His story is a familiar one in Sicily. This year, a record 175,000 people, primarily from war-torn countries such as Nigeria, Eritrea, and Somalia, have landed on Italian shores. These migrants wait in refugee camps for the roughly six to 18 months it takes for their asylum applications to be processed. Those who are granted asylum are resettled in towns throughout the country. Those who aren’t usually end up staying anyway, since there aren’t bilateral agreements between Italy and many of the countries of origin. That means there’s been a population infusion at a time of widespread joblessness. It’s almost too much to bear. The drug trade has picked up. So has prostitution. And benefiting from all this instability, perhaps more than any other group in the country, is the Sicilian Mafia, otherwise known as Cosa Nostra.
For all of its influence, Cosa Nostra doesn’t have much of a physical presence on the streets of Ballarò. Instead, the area is filled with different African criminal groups at war with each other over territory and power. And the one that appears to be winning is known as the Black Axe.
Members of the group don’t carry guns because Cosa Nostra doesn’t let them. They wield machetes and (yes) axes, and according to Gaspare Spedale, a prosecutor who is leading the government’s investigation into the group’s activities in Sicily, they rather enjoy using them. From his heavily guarded offices downtown, Spedale explained that the Black Axe’s recent slashing of a Nigerian boy “was part of a pattern. They use violence for stupid reasons, to show everybody that they can do everything they want their way, and to make everyone understand that they are in charge.” Last month, in an announcement publicizing the arrest of around 20 Black Axe members, Sicilian prosecutors made the revolutionary move of declaring the Nigerian group to be an official mafia. “For the first time in Palermo, we have another mafia other than the traditional one,” said Calogero Ferrara, one of the prosecutors. “It is very weird for us.”
The Black Axe was founded in the late 1970s, as a confraternity at the University of Benin, in Nigeria. The group was quickly outlawed across the country for being too violent, too cult-like. Members allegedly forced female students to pay them protection money, or risk being raped. One initiation ceremony involved drinking human blood.