The Italian customs police have nabbed no fewer than 40 members of a Nigerian organised crime syndicate that forced dozens of young women into prostitution, Mail Online reports.

The gang members arrested on Monday were also accused of making vulnerable women beg on the streets of Italy, as well smuggling out millions of euros in ill-gained revenues to Nigeria, with cash hidden in suitcase handles or pasta packages.

According to reports, the police raided cities in northern and southern Italy as well as on the island of Sardinia to apprehend the criminal gang.

The suspects are being held for investigation of alleged money laundering, facilitating illegal immigration, human trafficking, putting persons into slavery and exploiting prostitution.

It was said that the investigation was triggered based on the complaint of a Nigerian woman, who was brought illegally into Italy, and reported that her fellow countrywomen were taking on debts as high as 50,000 euros ($56,000 approximately N23million) to arrive, only to be forced into prostitution for the syndicate.

It should be noted that while prostitution is legal in Italy, the exploitation of prostitutes is illegal.

The police in a statement said while the Nigerian crime syndicate was based in Italy, its operations extended to Germany, Libya and Nigeria.

"Forty-one young women (were) assigned to prostitution, while nine were forced to beg,'' the statement said.

To discourage the women from turning to authorities for help, they "were mistreated, put under control and put into a state of psychological vulnerability" by the use of macabre voodoo rites to guarantee they would pay off their travel debts, the police said.

In recent decades, other Nigerian women forced into prostitution in Italy told authorities and social workers that the voodoo rituals made them fear that defying their criminal handlers would cause bad fortunes for their families.

 The crime syndicate used a combination of methods to pump their ill-gained revenues back into Nigeria, mostly in real estate there, Italian authorities said.

The criminals used 11 teams of cash couriers, who sometimes hid wads of money inside the retractable handles of luggage or inside pasta packages to elude searches at Italy's airports, the police said.

The police said measures by Italian judicial authorities helped the young victims break "the ties of physical-psychological coercion which kept them bound" to their exploiters.

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