A VIOLENT Romanian gang with links across Europe was trafficking prostitutes over and back to Ireland under the ruthless command of a violent pimp who spent years locked in a French prison cell.
Following his re-arrest in his home country last year, Florin Nicolae Ghinea continued to orchestrate the trade to Ireland through two key associates.
Eight members of the gang have now been formally charged in Romania along with seven women accused of getting involved in VIP prostitution.
Four years ago, the mobsters established connections in Ireland and shipped women, primarily to Dublin and Galway. Once here, the gang moved them into brothel houses, advertised their services on escort websites and set the prices.
One of the gang members collected the money directly from the women and regularly brought it back to Romania. The gang also liked to blackmail customers through the internet.
Nicolae was micro-managing the operation from his prison cell with constant updates on the women involved, the money being made and the trade under way.
The Ghenosu gang was rigidly set up with each member given a dedicated role in a clear chain of command.
Romanian organised crime prosecutors have now pressed ahead with charges against Nicolae, with a case built up between him and his key lieutenants.
This was built up with the aid of wire taps between the gang leaders and follows significant raids in its headquarters of Targoviste, Romania in April. This followed a investigation involving evidence gathered by the gardaí.
Nicolae has been described by Romanian police as “an exceptionally violent group leader”.
In a briefing given to the Irish Examiner, officers outlined how after being sentenced to seven years for aggravated pimping and human trafficking in France, he continued to organise the shipment of young women from Romania to serve Ireland’s sex trade.
He has a record that includes violent attacks and money laundering and has built relationship with other criminal networks in his home country and overseas.
Investigations have also be launched into how he paid to compromise members of the judiciary and the police.
Nicolae was arrested in Nice in 2003. This came after three years in which he orchestrated the smuggling of prostitutes from eastern Europe into Spain and France.
Initially, he was incarcerated in France but was allowed back to serve the remainder of his jail term in his native country.
In 2007, after serving almost five years of a seven-year sentence, he was released and return to live with his mother.
“Starting in 2009, the group is suspected to have carried out pimping activities in Ireland, by convincing a number of women to practise prostitution.
“The criminal activity was coordinated by G Florin Nicolae, and the amounts of money that resulted from these activities were split between group members,” the police said.
Throughout this period, the gang continued to ship women, between the ages of 18 and 30, to Ireland.
The organised crime division of Romania’s Ploiesti Brigade had been alive to the Ghenosu gang over an extended period.
Between 2008 and January 2009, they documented numerous offences across the country. The gang specialised in cybercrime, human trafficking for sexual exploitation, money laundering and other offences including blackmail, robbery, fraud and kidnapping.
In January 12, 2009, police burst into 18 houses and 11 gang members were arrested, and other nine were questioned informally.
Last year, they moved against Florin Nicolae who was at his mother’s villa in Targoviste. He had tried to intimidate witnesses and victims in a criminal trial both on his own and through his foot soldiers in the Ghenosu network.
Nineteen people had been forced to pay him between €2,000 and €10,000 in protection money. Nicolae was arrested and imprisoned.
However, he remained defiant.
Prosecution papers lodged in the court said he was suspected of continuing to orchestrate the movement in April this year when investigators acted on the evidence gathered in through the combined work of the gardaí, the Gendarmerie Mobile Intervention Squad and prosecutors in the town of Targoviste.
On April 20, with warrants in hand, police raided 11 houses and found 10 young women who were described as having model good looks. Prosecutors suspected the number of women involved was far higher.
The 10 women had just arrived back from Ireland where they had been forced to work in the sex trade in order to channel money back to gang members.
During the searches, police seized swords, daggers, luxury cars and money.
A total of 23 suspects were taken to the prosecutor’s office in Ploiesti in a high profile raid which had extensive television coverage of the members arriving for questioning.
Romanian police said following on from these arrests, the prosecutors will decide on charges of organised crime, extortion, pimping and prostitution.
The investigators praised the cooperation of the gardaí in bringing this case forward.
Quiet estates harbour women forced to work in brothels
CLEMENTINA Omalade Festus is 28, from Nigeria, and this summer was found guilty of running a brothel in Midleton, Co Cork.
Having paid a €500 fine, she has left the area. Little is known about how and why she came to set up a small prostitution business in the unlikely estate of Ard na Corann.
Nor did the court hear much about the young woman who was also arrested in the brothel. This second woman, gardaí believe, was a genuine victim of trafficking who had just started a new and tormented life as prostitute. She was not charged and not brought to court.
Gardaí did not allow Festus to claim she was there as a victim of trafficking. She controlled the books and when the police phoned she arranged the business and told them to call to the right house.
She also organised the advertising of her brothel on the website. She has been described as being something close to middle management.
But in court her solicitor, Ken Murray, outlined a history which may have drifted out of trafficking but began in something close it.
Mr Murray said Festus had arrived in Europe with certain promises that never materialised. It was not a career choice. She had found herself trapped in the sex trade, he said.
Festus’ case is not unique. Her story is typical of tales from across Europe of women from Nigeria who arrive as trafficking victims saddled with enormous debts to the people who arranged their passage.
Promises of work or study disappear and instead the women across the continent are told to sell their bodies to pay off their debts.
When they earn their freedom, following years of prostitution, most are cut adrift with no family, support or means of earning a living.
And, in what has become symptomatic of the Nigerian arm of the trade, these women stay with the business they know. Those who once were trafficked come to rise up in the crime networks and organise parts of the business themselves.
