"I dreamt about going to school, learning a trade and getting married. Nothing complicated." But life had other plans for Gloria Erobaga. After being trafficked and forced into prostitution for years in Italy, she was repatriated and is now back in Benin City in southern Nigeria.
Today, thanks to a local NGO, she manages a local shop not far from her hometown, a village on the outskirts of Benin City, the Nigerian city that has now become the main hub for sex trafficking between West Africa and Europe.
Erobaga is a survivor. "They promised me another job," she says, recalling her life on the street, where "they were going around at night, with guns. Some girls were killed and dumped in plastic bags".
But if one woman escapes, many more remain trapped in a profession that has become the third biggest criminal enterprise in the country. UNODC, the UN office on drugs and crime, has released shocking data on the subject – more than 6,000 women are trafficked to Europe every year for sexual exploitation, earning criminals more than $228m (£150m) annually.
They are well organised, from homeland to destination. "They have agents, trolleys and madams," Igri Edet Mbang, a Nigerian intelligence officer, says. "Agents are in charge of recruitment and they know how to do it. They know their language, they know their families."
And Nigerian gangs are now increasing their power in the country where most of these trafficked women end up being forced into prostitution: Italy.
According to UNICRI, the UN's inter-regional crime and justice research centre, Italy is the destination of more than 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes, trafficked from Benin City to the European hub of Nigerian criminals, the Domitiana, a long road that connects Naples to the Italian capital, Rome. Once a favoured holiday destination for Neapolitans, the area of Castel Volturno has provided a fertile ground for African gangs to grow their business. Here, they manage and – export their main "products" – drugs and women.
Castel Volturno is a small town of 25,000 people, but it hosts more than 15,000 illegal African migrants who began to arrive in the 1980s to work in the local tomato fields. As that industry declined, Africans continued to arrive, attracted by the dream of a new life in Europe.
But many of them ended up in the hands of African and Italian criminals, whose only aim is to make money out of people any way they can. Prostitution is the main evidence of their presence, a symptom of a new criminal geography that goes inland from the coast, reaching the area of Caserta, the biggest city in the area. "There are many areas where migrants live, but these new African mafia groups have taken over the whole territory," says Stefano Ricciardiello, a police detective in the local force, based in a busy headquarters overwhelmed by documents about criminal offences, illegal migrants and local Italian mafia members.
It is no coincidence that this is the area in Italy where the Nigerians have have gained their main territory. But they have had to fight for it.
In 2008, six West Africans were killed by a local mafia commando, led by Giuseppe Setola, a killer and member of the local Casalesi clan who spread terror in the roads of Castel Volturno and the nearby area of Casal di Principe – the hometown of the local mafia.
With the killings, Setola and his gang wanted to show the entire African community in Italy that no business was allowed without the mafia's consent. But one of the Africans survived and the gang was arrested. Last May, Setola and the other killers were given life sentences for the massacre, with the aggravating circumstances of terrorism and racial discrimination. After the massacre, migrants took to the streets and protested at a murder that left a wound in the relationship between Italians and the foreigners.
The killing attracted the attention of journalists from all over Europe, but a more sinister and silent signal was launched a month earlier when Setola and his gang tried to kill a group of Nigerians who were having a meeting.
That time, the gang failed but the reason behind the attempt was clear: Africans, Nigerians in particular, were to pay protection money to the local clan to run their illegal business. A sum of €40,000 euros (£35,000) was due every month for permission to import and sell people and drugs.
After Setola's arrest, many other bosses of the local Casalesi clan were arrested and there was a period of calm. "This is just a temporary situation," Alessandro Tocco, head of the special anti-Camorra unit in Casal di Principe, says. "Nigerian organised crime is growing and we are deeply worried: after Setola's massacre, there is a strange silence. They found an agreement. They made a peace between Italian and Nigerian mafias. But when this peace comes to an end, we will experience a new war in the streets."
Too many interests are involved for the situation to pass. Women are trafficked to Italy for prostitution, but not only that. They, along with men, are also used as drug mules. Drugs are the other growing illegal trade from West Africa: cocaine and heroin are sent to Nigeria and other African countries from Latin America and countries such as Afghanistan.
In their homeland, Nigerian criminals have managed to change their status from intermediates working on behalf of Mexican and Colombian cartels to controllers of the import-export business, even in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast and Kenya. Drugs are then sent to Europe, mainly to Spain and Italy, two territories of business controlled by Italian mafias. And they mainly deal with the Casalesi clan.
"Nigerian criminals are able to make agreements with everybody, from Colombians to the Chinese, but in Italy they have found two elements: a local mafia who controls the territory and Italian clients who are always looking for Nigerian women," says Giovanni Conzo, an anti-mafia prosecutor from Naples who has been investigating Nigerian criminal groups for years.
Conzo and his men discovered a huge human-trafficking and drugs-smuggling Nigerian ring in the area of Naples and Castel Volturno. A number of people were arrested in 2008 but others are still fugitives. "We have also discovered a new trend," he says. "Today, they traffic drugs using European mules from the former Eastern block. In the past, they were controlled by our criminals; now, they are in control."
A recent report from an Italian anti-mafia agency painted a worrying picture about the gangs' growing reach: "Nigerian organised crime is growing in many Italian regions, with Umbria, Campania and Emilia Romagna on top."
According to the report, Nigerian criminals are the only international gangs who are able to make agreements with everybody, from the Italian mafia to Latin America's cartels. It's a characteristic that has won them the business of drug smuggling between Africa and Europe.
But they're not getting away with it completely. In 2010, 36 members of the Nigerian mafia (affiliated with the local groups of the Black Axe and the Eiye) were sentenced to more than 400 years in prison for human trafficking, drugs smuggling, slavery and murder, as hundreds of witnesses kept telling the judge the same story.
The two groups – what remains of the former university's confraternities, now considered illegal in Nigeria – were using death threats against other Nigerians to enslave them in their illegal businesses . "One of them approached me as I was going back to my place," a Nigerian victim told to the court. "They wanted me to become a member of the Eiye, but I said no. After few days, I was sitting at a local café and they came to talk to me. I went out and I was surrounded. They took their axes out and started beating me.... They even cut my penis and I will never be able to have children."
Chiara Caprio worked as a researcher and field producer on two films on this subject for al-Jazeera English. You can watch them here: ind.pn/aljazmafia
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies