Nigerian mafia and the shady trail of organ trade – by Daniele Maria Barone

Recent investigations and arrests[i] have brought to light the deep-rooted Nigerian criminal network operating in Italy[ii] and its links to organ trafficking. Born in the 1960s/70s at the University of Benin City as a sort of student fraternity with cult-like tendencies, opposing to colonialist powers, then consolidated as a criminal organization during the oil crisis in the early 80s which caused an uncontrolled wave of corruption in the whole country, Nigerian mafia has spread all over Italy and in more than 80 countries of the world since more than 20 years[iii]. It keeps its headquarter in Benin City and, through a vertical hierarchy, it is divided into gangs called cults (e.g. Black Axe, Maphite, Supreme Eiye Confraternity, Ayee) with its members operating all over Italy[iv]. It has connections with local criminal organizations[v], and it mostly branches out through drug dealing, financial frauds, human trafficking, and organ trafficking. The considerable volume of Nigerian criminal activity in Italy and its involvement in an organ trafficking network has required the cooperation of the Italian police, the FBI[vi], the Canadian police, and the Italian army[vii] to carry out international investigations.

Organ trade is the ruthless consequence of the poverty and insecurity of Nigerian population in addition to the widespread dissemination of Nigerian mafia cults in Italy, which are gaining either economic resources or the respect of local criminal organizations by enslaving and terrorizing their fellow citizens.

A modern-day slavery pattern: from Nigeria to Italy

Nigeria is one of the countries with the youngest population in the world (0-14 years: 42.45% on 200million people), an ever-increasing youth unemployment rate (36.5%)[viii] and a per capita annual income less than $2.000[ix]. Indeed, even though Nigeria is plenty of natural resources, it has been hobbled by an inadequate power supply, lack of infrastructure, an inefficient property registration system, restrictive trade policies, an ineffective judicial system, insecurity, and corruption.[x] These critical issues have caused extreme poverty and internal conflicts, becoming fertile ground for criminal organizations involved in sex or labour trafficking[xi]; a modern-day form of slavery which is the third-largest business for international criminals, after gun and drug trafficking, making about $35 billion a year worldwide[xii].

Despite its significant efforts[xiii], the Government of Nigeria still does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, demonstrating a very high rate of vulnerability to modern slavery (more than 1million people)[xiv] while the average age of trafficked children in Nigeria is 15[xv].
The journey of trafficking victims from Nigeria to Italy is not always made all at once. The majority of illegal migrants are firstly gathered in Edo State (an internationally recognized human trafficking hub) and Delta States to Kano, guided and constantly watched  by the so-called “trolley” (people connected with Nigerian mafia with the duty to take them from Nigeria to Libya) they are smuggled into Niger or Algeria before traversing more than 800 km over the Sahara Desert into Libya, the primary gateway into Italy[xvi].
Migrants remain in North Africa for different periods of time, often to earn more money or wait for their families in Nigeria to pay for the rest of the journey (from $2.000-$3.000[xvii] “ticket” or a debt varying from $15.000 to $45.000[xviii]).

Nigerian mafia and the human trafficking process

I would like to draw your attention to the new criminal activity of a group of Nigerians belonging to secret societies… Unfortunately, former members of these sects were able to get into Italy where they re-established their criminal organisations.” These are the words of the Nigerian ambassador to Rome in 2011 referring to the infiltration and territorial control of Nigerian mafia on Italian soil[xix]. Nowadays, Nigerian “cults” are operating in more than 20 cities in Italy and their ability to insinuate inside local mafias and get the control of suburbs is mostly related to their unique and ruthless forms of exploitation of human trafficking[xx].
Nigerian criminal enterprises are able to control the whole process that brings their fellow citizens and illegal migrants from their home country in Sub-Saharan Africa to Italy.

Their members start the recruitment either in Nigeria or in the centers for migrants in Italy, where, very often, existing controls are not able to recognize who’s victim or perpetrator infiltrating in the asylum system, involuntarily creating a profitable environment for Nigerian criminals[xxi]. Nigerians who reach Italian soil are forced to prostitution, casual underpaid labour or to join criminal activities in order to repay their debt to the cult (an average of $40.000) and be set free. A cut of the sum goes to the recruiter in Nigeria, a cut to the traffickers and smugglers who expedited the journey, and a large portion goes to the Nigerian gang members, who must pay the local mafia or other crime syndicates in whose territories the victims will be forced to work. Considering that only in 2017 on over 120.000 migrants requesting international protection, almost 20.000 were Nigerian[xxii] (allegedly half of them had $40.000 average debt with Nigerian mafia), demonstrates that money is the primary driving force behind these crimes.
It is in the folds of human trafficking that lies the primary resource of Nigerian organ trade: the last leverage for the victims to pay the price of an illegal trip towards exploitation or to extinguish the debt they owe to their perpetrators.

Organ trafficking illegal market

As previously analyzed, organ trade primarily involves the movement of people rather than harvested organs. Human trafficking victim, with limited employment options who have left most of their possessions behind, feel compelled to sell an organ in order to try to support themselves and their family.
Before 2000, the problem of trafficking in human organs was primarily limited to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, while recipients of these organs came mainly from the Gulf States, Japan, and other Asian countries. However, since the year 2000 trafficking in organs has seemingly started to spread globally, to a large extent driven by Israeli doctors and patients who explore opportunities to seek transplantation in Eastern European countries and Russia. At present times, the trafficking of human beings for the removal of organs has started shifting to Latin America and North/Central Africa, where the economic crisis alongside social and political instability create opportunities for traffickers[xxiii].

With a severe shortage of legally-sourced organs around the world, organs have become a commodity to be bought and sold illicitly[xxiv]. Therefore, according to World Health Organisation experts, it is estimated that up to 10% of all transplants rely on organs that have been illicitly acquired and the illegal trade in kidneys has risen to such a level that an estimated 10.000 black market operations involving purchased human organs take place annually. Kidneys make up the most majority of the global illicit trade in organs (75%) due to rising rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems that are causing demand for kidneys far more higher than the legal system supply[xxv]. A kidney illegal donor can receive a payment in a range between $1.000-3.000 while a recipient can pay from $100.000 until $300.000[xxvi].
Besides vendor and recipient, there are also other actors involved in the perpetration of this crime: transplant team, individuals from the public and private sectors, brokers (engaging in arbitrage), and scouts[xxvii].
In relation to human trafficking and Nigerian mafia organ trade, there is also another role played by the smugglers, working as creditors, which coerce an individual into selling his organ in order to settle a debt. The smugglers usually receive a fee from the broker that is greater than what the vendor actually owes them (e.g., the vendor repays his debt to the smuggler, who also receives a fee from the broker, obtaining a double payment). Due to a large number of actors involved at a different level in this crime, it is difficult for law enforcement and anti-money laundering experts to make a clear estimation of this illicit market, which generates approximately $840 million to $1.7 billion annually.

Crucial aspects of the Nigerian organ trade

Recent international investigations are making clear that Nigerian mafia has a prominent role in the global organ trade. This illegal business follows the same path and modus operandi they use for human trafficking: starting from Nigeria, passing through Lybia and Italy, and spreading into three continents, using the same tactics that had already been honed in recruiting sex workers or underpaid labour force. Offering opportunity to work abroad to unemployed youth, or household heads in debt or in need of cash to support their relatives[xxviii]. Once they become totally dependent on the cults will, they become weak and powerless enough to be convinced or forced to sell their organs to repay their debt to the cult.

Suspicious money transactions made through Western Union and other money transfer services and illicit activities on the deep web have led investigators to discover this illegal trade[xxix].
With all the information gathered so far, it is possible to highlight three main issues related to Nigerian human trafficking/organ trade which are worth looking into.