Up until recently, the shipping of Nigerian women to Europe focused on entry points on the Mediterranean Sea, particularly Italy. After saturating the market there, the women were shipped elsewhere.
Figures released by the anti-trafficking unit in the Department of Justice show that of 78 reported victims of trafficking whose cases were investigated last year, 38% (30 cases) came from the west coast of Africa.
Of these, 24 were smuggled here to be sexually exploited — three were children.
Separate figures show the proportion of Nigerian victims coming to the attention of authorities overwhelms those from neighbouring states on the west coast of Africa.
In most cases, the Nigerian victims do not arrive with a gun to their heads but rather with a mill stone of debt around their necks and with crippling obligations sealed in quasi black-magic JuJu ceremonies.
At these the women, who are often sent by families in need of money repatriated from Europe, are saddled with enormous bills which they must work to pay off.
A study by the Irish anti-trafficking unit has revealed that 13% of victims interviewed in a two-year period were brought here following one of these JuJu ceremonies, while 35% were tied to a debt bondage.
In that respect the Nigerian human trafficking network, which ships thousands of women around the world, is unique.
It is the only global crime business run predominantly by women in a perverse system in which nearly all the victims are women with whom they share the trauma and anguish of being forced to go on the game.
Ruhama, the support service for women affected by prostitution, has seen the volume of cases involving Nigerian women increase dramatically in recent years.
Ruhama believes there has been a definite trafficking trade developing between Nigeria and Ireland. Its figures from last year, based on those referred to its services, show half of women Ruhama understand to have been trafficked come from Nigeria.
Far from representing a minority in the sex trade, these are becoming its mainstay. In 2010, the support agency dealt with more Nigerian prostitutes (51) than any other nationality, including Ireland (31).
“In the early 2000s, the women we would have seen would have come mainly from eastern and central Europe and South America.
“But from 2005 on, we started getting more and more African women. Clearly there have been a serious issue from Nigeria to Ireland,” Gerardine Rowley of Ruhama said.
Prosecuting trafficking has proved difficult and the number of cases taken under new Irish laws have been low.
A trend emerging elsewhere in Europe is that pimps and traffickers are nabbed for organising prostitution rather than trafficking women. The bar for defining trafficking is high, and can expose court cases to risks of collapse.
However, it is easier to gather evidence of organising prostitution through advertising records, mobile phone logs, punters’ statements and book-keeping accounts. A trafficking conviction requires the consent and participation of the victims.
While proving individual cases is difficult, there is overwhelming evidence that the despicable trade has washed up here.
And while in many cases it is handled directly by Nigerian pimps and traffickers, other women are passed off like slaves to Irish operators.
Thomas Carroll, 49, his wife Shamiela Clark, 33, and his daughter Toma Carroll, 27, ran a crime empire across Ireland and Britain until his arrest and jailing in Wales.
He had more than €2 million in physical assets when he was jailed, including properties in Wales and South Africa. The Carlow-man operated from a rented house in Wales that had a dedicated call centre fielding up to 300 calls a day.
Some of the women under his control were from Europe. But most were from Nigeria brought to Europe by traffickers who promised them training and work as hairdressers or seamstresses.
This ruse was exposed when they were forced to subject themselves to warped JuJu rituals and bound to their debt until they paid it back.
When investigating brothels in Sligo, Longford and Dublin, gardaí were believed to be targeting a wider operation which has involved the arrest of more than 40 people and the release of 11 women.
But, with 96% of Nigerian women who came into contact with Ruhama last year described as being the victims of trafficking, the crime is more likely to arrive into quiet housing estates in places like Midleton a lot sooner than will go away.
Prosecuting traffickers proving very difficult
THE difficulty in prosecuting criminals trading in human cargo has been underscored by the outcome of investigations under new laws to eliminate the trade.
While Ireland has introduced legislation in line with other countries, the burden of proof is difficult and it requires the cooperation of vulnerable and distressed victims.
Last year, there were 69 inquiries opened by gardaí into the cases of 78 individuals reported to investigators. Thirty five were still ongoing at the end of the year.
While two convictions were secured, 14 investigations were closed because of insufficient evidence. And crucially, the ones that did progress involved the exploitation of children rather than adults.
International experience has shown that it is easier for police to gather evidence for the associated crimes stemming from the trade, such as organising prostitution, exploitation and child pornography. And it has proven increasingly difficult to secure convictions for outright trafficking of those over the age of 18. This is despite 75% of all suspected victims last year being adults.
The Anti-Human Trafficking Unit’s figures show five traffickers were convicted in 2010, all were men.
The longest sentence, 10 years, was given to a man who not only trafficked children but also forced them to take part in pornographic material.
The second longest sentence, six years, went to a man found guilty of exploiting children and encouraging the making of child porn.
Another offender was given an eight- month suspended sentence for the sexual exploitation of a child.
The remaining two were both found guilty of trafficking children.
Meanwhile, five people were brought before the court in Ireland last year charged with trafficking-related offences. These cases are still pending.
Last November gardaí had a key witness ready to give evidence from a court in Dublin via video link as six people stood trial in Kent — charged with trafficking Czech women from Prague to Britain and on to Ireland to work in the sex trade.
However, before the Irish-based witness could give evidence the six men pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from three to 10 years.
In another case, an international child trafficking operation was broken up in Holland and the trial took place despite the accused being on the run. He was eventually arrested in Dublin and extradited to Holland.
Gardaí have also been key to prosecutions of traffickers in Wales and Romania.
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