By Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie
The biggest refugee crisis in recorded history has engulfed continents, swung elections and fueled the rise of nativism. It has also made a lot of people very, very rich.
These are the stories of the CEOs, criminal masterminds, pencil-pushers and low-flying vultures who have figured out how to profit from global instability, also known as human suffering.
They Are So Numb
Historically, the Sicilian Mafia has shied away from prostitution because it considers itself to be a Catholic organization and the practice violates Catholic values. But that doesn’t mean the Mafia refuses a cut. For decades, it has countenanced the Black Axe’s sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of women so long as the Nigerian cult remains “respectful” and pays a fee for the privilege of working in Cosa Nostra territory, according to Spedale.
And business has only improved since the refugee crisis. Simona Moscarelli, an anti-trafficking expert at the International Organization for Migration, estimates that the number of Nigerian sex workers smuggled into Italy by sea has increased more than 300 percent over the past three years.
Women can fall into the Black Axe’s net in a number of ways. Prosecutors say some are ordered like menu items from Nigeria to Italy by madams. Others are recruited straight from refugee camps. There, according to Charlotte Baarda, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford who is doing her thesis on Nigerian sex trafficking networks, madams essentially tell them: “You could either be stuck in this asylum center, or you could start working for me, and I’ll help you get a residency permit or marry an Italian guy.”
And then there are those who arrive in Sicily from Agadez and Libya believing that their enslavement days are over, only to discover that they are simply entering a new phase of indentured servitude. Moscarelli says that many women are handed a slip of paper on their journey to Europe with a phone number for someone they are told will help them get settled in their new home. But what that number really does is alert the traffickers that they’re on their way, and soon enough, the women are back out on the street.
“By the time they cross the sea and arrive in Italy, they are so numb it is like they are broken,” said Sister Valeria Gandini, an elderly Catholic nun who has given much of her life to anti-trafficking causes.
Gandini spends several nights a week strolling through Ballarò, seeking out trafficking victims with people from local NGOs and other members of the church. “We don’t go with the intention of rescuing them because you can’t rescue them, it is impossible,” Gandini said. “We go to talk to them and establish a friendship with them. It is a moment where they can be natural, where they can have friends.”
Other African women enter into sex work willingly; they see it as their only financial option in an economy that’s even harder on women than it is on men. But what they don’t know, Gandini says, is “how big their debts are until it’s too late.” Father Enzo Volpe, a Catholic priest based out of Ballarò who accompanies Gandini on her walks, estimates that women need to pay their captors between 30,000 to 50,000 euros to buy their freedom. A report by the Finnish Immigration Service says women can owe up to 80,000 euros. In any case, the mathematics of the trade are unimaginably brutal. The prosecutors we spoke to said a prostitute could make up to 40 euros per act, while some of the women said they only made 5 to 10 euros.
“Many women don’t have money for food, or for rent,” said Gandini. “And they won’t denounce their traffickers or try to leave because they are too afraid.” Often, Enzo said, the juju pacts they entered into back at home still have a hold over them—they believe that either they or their family members will be killed if they stray.
And their relatives have no idea of the suffering they’re enduring. “Families think it will be easy for their daughters to earn money in Italy,” said Osas Yvonne, a former prostitute who co-founded an anti-trafficking group in Palermo called the Association of the Women of Benin City. “They think the white people have so much money, you can just ask them where they get it from and you can take it. Maybe there’s a tree and you can pluck the money from the tree. They don’t always know they have to become prostitutes. They don’t know that you have to suffer before you can feed yourself.”
In a cruel twist, many of the women live in houses where their activities are strictly monitored by madams who themselves are former prostitutes. These madams have paid off their debts. Some have even lived in government-funded protective shelters or taken subsidized Italian language classes meant to help them find jobs. But after some time, they saw no other way to make money other than to stay in the business as a captor. “Women don’t have the same rights here. They are not even second-class people, but slaves,” Gandini said. “We just don’t see a way out for them.”
An Unsteady Truce
Whenever a new criminal group takes root in a territory dominated by another, older criminal network, there’s the risk of a turf war. So far, the Sicilians have been careful to keep the newcomers in check. “If a Nigerian boss would try to rebel against the Sicilian Mafia, he would end up killed like a goat in the countryside,” said Leonardo Agueci, a deputy chief prosecutor in Palermo. “We’d find his head cut in the garbage.”
But that doesn’t mean the dynamic won’t change in the future. For one, the numbers might get too lopsided for the status quo to hold. As Maurizio Scalia, another deputy chief prosecutor in Palermo, explained: “Once you arrest one member in a human smuggling organization, another just comes in to take his place.” And then there’s the cultural aspect. “The Italian Mafia’s ability to influence and be strong is that they have social currency in their locale,” explained Tuesday Reitano, the deputy director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “They threaten local businesses, local families and there’s this memory of the threat of violence that gives them power. But when you have a big immigrant population—there’s no memory of massive violence. What can they be threatened with? They already suffered violence at home, they don’t have businesses and often their families aren’t with them.”
Still, there’s not much reason to think that a war between the Sicilian and Nigerian criminal organizations is imminent. All sides are benefitting too much. The Black Axe, in particular, is likely to expand over the next few years—and not just in Italy. Its relationship to the Sicilian Mafia has “bolstered its international image,” said Dr. Anna Sergi, Deputy Director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Essex. “Since it has good support in Nigeria and now in Italy, if it wanted to pursue other markets, or if it wanted to get into counterfeiting, identity cards or anything that requires transnational activities, it’d be in a good position to do so.” Baarda also believes that the Black Axe’s reputation has become strong enough that African migrants in other countries—such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—are claiming allegiance to the group, even if the ties are thin to nonexistent.
The rise of the Black Axe—and of Nigerian gangs in general—could be viewed as a hard lesson in unintended consequences. If Muammar Gaddafi hadn’t been killed, throwing Libya into chaos, and Middle Eastern countries hadn’t sealed their borders to asylum-seekers and migrants coming from Africa, the Libya-to-Italy migrant route would probably never have become such a lucrative magnet for organized crime. And if the economic crisis hadn’t hit Italy so hard, and migrants and refugees had better job opportunities in Europe, they wouldn’t have been so vulnerable to recruitment into drug dealing or prostitution. And if the Sicilian Mafia hadn’t been weakened by all the police busts, it might not have been so eager to do business with the Nigerian gangs in the first place. Now, prosecutors don’t just have the Sicilian Mafia to contend with. An entirely new criminal network has been loosed on the continent, with both the connections and ability to expand.
Emily Kassie – Investigative Journalist, Filmmaker & Photographer. Founding Creative Director
Image: Dolores Ugan (left) and Osas Yvonne, both former sex workers, founded an anti-trafficking group in response to the murder of several prostitutes in Palermo.