  • The power that Nigerian criminal enterprises exercise over their victims: as every criminal organization, even though profit is the main purpose of illicit activities, Nigerian mafia and its cults rely upon strong connections with their origins, deeply rooted in their geo-demographic cultural aspects. Nigerian mafia began as a student confraternity with voodoo rites of initiation. Hence, educated leaders able to use cultural and ideological rituality as leverage on their members. Therefore, the cults are able to scare and dominate the victims not only through violence or by threatening their families, but they usually compels them by using voodoo or juju rituals, and an oath sworn by the victims.
    To understand how strong is the connection of Nigerian population with this beliefs it results topical the example of Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler of the kingdom of Benin, who on March 2018 put a voodoo curse on anyone who abetted illegal migration within his domain and revoked the curses that left victims of trafficking afraid that their relatives will die if they go to the police or fail to pay off their debt[xxx]. The attempt was vain either from the victims perspective or from Nigerian mafia leaders perspective, who are clearly using these threats only to weaken the illiterate segments of the Nigerian population.
    A governmental effort aimed at eradicating those beliefs through education would help to prosecute traffickers, given that the current situation experiencing with Italian police investigations is still bound to victims so worried about breaking their oaths, they prefer to remain enslaved in debt bondage rather than be affected by a voodoo spell.
  • Separate the victims from the perpetrators: as previously explained regarding Nigerian human trafficking, from Edo State to the centers for migrants in Italy, victims are constantly watched and guided by their perpetrators. The so-called trolleys and the madams (Nigerian women formerly enslaved in prostitution who have been able to repay their debts and to “buy” girls, who become their slaves)[xxxi] can infiltrate in the Italian asylum system as applicants for international protection, being unrecognizable to the police control and in the meanwhile regularly control over their illegal business. The proximity of the persecutor to the victim facilitates and strengthens the methods of exploitation of human beings which fuel the sense of no escape and total dependence on Nigerian gangs that connects human trafficking to organ trade.
    Regarding this aspect, it is crucial to have a deep knowledge and understanding of Nigerian inner social dynamics and languages, in order to cut a primary resource that allows Nigerian criminal enterprises to exercise a continual power over their fellow citizens.
  • Underestimating Nigerian mafia global reach and technical skills: in relation to organ trafficking, a very worrying aspect is related to the fact that Nigerian mafia is able to keep a global control among a variety of cults, which are frequently competing with each other and struggling for domination against local criminal organizations[xxxii]. Furthermore, Nigerian criminals are demonstrating to be quick to learn from their counterparts in the host nation, modernizing operations and building on existing networks.
    Their ability to be fast-learner is as strong on physical territories as in the cyber-space. Therefore, many unemployed Nigerian graduates with good IT skills are becoming leading players in cybercrime and online frauds.
    Beginning in the 90s with the 419ers and the Yahoo boys, the Nigerian business compromise or romance e-mail frauds creators[xxxiii] who took advantage of the information boom[xxxiv], and evolving in 2015 (when the government began to crack down on bank accounts linked to online scams) by using Bitcoin to keep on robbing an estimated 3 million people[xxxv], Nigerian cyber frauds are strictly related to the Nigerian mafia. Indeed, for example, communications shared on closed Facebook groups during 2015 by Black Axe members (the most prominent Nigerian cult operating in Italy) coming from different geographical areas, have shown that they traded information and ideas about phishing, VPN/proxy services, carding (trafficking of credit card, bank account, and other personal information), and other cyber crime-related topics[xxxvi].
    The basic level of security (e.g. the use of false names on Facebook, which is one of the most traceable social media platform) employed to communicate among the Nigerian gang members or the discovery of Bitcoin by Nigerian online scammers as a quick shortcut to circumvent government controls (it took them only a month to upgrade the payment method), highlight a rudimentary but effective and flexible approach in exploiting cyber tools.
    From this lens, taking into account that Nigerian criminals need to constantly communicate among each other in order to continue their illegal businesses or share profit among members operating from distant geographical areas, these elements could suggest an effective use also of the deep web to manage and pursue organ trade.

[i] ANSA (November 21, 2017) Alleged Nigerian mafia gang busted in Cagliari

[ii] P. Barbuto (September 13, 2018) I tentacoli della mafia nigeriana:
a Castel Volturno la base europea. Il Mattino – Caserta.

