CATANIA, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Italian prosecutor Lina Trovato first came across a sex trafficking suspect called “Mummy”, she sensed she was onto something especially sinister.
The code name had appeared several times in wiretapped conversations between Nigerian gang members in Italy and their apparently female boss back in the West African state.
“If one of the (trafficked sex worker) girls went astray, the agents in Italy always informed ‘Mummy’ - otherwise known as the Queen Bee of Nigerian trafficking - so she could keep them in line,” Trovato told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Several months of investigation led police to swoop in and arrest six people in the Italian cities of Rome, Genoa and Catania, she said. The six are awaiting trial.
Nigerian crime gangs have proliferated in Italy, controlling an extensive network of prostitutes and ordering them “on demand” from Nigeria, Italian police and prosecutors say.
But now the Nigerian gangs, who have been active in Italy for more than a decade, are taking on increasingly violent tactics, including knife crime and even forging close relations with notorious mafia groups, the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, law enforcement agencies in Italy say.
The overlap with home-grown organised crime groups is troubling for police because the Italian mafia dominate the economies in their regions, often with the help of corrupt or complacent administrators, and they have spread their tentacles to northern Italy.
At least 16 Nigerians have been arrested on trafficking offences since the start of 2016 in the Catania jurisdiction in Sicily, up from around 10 the previous year.
“Mummy” is still on the run.
“Sometimes we are good at breaking the cycle (of trafficking). But it is very hard,” Trovato, a specialist in organised crime and mafia, said in Catania city.
Italy’s government has not disclosed the number of arrests in connection with Nigerian trafficking gangs despite requests from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Around 12,000 Nigerian women arrived in Italy by sea in 2015 and 2016, data from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows - a six-fold increase on the previous two years.
Almost 80 percent of the young women are victims of trafficking, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), placing law enforcement agencies under pressure to uproot expanding Nigerian criminal networks, lawyers say.
As the number of Nigerian trafficking victims rises, Italian prosecutors - lawyers who gather evidence before presenting it in court - are finding more and more of their time taken up with unpicking Nigeria’s criminal networks.
Nigerian prostitutes frequently end up working as recruiters or “madams” for new arrivals from Africa, prosecutors say.
These former sex workers also help with the logistics of slavery, driving trafficking victims to the cities where they become prostitutes, Trovato said.
But trends are changing. Armed robberies, murders and drug-related crime have spread south to the Sicilian city of Palermo from larger Nigerian communities in the northern cities of Turin and Castel Volturno, justice officials say.
“It is a compact community, in which there are lots of people who practice crime,” said Leonardo Agueci, prosecutor in Palermo’s justice department.
Earlier in 2016, the boss of notorious Nigerian criminal organisation Black Axe was sentenced to 12 years in jail after a number of Nigerian men were brutally attacked in Palermo.
The incident happened late one night in January 2014 in Palermo’s Ballaro street market, where police later found the victims with gashed foreheads.
“It was the first time a Palermo court has convicted a Nigerian on mafia-related crimes,” said Gaspare Spedale, another prosecutor in the Sicilian city.
Police fear the relatively small-time crimes committed by members of the Nigerian gangs in Palermo might become more serious in a city famous for Italy’s most storied mafia organisation, the Cosa Nostra, Agueci said.
For now, the prosecutors said there was no evidence mafia were running the Nigerian sex trafficking network from Palermo, but it could have connections with organised crime gangs on mainland Italy.
“The people who export (Nigerian victims) are in other countries,” Spedale said. “But there is a mastermind controlling it in Italy. It exists.”
In Palermo’s vibrant Ballaro market, Nigerian shopkeepers and customers brushed shoulders with Sicilian fruit stallholders touting bright pink pomegranates and blood-red tomatoes.
Nigerian women, loading their baskets with sardines and olives, refused to answer questions about the quality of life in Palermo when they were approached by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
At night, a few hundred metres away, West African women in short-cut dresses plied their trade in dimly lit streets alongside the port. Many work for pimps who remain out of sight, local campaigners say.
But the killing in 2011 of one Nigerian trafficking victim still strikes fear in the community.
“Favour” Nike Adekune was murdered in Palermo’s historic centre in a crime that shocked the 500-strong Nigerian community, according to Nino Rocca, a local rights activist.
Adekune - from Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo state - had been working as a sex worker to pay off debts to her pimps, Rocca said.
After one of Adekune’s clients was convicted of her murder, something mysterious happened to her body, he said.
“When the corpse was prepared for burial (months after her death), we noticed that only a few bones remained. We do not know why,” Rocca told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We have no idea if the mafia or Nigerian (gangs) stole the body.”
But he added that some members of the Nigerian community suspected the local mafia were involved.
The macabre nature of more and more crimes committed against Nigerian women, including black magic or “juju” rituals, is one reason victims are reluctant to come forward, prosecutors say.
Fear plays a large part in Nigerian juju, with pubic hair, fingernails and blood collected from trafficking victims as they are made to swear never to report their situation to authorities, rights groups say.
In some cases, fearing the juju “spell” may be turned on them and they may die, Nigerian parents insist their daughters obey traffickers, testimony from Italian court documents shows.
“One woman we spoke to was made to swallow an egg whole,” Kevin Hyland, Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner, said in an interview in London.
“It obviously had some kind of drug in it: She was raped daily.”
Victims of sex trafficking often do not want to point the finger at the madams or pimps because they are worried about repercussions or juju, Catania-based prosecutor Lino Trovato said.
Even so, the number of trafficking-related cases in her file has risen.
“This year, I handled about 40 cases, compared with 20 the year before,” Trovato said.
The problem is not isolated to Italy. The authorities in parts of Spain have also been grappling with Nigerian sex trafficking rings.
In Catalonia, 99 percent of prostitution is controlled by organised crime, much of it by a dominant Nigerian crime group known as the Supreme Eiye Confraternity (SEC) or Air Lords.
It’s a criminal network comparable with the mafioso in Chicago in the 1930s, said Xavi Cortes, chief of the central unit of human trafficking at the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police force.
“Every single Nigerian knows who they are,” Cortes said in an interview. “If you ask a Nigerian boy, he will know who an Eiye is.”
But many women who are trafficked to Spain end up working as “madams”, who are essentially pimps who control prostitutes on the streets of Barcelona, Cortes said.
The Mossos’s operations have led to the jailing of 25 trafficking gang members in the Barcelona region, with a further 13 currently under a European arrest order because they are abroad, Cortes said.
“Experience tells me that, finally, all the traffickers will find new routes and new ways. It is impossible to stop this phenomenon,” the Catalan police chief said.
Reporting By Tom Esslemont; editing by Timothy Large; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org