News by VICE

The mafia and a Nigerian gang are targeting refugees in Sicily

by Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani and Harriet Dedman
Oct 21 2017, 9:02am

They’ve fled violence, poverty, and terrorism – and made the often perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East. But for the more than 100,000 migrants who’ve arrived in Italy so far this year, the life that awaits them can be almost as dangerous as the one they left behind.

This is particularly true for economic migrants, who don’t have the same legal status as refugees, and aren’t given the same work permits or financial aid to help them survive. Barred from the legal workforce, and with few financial options, many are targeted by criminal gangs — supported by the Italian mafia — and thrust into a life of sex slavery and drug trafficking.

Nigerian girls, Sharon and Mirabelle, work in the shadows on the outskirts of Palermo. According to police data, 90 percent of prostitutes in Palermo are Nigerian. The majority are trafficked. (Harriet Dedman/VICE News)

That’s what VICE News discovered after visiting Ballarò, a small market area, and traditional mafia stronghold near Palermo, Sicily, where the infamous Cosa Nostra mafia syndicate continues to wield power.

But the mob has started to share its territory with the Black Axe, a Nigerian criminal gang that slipped in amongst earlier waves of migrants, and established a lucrative drug smuggling and human trafficking network.

In 2015, the Black Axe attempted to recruit and then murder a young Nigerian migrant called Don Emeka. The attack on Emeka was a catalyst for Sicilian authorities to investigate the extent of the gang's reach in Palermo. (Harriet Dedman/VICE News)

Far from wrestling for territorial control, the situation in Ballarò has become lucrative for the Mafia, who are in essence allowing the Black Axe to sell drugs here, providing they pay a pseudo-tax — known as a “pizzo” — to rent brothel space and sell drugs on their turf.

Benjamin, which is not his real name, was a low level drug dealer for the Black Axe. He saw firsthand the relationship between the mafia and his bosses. "There is something that will bring those two groups together."(Harriet Dedman/VICE News)

The situation has become so serious that Italian police have for the first time used powerful anti-Mafia laws against a non-traditional mafia organization — to speed up prosecutions of Black Axe members, and allow the courts to hand-down tougher prison sentences.

Sicilian Deputy-Prosecutor, Calogero Ferrara is driving the Sicilian investigation into the Black Axe. The trial of 24 gang members began this month. More arrests are expected later this Fall. (Harriet Dedman/VICE News)

It’s an attempt to deter other gangs from pursuing similar means of exploitation in the country, while the Italian government continues to grapple with the influx of people to its shores. VICE News went to Sicily, to hear from migrants who’ve been caught in the crosshairs.

The SOS Aquarius docks in Sicily on July 23, bringing migrants rescued in the Libyan straits to shore. Some 110,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year. The majority landing in Sicily. (Harriet Dedman/VICE News)

This segment originally aired Oct. 12, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.