Four alleged members of the Black Axe have been arrested in southern Italy after a young sex trafficking survivor spoke out against them, Italian police have announced.

The men, who were arrested in Palermo and Taranto in the early hours of Tuesday, allegedly belong to the cult-like criminal gang that the police refers to as ‘Nigerian Black Axe mafia’.

Investigators in Palermo who led the operation said the woman, who is also Nigerian, was forced into prostitution after taking part in a ritual, which bond victims to their traffickers and to any debts they will incur in the course of their travel and initial relocation.

“The suspects were charged with slavery, human trafficking, kidnapping and pandering [recruiting prostitutes],” the police said.

The woman, whom investigators said was convinced by a Pentecostal cleric to report her captors to police, had been imprisoned, raped, blackmailed and forced into prostitution to pay a debt of about €15,000 (£12,500).

Before she left Nigeria, like many other victims of sex trafficking, the woman had been made to undergo a traditional oath-taking ceremony involving complicated and frightening rituals often using the women’s blood, hair and clothing. Those carrying out the ritual, which has been found to have a profound psychological impact on victims, make it clear that failure to pay off those debts will result in terrible things happening to the woman and her family.

A hugely profitable and well-organised criminal industry has been operating between Italy and Nigeria for more than two decades but the UN’s International Organization for Migration says it has seen a rise in the number of potential sex-trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea in the past few years, lured by the promise of work in the country.

According to a Save the Children report last year Italy had 2,040 victims of sex trafficking – 716 of whom were registered in 2020 – with the majority of them Nigerian.

Father Enzo Volpe, a priest in Palermo who has been helping Nigerian women for nine years, told the Guardian: “These women are terrified of the threats and the violence perpetrated by their captors. They fear not only for their lives but also for those of their families back in Nigeria.

“The problem,” said Volpe, “is that behind the slavery of these women there is a real mafia with members operating across the continent, who have total control over their victims.”

Last year, Italian police arrested 30 people suspected of belonging to the Nigerian Black Axe mafia, which has been operating in many regions of the country, among them its suspected 35-year-old leader in Italy.

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