Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli, Washington Post, June 25, 2019
In a country that has fought for decades to weaken its homegrown mafia, a foreign crime group is gathering strength.
The group’s members are Nigerian. They hold territory from the north in Turin to the south in Palermo. They smuggle drugs and traffic women, deploying them as prostitutes on Italy’s streets. They find new members among the caste of wayward migrants, illicitly recruiting at Italian government-run asylum centers.
Investigators and justice officials say the Nigerian mafia, as it’s called here, has capitalized on half a decade of historic migration — a scenario merging crime and migrants in a manner that nationalist politicians in Europe and beyond have long warned about.
For the leaders who won control of Italian politics with pledges to stop the “invasion,” the Nigerian mafia helps justify the lock-the-doors border approach put in place last year. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s most prominent politician, recently used Twitter to highlight one Nigerian crime case after the next, writing that the “African” crime bosses pose “a growing threat that needs to be eradicated immediately.”
Nationalists and strongmen have long portrayed migration as a source of danger, saying that people crossing borders might be intent on terrorism. Data from some countries, such as the United States, shows those claims are overstated. But the emergence of a new foreign mafia strikes at some of the most emotional chords in a country still traumatized by its so-called mafia wars.
There are no reliable estimates of how many members of the Nigerian mafia operate in Italy. But interviews with detectives, prosecutors, aid workers and human-trafficking victims, and a review of hundreds of pages of investigative documents, show that the Nigerian mafia has built Italy into a European hub, smuggling cocaine from South America, heroin from Asia, and trafficking women by the tens of thousands.
Although perhaps lesser known than organized-crime syndicates of Japan, Russia and China, the Nigerian group has become “the most structured and dynamic” of any foreign crime entity operating in Italy, the Italian intelligence agency said this year. Some Nigerian members sneak their way into Italy with the intention of joining the criminal groups. Others are recruited after arriving.
But leaders in at least one city where the Nigerian mob has gained a foothold have tried to push back. In the Sicilian city of Palermo, Mayor Leoluca Orlando, a 71-year-old who keeps a Koran in his office and calls Salvini a “little Mussolini,” said he refuses to distinguish one kind of criminal from the next on the basis of ethnicity or “blood.” Several Nigerians in Palermo have organized news conferences and rallies, holding signs that say not all Nigerians belong to the mafia.
The Nigerian mafia has had a presence across Europe since the 1980s. In recent years, it has not only expanded, but also pushed into the one Italian territory where no foreign mob had dared to go.
Investigators say they first saw signs of the Nigerian mafia presence here in 2013 with an uptick in violent assaults. Two years later, evidence emerged that the new group might be cooperating in the drug trade with Sicilian mafia: A taped conversation showed two Cosa Nostra higher-ups describing the Nigerians as “tough young’uns” who are dangerous but know their place. That peace between the groups has held ever since.
Authorities say that may be because the Nigerian mafia has built much of its business on the one thing Cosa Nostra has never shown an interest in: prostitution.
Some experts say that as many as 20,000 Nigerian women, some of them minors, arrived in Sicily between 2016 and 2018, trafficked in cooperation with Nigerians in Italy and back home.
“Think of the port — hundreds [of women] pouring in every day,” said Sergio Cipolla, the president of Cooperazione Internazionale Sud Sud, a Palermo-based nonprofit organization that deals with migrants, describing that period. “The women would be taken to government reception centers. But they weren’t forced to stay there. They would flee and vanish.”
According to documents, investigators and personal accounts, the women come to Italy on a promise, agreeing to pay a steep fare — 20,000 or 30,000 euros — for a life in Europe with a job. Before leaving Nigeria, most swear to repay that debt during a voodoo rite. But women arrive in Italy to find out there is no child-care or hair-stylist position awaiting them.
One Nigerian trafficking victim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said she was handed a short skirt and a pack of condoms and told to go to work. Within several months, she tried to kill herself by swallowing bleach.
“I believed the oath,” said the woman, who is 23 and came from Nigeria’s Benin City. “If you don’t repay the debt, you die.”
Because of those oaths, it is rare for women to go to the police — but when they do, the payoff for investigators can be significant. Francesco Del Grosso, the head of the foreign crimes section at the national police unit in Palermo, was at his desk in 2017 when a Nigerian woman showed up, saying she was afraid but ready to talk.
She described several years of sex and coercion — a pregnancy, being forced back onto the street — and she said she was being sheltered by a charity group. People were looking for her.
The woman described details about the men she had seen around her: ritual handshakes, color-coded blue and yellow outfits — a telltale of the Eiye group, one of the main Nigerian mafia clans. Del Grosso showed the woman some photos of Nigerian men he already had on file, and a new investigation opened.
Nineteen months later, 14 Eiye members were arrested on mafia and drug charges, including the suspected Sicilian Eiye boss, Osabuohien Ehigiator. Del Grosso said all 14 people had come to Italy “on boats” in the past several years.
“This, for Italy, is a new criminal phenomenon,” Del Grosso said. “But from my perspective, it changes nothing. They are criminals.”
Criminals, he said, have always crossed borders.