BENIN CITY, Nigeria — When authorities raided a shrine and found blood-drenched magic charms along with a register listing young girls sold into prostitution, they were closing in on Nigeria's first conviction for human trafficking.
The crackdown has exposed a sinister subtext to the African exodus to Europe, which is claiming hundreds of lives in dangerous sea or desert crossings. Women are lured with promises of good jobs in Europe and end up enslaved by pimps, authorities say.
First they are brought to priests who starve them and perform rituals to bind them to their future employer, said Orakwe Arinze, a spokesman for the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons.
The women fear testifying against their captors, believing they will die or go mad for violating the oaths they have taken in the shrines.
But after a 2004 raid on a Benin City shrine, 180 miles east of Lagos, Arinze's agency publicly burned the charms used on six victims. The six testified against the woman who took them abroad, producing a landmark conviction.
Nine more convictions followed, and 19 cases are pending, but Nigerian authorities estimate thousands of people are trafficked every year and few cases are reported.
Gooday Akhimiona, who ministers at a raided shrine, faced life in prison if convicted of trafficking but was granted immunity in exchange for informing on his clients.
He claims he knew nothing about prostitution, saying he was duped by the woman who brought six teenagers to him for rituals.
"She asked that the girls should work hard and I washed their heads with leaves. When they carried me to the police station, I was shocked."
Police records show hundreds of names entered into the register of Akhimiona's shrine, along with photos of naked, unidentified European clients that are used in the rituals.
Gift, 25, fought back tears as she recounted her rescue from prostitution in Italy last year. She requested her full name not be used to protect her from retribution.
"We went to Italy through Ghana. The man said there was work there. When I got there, they asked me to go on the street and make prostitution every day. I was shocked."
She said a juju man, or traditional doctor, performed a ritual using chicken blood and body hair that "would make me go crazy" if she didn't work the streets in Italy.
Not all the women need to be tricked into making the journey. In a country where the average wage is less than $2 a day, many head to Europe fully aware they will work as prostitutes, authorities say.
"Some people are actually sending their daughters abroad to do this work," said Arinze, the anti-trafficking agency spokesman. "The stigma is to come home with nothing."
The regional government in Benin City offers facilities such as the Skills Acquisition Center, where women get free courses in tailoring, cooking, computing and cosmetics.
Henrietta Agun, who heads a coalition of anti-trafficking groups in Benin City, says a typical trafficking victim pays around $150 for fake travel papers and passes through intermediaries before being sold for between $6,000 and $12,000 to a pimp in Europe.
People returning from trans-Sahara journeys speak of girls dying in the desert from dehydration, frostbite or botched abortions.
If they reach Italy, the women are told they must earn up to $50,000 to buy their freedom. Often, once they earn it, the pimp turns them in to immigration authorities, ensuring they are deported and there is less competition for clients.