Sex slaves, gang killings and heroin addicts populate the urban center of Palermo, Italy. Photo by Marianne Lorthiois

Don Emeka was drinking at a popular Nigerian bar in Palermo’s moldering city center when the attack happened. It was 2014. Three fellow Nigerians surrounded him. At first they were friendly, asking him to join them. But he refused: He knew who they were and, more importantly, which gang they belonged to. Everybody knew the Black Axe and how, over the past year, they had been laying roots in the lawless Ballaro district, selling crack and heroin and women coerced from the West African nation with Juju threats of spiritual damnation.

When the men realized Emeka wouldn’t join them they became angry. One took his glass. Then suddenly he was on the floor, his arm and face slashed wide open. Blood was pouring out. He thought he would die. Only the quick work of emergency services saved his life.

Emeka’s three assailants ran away, but one, Austin Ewosa—known locally as John Bull—was later apprehended. Ewosa faces charges of assault, attempted murder and association with a criminal network, all of which he denies. The attack bore all the hallmarks of the Black Axe, a former Nigerian university campus confraternity that has become a major global crime syndicate. Emeka’s horrendous injuries were a warning to anybody else who might think to question the group’s authority.

Palermo has been a lively center of commercial activity for centuries. Photo by Patrick Lalonde

When we met last month in Ballaro, a historic, tightly wound web of tenements and churchyards in Palermo’s ancient center, Emeka spoke hesitantly and with a stutter. The attack has traumatized him. His wounds have closed, but the scars that snake down his face and forearm are huge. He has an iron plate in his arm and cannot work in construction, one of the few jobs open to unskilled migrants who have come to Sicily from Lampedusa or Libya. He lives in a flophouse nearby and rarely speaks to fellow residents.

“I have nothing,” he said. “No phone, no life. What can I do?”

Emeka’s experience is particularly horrific and unique in Ballaro. But his sense of despair is not. Barely a week passes without thousands more migrants arriving on Sicily’s southern shores. In 2016, over 150,000 people—most of them Africans—made the potentially deadly journey from Libya to Italy. All are processed through special-made camps. Many then find their way to Ballaro.

That Ballaro is home to thousands of migrants is nothing new. It has been a place of multicultural commerce for over 1,000 years. Its first mention was in the diary of a Baghdadi merchant, and its name, many believe, comes from an ancient Arabic town called Balhara, from where many of its early traders are said to have originated.

Ballaro is also home to Palermo’s largest street market, one of four that have existed since the Norman Empire invaded in the 11th century. Each day before dawn, thousands of traders set up shop under brightly colored canopies, selling everything from fruit and meat to batteries and badminton rackets. During the daytime Ballaro is chaotic and cosmopolitan. Panglossian cries of “Amuni!” (“Let’s go”) or “Bello pre!” (“Good price”) ring out along its crumbling alleyways.

Many of Ballaro’s piazze have street signs in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew—a nod to its past straddling a dazzling array of civilizations. Sicily has been conquered by Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Normans and Arabs, all of whom have left an indelible mark on Palermo. The locals speak an Italian dialect packed full of Arabic and Spanish words. The local food is distinctly North African: In the four days I visited, I didn’t eat a single pasta dish.

In recent years, far-right groups like Lega Nord and the 5 Star Movement have flourished in northern Italy. Not so in Sicily. Its political landscape is dominated by the center-left Democratic Party. Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s mayor, has been unflinching in his support of migrants. He is known to greet each boat that arrives, telling their passengers, “You are citizens of Palermo now.” Adham Darwarsha, a 36-year-old Palestinian doctor, is the city council’s president. He speaks several languages and is similarly supportive of migrants.

But life for migrants in Palermo is tough. Most are housed first at the Caltanissetta refugee camp, in the center of Sicily, before making their way to the city. There they find lodgings in halfway houses and migrant centers. Many end up in Ballaro.

The Church of Saint Dominic in Palermo. Photo by Marianne Lorthiois

Documentation can take months, and jobs are scarce. Youth unemployment has leapt from 65 percent to 71.2 percent in the past 10 years. Many migrants are trapped in a cycle of bureaucracy and boredom. I met a 31-year-old Nigerian man for Moroccan stew at Moltivolti (“Many Faces”), a restaurant owned and run by a former Afghan soldier. He has lived in Palermo for 18 months and still does not have resident papers.

“I try to make things happen fine,” he told me. “But the government keeps fighting against me. And I don’t know why. Every time I meet with them they treat me like I’m a criminal. And the funniest point is, when they meet criminals and these guys who take drugs, they don’t treat them in this way.

“I’m trying to discover myself, lead a good life. Honestly speaking, I’m really tired of this country. I don’t know how to do it.”

With its gateway location, Palermo has long been a hub for organized crime—and Ballaro is ground zero. Even by day, when tourists teem along the marketplace, contraband is sold in abundance and illegal parking attendants take €0.50 a vehicle. Mafiosi still levy a protection tax from locals, called pizzo. Each weekend, in a small square, visitors can find the “market of stolen items,” where anything from TV sets to exotic animals are traded under the noses of the local police.

Most of Ballaro’s black marketeers belong to Cosa Nostra, better known as the Sicilian Mafia, which has controlled the island’s criminal industry since the 19th century. Their stranglehold has been vice-like, and brutal; in the Second Mafia War of the 1980s, over 1,000 people were killed. From 1986 to 1992, 475 gangsters were held in a special-made bunker-courthouse during what was coined the “Maxi Trial.” It was the largest mafia trial in history.

