ROME (AP) — Italian customs police on Monday dismantled a Nigerian organized crime syndicate that forced dozens of young women into prostitution and begging on the streets of Italy and then smuggled out millions of euros in ill-gained revenues to Nigeria, with cash hidden in suitcase handles or pasta packages.
The police said raids in cities in northern and southern Italy as well as on the island of Sardinia yielded 40 arrests. The suspects are being held for investigation of alleged money-laundering, facilitating illegal immigration, human trafficking, putting persons into slavery and exploiting prostitution.
Dozens of others are also under investigation.
Helping spark the investigation was the complaint of a Nigerian woman, brought illegally into Italy, that her fellow countrywomen were taking on debts as high as 50,000 euros ($56,000) to arrive, only to be forced into prostitution for the syndicate. While prostitution is legal in Italy, the exploitation of prostitutes is illegal.
The police in a statement said while the Nigerian crime syndicate was based in Italy, its operations extended to Germany, Libya and Nigeria.
“Forty-one young women (were) assigned to prostitution, while nine were forced to beg,” the statement said.
To discourage the women from turning to authorities for help, they “were mistreated, put under control and put into a state of psychological vulnerability” by the use of macabre voodoo rites to guarantee they would pay off their travel debts, police said.
In recent decades, other Nigerian women forced into prostitution into Italy told authorities and social workers that the voodoo rituals made them feared that defying their criminal handlers would cause bad fortunes for their families.
The crime syndicate used a combination of methods to pump their ill-gained revenues back into Nigeria, mostly in real estate there, Italian authorities said.
The criminals used 11 teams of cash couriers, who sometimes hid wads of money inside the retractable handles of luggage or inside pasta packages to elude searches at Italy’s airports, the police said.
Police said measures by Italian judicial authorities helped the young victims break “the ties of physical-psychological coercion which kept them bound” to their exploiters.