Posted on January 7, 2009

Nigerian Gangsters Get a Foothold in a Violent Italian Landscape

Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2009

Reporting from Castel Volturno, Italy—{snip}

The killings in September, recounted in interviews by senior antimafia officials, were gory evidence of conflict between the Neapolitan mafia, known as the Camorra, and Nigerian gangsters who play a growing role in Italy’s drug and prostitution rackets.

This landscape of change and fear has been shaped by a singular juxtaposition: One of Europe’s biggest concentrations of African immigrants has risen in the heart of Camorra turf.


Most of the victims were illegal immigrant laborers, though one or two may have been low-level drug pushers, investigators say. The fusillade of 130 bullets was apparently an indiscriminate message from a Camorra clan aimed at terrifying its junior partners into obedience.

“It was not about racism at all,” said Jean-Rene Bilongo, a community mediator from Cameroon who speaks French, English and Italian with the broad Neapolitan accent. “It was about business.”

Nigerian gangsters have made Castel Volturno a European headquarters. In the 1990s, demand boomed here for African prostitutes—prosecutors call it “the Naomi Campbell phenomenon.” Camorra clans “rented” turf to Nigerian pimps, a line of work that Neapolitan gangsters disdain.

And as cocaine flows increasingly to Europe through West Africa, Nigerians have graduated from their previous role as smuggling “mules” and pay the Camorra for a cut of street trafficking action.


In Castel Volturno and elsewhere in southern Europe where crime, immigration and economic crisis converge, an uncertain future is under construction.

“We need to deal with the social problems, and not just using the police,” said Mayor Francesco Nuzzo, who estimates there are 15,000 undocumented immigrants here. “This is a world. There are 50 different ethnicities in Castel Volturno.”


Africans first came to work in tomato fields made bountiful by the climate of the Caserta region and subsidies from the European Union. In recent years, many arrived on a new flow of ragged smuggling flotillas from Libya to Sicily.

Like the fugitive local gangsters who dodge police for years in the mob-dominated towns north of Naples, newcomers find this a good place to lie low.

“It attracts illegal immigrants because there is a generalized culture of lawlessness,” the senior antimafia official said. “People don’t pay taxes, they build illegally, they dump garbage illegally, they buy contraband, they work off the books. People in this part of Italy have a problem with rules.”

But jobs are scarce. Employers prefer Eastern Europeans to work in hotels and South Asians to clean up after the herds of buffalo whose milk is used to produce the region’s acclaimed mozzarella.