‘La Dolce Vita’ – Sex Trafficking and the Italian Mafia
On the 19th May, the Mayor of Brindisi made a statement blaming the local mafia (Sacra Corona Unita) for the deadly bomb blast at the Francesco Morvillo Falcone School. The bomb exploded at 7:45am just as the students were arriving at school, killing one girl and injuring 6 others. Observers pointed to the fact that the school is named after Francesca Morvillo, the wife of famous anti-mafiajudge Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated with her husband and three bodyguards by a mafia bomb 20 years ago. Italian mafia culture is romanticised by Hollywood such as the glamorous Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’ or the American/Italian Mafioso boss Tony Soprano in the ‘Sopranos’; but in reality the mafia is not only terrifyingly rife all over Italy, it also terrorises communities and infamously runs human trafficking rings as part of their organised crime.
Brindisi, in the region of Puglia, is home to the Sacra Corona Unita mafia clan, a group which reached its zenith in the late 80s and early 90 but whose influence is beginning to wane under the pressure of investigations in recent years. The clan is, however, still heavily involved in drug-running and arms smuggling through the Balkans, as well as human trafficking, and is believed to be behind a separate bomb attack in the region earlier this month against an anti-mafia campaigner.
The region of Campania in Italy (where Naples is the capital) was made infamous by the book and later film ‘Gomorra’ – an exposé of the ferocious ‘Camorra’ - the mafia-type criminal organisation whose origins date back to the 18th century. Most will remember in the mid-90s the intense corruption of the under-the-table dealings that fuelled the handling of rubbish disposal in the region on Campania – heavy metals, industrial waste, chemicals and household garbage were frequently mixed together, dumped near roads and burnt to avoid detection, leading to severe soil and air pollution with disastrous results on the environment and the health of the general population.
But even more tragic and corrupt are the numerous cases of trafficked human beings, trapped between Italian mafia and immigrant gangs in the region of Campania. Illegal immigrants first came to Castel Volturno, Campania, from Nigeria in the 1980s to work on the tomato farms in the countryside. But when those farms went out of business there was no work, legal or otherwise. Some soon realised there was a different kind of money to be made – through the importing and selling of both drugs and humans in a district characterised by extreme poverty and high levels of violent crime. Since Castel Volturno sits in the heartland of the Camorra, this could not be done without the consent of its local wing, the Casalesi clan. As Nigerian gangsters extended their reach in a town that is now home to one of Europe's largest concentrations of illegal immigrants, the Casalesi reasserted its authority.
An article by Audrey Gillan in the Guardian details a case study of these Nigerian women who are lured to Campania and forced to become 'modern slaves', selling sex for as little as €10 so that they might pay off their huge debts owed to their smugglers. The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute estimates there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Nigerian women and girls living in Italy who have been forced into prostitution.
Gillan’s article depicts these Nigerian women who work on the main dual carriage way of Castel Volturno, the Via Domitiana. These victims speak of shattered dreams, of €60,000 debts and of a deep, paralysing fear of breaking the juju ceremonies that bind them to their traffickers.
Isoke Aikpitanyi is a former prostitute who was lured to Italy with the promise of a hairdressing job. As the salon did not exist she became "a modern slave", trapped in the town's dark underbelly. Standing on the road, she sold herself because her madam threatened to kill her if she earned nothing. "Some pity you and give you 20 to 50 euros. But normally they give you 10." Aikpitanyi miraculously escaped but others have not been so lucky.
Another prostitute on the Via Domitiana, admits: "I'm not happy with myself, I'm not happy with my body. I'm not comfortable with this job. But I cannot run away without any papers. I need some money to go but I can't run away. I have to finish my project. I promised to pay so I can't run away. I have to finish it."
In 2008 the Casalesi clan killed six African men in a drive-by shooting – the horror of the incident and the riots that followed is captured in the film ‘Là-bas’. That same year, the campaign against the gangs – involving the police, the government and the local community – brought the singer Miriam Makeba to perform at a festival aimed at defying the Camorra and promoting tolerance. But Mama Africa, as she was known, had a heart attack and died backstage.
The Casalesi extort money from all illegal activity in the town and police fear the uneasy truce between the two sides will not last. One Police Officer admits: "Prostitution is tolerated by the Italian mafia as there will always be people who can earn money through their presence. Nigerians pay [the mafia] and are allowed to continue with their illegal activities. But when this peace is broken there will be war."
For now there is an uneasy truce between the Casalesi clan and the Nigerian mafia in Castel Volturno. But Osaheni Ogbodu, president of the Nigerian Edo community in the town, knows the violent rivalry is always simmering below the surface: he too has been shot by the Casalesi. "We were holding a community meeting as usual to bring our people together. They ran into the compound where we were holding the meeting and started to shoot at us."
Ogbodu reveals a shot wound in his waist. "I was shot here.” Asked if the violence could easily escalate, he warns: "This issue, if it's not taken care of, it can blow a lot of things up."
The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti insists that Italy needs to “fight without mercy against all mafias.” The bomb in Brindisi is a further reminder of the mafia presence in Italy: it exposes the corruption and influence of organised crime preying on, and often exploiting, society’s most vulnerable.
By Amelia Stewart