Police combat voodoo sex trade

If she runs away from her life of prostitution, her parents will become sick and die. At least that’s what this Nigerian woman believes. The threatened curse, she claims, was part of a voodoo rite performed in her homeland just weeks before she was brought to Greece by a prostitution ring. «I have no doubt in its power,» says the petite 24-year-old, who goes by the alias of Maria and described being forced into seven-night-a-week duty at a brothel on an Athens back street. «Even if I had a doubt, how could I risk the life of my mother and father?» Maria’s case illustrates one of the least understood corners of the sex slavery underworld: gangs using the perceived potency of native West African voodoo and hexes to hold women in their grip. Recently, however, an unusual alliance has started fighting back. One of Nigeria’s new anti-prostitution inspectors is turning to Christian-affiliated groups to confront a system that – even by conservative estimates – may hold sway over at least 10,000 Nigerian women forced to work as prostitutes in Western Europe. «We cannot fight this by police work alone,» said Muhammad Babandede, the chief investigator for a Nigerian task force against human trafficking. «We need the faith groups on our side.» One of the most recent collaborations is being formed in Athens, a chief crossroads for prostitution smugglers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. An Illinois-based evangelical society is working with Babandede and other experts in voodoo culture on strategies to persuade the West African women – mostly Nigerian Christians – to reject the curses and seek help from authorities. The group, Lost Coin, started counseling and prayer sessions this year aimed at shattering the voodoo influence by evoking the even greater might of God. «These women believe in voodoo and all kinds of lesser gods, but most are also Christian and believe in the one almighty God who is above all,» said Jennifer Roemhildt, who leads the Athens team for Lost Coin. Her organization is affiliated with International Teams, a non-denominational missionary group headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Elgin. «God can undo the voodoo,» she added. «It just takes a while to convince them of this.» Babandede offers a more blunt message: «Voodoo is just a myth, not a reality.» But, in practice, it’s not so simple. Faith in the power of voodoo – sometimes called juju – is deeply ingrained in West African culture. It’s a direct link to ancient ancestor-based beliefs that include a wide variety of spirits and other supernatural entities, and it forms the base for rituals brought to the Caribbean and elsewhere. In West Africa, voodoo priests still are often used to seal financial transactions or root out suspected thieves – often with a threat of a deadly curse for the wrongdoer. Prostitution gangs parlay this fear to their advantage, Babandede said. Thousands of women and girls seeking transport to Europe – sometimes with false promises of legal work – undergo voodoo rituals that can involve drinking blood from cuts and taking nail and hair clippings as totems. «They are told that fleeing the traffickers will bring death to them or their family,» said Babandede, who addressed a recent human- trafficking conference in Turin, Italy, one of the hubs for Nigerian-based prostitution networks. «This is a heavy power over these women.» It is also something difficult for most authorities to comprehend. The international prostitution trade in Europe is mostly built upon other methods of bondage: holding women in prison-like conditions or setting impossibly high repayment sums in exchange for their passports and IDs. For some women who manage to escape, the ordeal is finally over. «But in the cases of voodoo, it can be just the beginning,» said the Rev. Tom Marfo, a Ghanian-born Pentecostal pastor who operates mission houses around Amsterdam that specialize in helping West African women break from prostitution gangs. «They think, ‘Oh no, the curses will begin.’ I tell them to have faith that the true God will not let this happen.» Dutch authorities have taken notice. Marfo is increasingly consulted to understand the centuries-old rituals behind the Nigeria prostitution rings. «This is more than a police issue. This is an issue of native spirituality – a kind of spiritual terrorism being used on these women. You need religious people and the power of faith to fight this.»