ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the last three years, more than 22,000 Nigerian women have left their homes, crossed the Mediterranean and arrived in Italy. The International Organization for Migration thinks that most of these women are potential victims of sex trafficking. The Italian police and prosecutors who've spent decades fighting the mafia are now tracking Nigerian gangsters involved in this trafficking. We're going to hear a report now from Sicily and a note that it does contain a graphic description of violence. Here's Krista Mahr.
KRISTA MAHR, BYLINE: On a windy day on the outskirts of the Sicilian city Catania, two Italian social workers park on a highway to stop and talk to two young Nigerian women sitting on the edge of the road. They're wearing Technicolor wigs, a mask of makeup and not a lot of clothes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
MAHR: This is a weekly check in to tell the women working as prostitutes here where they can get free Italian lessons and legal help with immigration paperwork and eventually to try to get them off the streets. But one of the women who calls herself Rosa doesn't want to learn Italian. She wants a job.
ROSA: Our problem is we don't need school. Our problem is we need documents, and we need work because we know that this work is not good. We know that. But we just need work.
MAHR: The United Nations has estimated nearly 80 percent of Nigerian women who arrive in Italy as migrants are potential victims of trafficking. Most are desperate for work and promised good jobs in Europe, but after they leave home and get to Libya to cross the Mediterranean, the story changes. Then they are told they owe thousands of euros for the trip and will have to work as prostitutes to pay it off.
CARMINE MOSCA: (Through interpreter) A lot of money is made through exploiting the prostitution of these girls.
MAHR: That's former Palermo police officer Carmine Mosca. He says trafficking and prostitution are lucrative business for Nigerian criminal gangs operating in Italy, including one notorious group called Black Axe.
MOSCA: (Through interpreter) We've discovered through this investigation into the prostitution racket of Nigerian girls that Black Axe in Palermo is quite powerful.
MAHR: Mosca was part of the war against the Cosa Nostra, Sicily's infamous mafia. After years of fighting the mob, Mosca says the violence against these women is some of the worst he's ever seen.
What is that?
He shows me a photo that police confiscated off the cellphone of a Black Axe member.
Are these the girls or what is that?
MOSCA: (Speaking Italian).
MAHR: It was a woman's body so badly mutilated I didn't know what I was looking at. She'd been decapitated and chopped into pieces.
MOSCA: (Through interpreter) This woman rebelled against the group and was punished as an example.
MAHR: Mosca keeps the photo to show people what Italian police are up against. Decades of mob violence once hollowed out this city, but today, Palermo is in the midst of a revival. Horse-drawn carriages ply the old city center, carrying gawping tourists. But Cosa Nostra's weakened influence is exactly what's allowed Black Axe to gain a foothold in the city, says prosecutor Calogero Ferrara.
CALOGERO FERRARA: This could never happen 20 years ago when Cosa Nostra used to commit hundreds of murders a year in Palermo. So of course it would be much more complicate to establish a new foreign criminal group in that situation.
MAHR: Ferrara says the mafia lets the group do business on their turf as long as they get a cut. But this association between Black Axe and the mafia is also something authorities are using to fight trafficking. Italy has a special anti-mafia law that makes just associating with the criminal group a crime. It's a unique tool, but it has barely slowed the business, says Cesare Sirignano, a lawyer who tracks foreign organized crime groups. He gives two reasons for that.
CESARE SIRIGNANO: (Speaking Italian).
MAHR: The first reason, Sirignano says, is the economic desperation in Nigeria has gotten worse, so women keep coming. And second, traffickers don't fear Italian authorities because their foot soldiers are seen as replaceable. This tool is a start, but it's not enough to stop the profitable trafficking business that has become entrenched in both countries.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).
MAHR: On the highway, the social workers get back in their car where they write down who was working that day and whether they said they would come to the office for help.
Do you think they'll come in?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, maybe.
MAHR: And just then, a customer pulls up in his car and one of the women jumps up out of her seat to try to make a deal. For NPR News, I'm Krista Mahr, Catania, Italy.
SHAPIRO: Flaminia Giambalvo and Tullio Filippone contributed reporting to this story, which was supported by the International Reporting Project.
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