[iii] F. Gatti (February 19, 2018) Il lato oscuro di Ferrara tra spaccio e mafia nigeriana. L’Espresso.

[iv] G. Buccini (October 18, 2018) La mafia nigeriana in Italia: eroina gialla, prostituzione ed elemosina. Il Corriere della Sera.

[v] A.O. Tayo (April 11, 2017) Nigerian gangs are now moving into Cosa Nostra territory. Pulse.

[vi] L. Bulian (January 6, 2019) Arriva l’Fbi per la tratta delle nigeriane. Il Giornale.

[vii] Camera dei Deputati (April 16, 2019) Comunicati Stampa.

[viii] Nigeria Youth Unemployment Rate.

[ix] The World Bank – Nigeria GDP per capita.

[x] Central Intelligence Agency – World Factbook (July 2018)

[xi] (May 20, 2014) ILO says forced labour generates annual profits of US$ 150 billion. International Labour Organization.–en/index.htm

[xii] A. Bugge (May 31, 2017) People smugglers make $35 bln a year on migrant crisis: IOM head. Reuters.

[xiii] B. Adebayo (August 1, 2018) Nigeria launches app to fight human trafficking. CNN.

[xiv] (2018) Country Data: Nigeria. The Global Slavery Index.

[xv] (2018) Office to monitor and combat trafficking in person: Nigeria. Tier 2 Watchlist. U.S. Department of State.

[xvi] N. Elbagir, L. Leposo, H. John (February 27, 2018) ‘Don’t struggle if you’re raped’ People smuggler gives chilling warning to undercover CNN reporter. CNN.

[xvii] Issue Paper: Smuggling of migrants: the harsh search for a better life. UNODC

[xviii] A. Kelly (August 7, 2016) Trafficked to Turin: the Nigerian women forced to work as prostitutes in Italy. The Guardian.

[xix] L. Tondo (June 11, 2016) Mafia at a crossroads as Nigerian gangsters hit Sicily’s shores. The Guardian.

[xx] B. L. Nardeau (February 1, 2018) ‘Migrants are more profitable than drugs’: how the mafia infiltrated Italy’s asylum system. The Guardian.

[xxi] Operazione Skin Trade. Polizia di Stato.

[xxii] Rapporto Annuale (2017) La Comunità Nigeriana in Italia – Rapporto annuale sulla presenza dei Migranti. Ministero del Lavoro e Delle Politiche Sociali.

[xxiii] M. Bos (2015) Trafficking in Human Organs. Policy Department, Directorate-General for External Policies, European Parliament.

[xxiv] Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation (April 2016) Organ Donation and Transplantation Activities 2014. Madrid: Organización Nacional de Trasplantes.

[xxv] D. Campbell N. Davidson (May 27, 2012) Illegal kidney trade booms as new organ is ‘sold every hour’. The Guardian.

[xxvi] Havocscope – Global Black Market Information. Organ Trafficking Prices and Kidney Transplant.

[xxvii] (March 2017) Transnational Crime and the Developing World. Global Financial Integrity.

[xxviii] N. Scheper-Huges (May 1, 2014) Human traffic: exposing the brutal organ trade. New Internationalist.

[xxix] L. Bulian (January 6, 2019) Arriva l’Fbi per la tratta delle nigeriane. Il Giornale.

[xxx] A.T. Nwaubani (March 24, 2018) A Voodoo Curse on Human Traffickers. The New York Times.

[xxxi] M. Mancuso (June 2013) Not all madams have a central role: analysis of a Nigerian sex trafficking network. Springer.

[xxxii] F. Viviano (November 15, 2013) Ecco il “Capo dei capi” nigeriano nuovo barone della droga in Italia. La Repubblica.

[xxxiii] Scams and Safety. FBI

[xxxiv] C. Bernardo (May 16, 2017) Migration of the Nigerian mafia. University of Cape Town.

[xxxv] T. McDonnell (January 22, 2018) How Nigerians Beat Bitcoin Scams. Bloomberg.

[xxxvi] INTELLIGENCE REPORT: CSIR – 18004 (March 20, 2018) Crowdstrike Global Intelligence Team.