overwhelmed immigration bureaucracy. "They are also put to work inside migration centers in Italy," he said.
Police in Palermo first learned about the Black Axe mafia in 2014, when member Austine Johnbull was arrested after inflicting serious face wounds with an axe on a rival from another Nigerian gang.
Investigators applied their experience in chasing the Sicilian mafia, setting up microphones in meeting places, tailing suspects, trawling Facebook accounts, and, most important, finding a member ready to give evidence.
From the historic Palermo neighborhood of Ballaro, the Black Axe was building a drug and vice empire with 100 affiliates in the Palermo "forum" — its name for areas of operation in Italy, authorities said. All members took on gang nicknames and greeted each other by crossing raised forearms.
New recruits, or "ignorants," were held in apartments and beaten to test their courage, police said.
Authorities identified the head of the Palermo gang as Evans Sylvester, who was arrested. His sister ran a brothel, police said.
"The turncoat we used was a modern-day Buscetta," said the police official, referring to Tommaso Buscetta, the first major Cosa Nostra turncoat in the 1980s.
He also said there were parallel Black Axe operations in Germany, France and Holland.
The official said the Black Axe had learned to coexist with Sicily's traditional mafia clans. "The mafia here has no interest in the Nigerian community, but they do trade drugs with the Nigerian mafias, so it's mutually beneficial," he said.
In September, police in Turin, Bologna and Rome arrested 44 members of other Nigerian mafia clans, including the Eiye and the Maphites.
Investigators discovered mobsters were stabbing victims in the face or dousing them in acid to keep control over the Italian suburbs where they placed prostitutes and sold drugs.
During clan initiation ceremonies, new members were forced to drink a mixture of blood, gin and tapioca as they swore allegiance.
Unlike most mafia groups, which recruit on the streets, Nigeria's mafias are often formed on the country's university campuses, where they offer protection to rich students, nongovernmental organization officials have said.
Police said that members of the Eiye mafia would whistle like birds to identify themselves. They said the Maphites favored sharp suits and called bosses "Dons" in deference to the Italian mafia.
"The Maphites would hold meetings in smart hotels and pose as local community leaders, but wiretaps showed they were receiving orders from Nigeria and sending cash back there," said Marco Sgarbi, a police official in Turin. "They are involved in the trafficking of the women from start to finish."
To solve a dispute over control of the Maphites in 2013, a boss arrived from London for a summit, Sgarbi said. "He was likely the deputy head of the group at European level, responding to an overall boss in Nigeria — their structure is like a pyramid," he added.
The boss was recorded stating that anyone disobeying the group would have a relative in Nigeria killed and that a senior Nigerian police official "is our best friend," Sgarbi said.
The police official in Palermo said the round-up of Black Axe leaders would help "slow down" the Nigerian prostitution trade. "They will be disorientated, but we now need to see how capable the madams are at keeping order," he said.
Vivian Wiwoloku, a Nigerian aid official in Palermo who helps trafficked women and has had his car firebombed twice, said he was not optimistic.
"As long as there is a recession in Nigeria, more girls will come," he said.
Sorgoni, the official with On the Road, issued an appeal to Italian men who pay Nigerians for sex. "If you go to a prostitute, try to understand if they are a minor and whether they are doing this work of their own free will," he said.
Kington is a special correspondent.