Since then, Cosa Nostra’s hold on Palermo has waned a little. But they are still ever-present in Ballaro, having stayed in the neighborhood even when it was destroyed during the 1943 Allied invasion and lay empty for decades after. Some Mafiosi keep illegal race horses tied up in alleys. One Mafia family owns nine funeral homes on the same, small stretch of cobblestoned street just off the market. “It’s a complete solution,” a friend joked. “They do everything from the killing to the funeral.”

In 2015, the Financial Times reported that Cosa Nostra had learned to make money from the migrant crisis, skimming cash meant for migrant housing and daily allowance costing the Italian government up to €800 million per year. “Welcoming migrants has become big business,” an anti-Mafia campaigner told the paper.

Others disagree. “There is no evidence that Cosa Nostra has entered the most lucrative new market, the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean to Sicily,” writes Federico Varese in his new book, Mafia Life: Love, Death and Money at the Heart of Organised Crime. “Mafiosi do not have the connections in Libya or the expertise to oversee thousands of trips from a war-torn territory.

“It is impossible for Mafiosi to demand protection money from smugglers based across the Mediterranean Sea,” Varese adds. “As most migrants are intercepted at sea, there is no way for the Mafia to charge a ‘landing’ fee. Even if they did, the smugglers could easily change the landing site to an area the Mafia cannot reach.”

But there are many more ways to make a fortune in Ballaro. And thanks to an influx of Nigerian gang members, the district’s black market is becoming more dangerous.

Father Enzo Volpe has been working at the Church of Santa Chiara since 2012. Its shelter has hosted migrants since 1988—one of the first in Italy to do so—and when I met him, the church’s courtyard thronged with life. Children played soccer and skipped rope as the smell of fruit drifted from the marketplace nearby.

Volpe is a gigantic man, around six-feet-six, with a five o’clock shadow and a beaming smile. As we spoke, children of all backgrounds came up to him for a hello and a hug. He is on the “front lines” of a new crisis, he says. It is his religious duty to care for every migrant that steps onto the Sicilian shore. “This city has always been a place where identities and cultural exchanges have been treasured,” he said. “This interaction was always seen as a good thing.”

Lately, though, Volpe has seen a new trend: Hundreds of young Nigerian women come to Palermo to work as prostitutes for compatriots in groups like the Black Axe. According to police records, 90 percent of Palermo’s sex workers are Nigerian. “Usually after they arrive they’re right away sent to the streets and forced to have sex with clients,” Volpe said. “They’re in slavery.”

Most women are sent to tiny brothels in the warren-like center of Ballaro. I visited one on my last evening in Palermo, located at the back of an alley where Bangladeshi and West African families hung laundry between its apartment buildings, blocking out the early evening moonlight. Up two flights of stairs, I sat and drank beer while Ghanaian hip-hop played on an iPod and German news flickered on a giant flatscreen television.

One madam sat beside the television, receiving guests and selling them drugs from a sock on her lap. In a back room, young men sat and smoked weed at a table, lit only by a dark light and disco ball. On either side, velvet curtains marked the entrance to two small dugouts. “That’s where the girls are kept,” my contact, a Nigerien named Rachid, told me.

After around 45 minutes we left, passing dozens of similarly curtained doorways and windows until we reached Porco Rosso, a bar and social center that helps undocumented migrants. The women are paid around €15 per client, Rachid said, about €10 of which goes to the gang members who hold her captive. According to the Mafia code, Cosa Nostra refuses to deal in prostitution. But they levy pizzo on the Nigerians anyway.

“There are a lot of Nigerian families who work,” Volpe told me. “But there are a lot of Nigerian men who are usually inside these organizations, and other men are drug dealers. They’re very isolated compared to the others. They’re very smart people, but they are more isolated.” He barely speaks to Nigerian men but has helped some Nigerian women pull themselves away from sex slavery.

By day, Ballaro’s market is awash with life and color, a friendly and fantastic assault on the senses. When the market shuts up for the day, at 7 a.m., the district lives a second life. Shutters come down and gangsters come out. Some Italian stores moonlight as African bars each night. Partygoers crowd squares to sit on beer crates, drink contraband alcohol and smoke under-the-counter cigarettes sold for a few cents per stick.

Each street is carefully cleaved between Mafia and Nigerian rule. The drug market has been successful for years. But the Nigerians have begun selling harder stuff like crack and heroin. The criminal gangs have, for the most part, remained harmonious, with a clear hierarchy from the Nigerians up to the Sicilians.

But there have been incidents. Last year, Yusupha Susso, a 21-year-old Gambian, was shot in the head by Emanuele Rubino, a man alleged to have mob ties. On other occasions, homes given by the state to migrants have been torched by Mafiosi angered not to have taken their cut of the welfare. The situation has become so precarious that journalists have flocked to Palermo. Some locals call the craze “Palermo Noir.” The police conduct intermittent raids and arrests. But by and large they keep Ballaro’s underworld at arm’s length.

That may have worked years before. But now, with so many women being held as slaves, authorities must do something to ensure their safety. Many Nigerian women are held as psychological prisoners using Juju: The women are told back home they must pay their debts or suffer spiritual calamity or death.

It is this psychological trauma people like Volpe are trying to fight, to make Nigerian women in Palermo understand they can leave their abusers and live a happy life. It is an uphill struggle. The pull of Juju and an income—however bleak—is strong. And, as people like Don Emeka have found, the Black Axe and its affiliates do not take kindly to acts of defiance.

The time is right for Palermo’s authorities to use force and free these women themselves. Until then, it will be left to church and charity groups to try to save the thousands of women forced into slavery in the city’s ancient heart. As my visit to Ballaro showed, that is tragically far from enough.

Sean Williams
Sean Williams is a Berlin-based freelance writer and journalist. His work has appeared at, The New Republic, The Economist, Esquire and many others.