The Italian bureau of prisons has launched an investigation into how two Americans were able to gain access to a high-security Italian prison to terrify a convicted hacker.
ROME—One of QAnon’s wildest conspiracy theories claimed that the U.S. presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump with the help of two small-time Italian hackers who had somehow hijacked a satellite in order to change the results being counted on American voting machines.
It is now clear that this bizarro theory was not confined to the darker corners of the QAnon conspiracy network. The power of the U.S. State Department may have been pushed into action trying to prove that this was how President Biden stole the election.
A two-year BBC investigation into Black Axe – a Nigerian student fraternity which evolved into a dreaded mafia-group – has unearthed new evidence of infiltration of politics, and a scamming and killing operation spanning the globe.
Warning: Contains detailed graphic accounts of violence
During quiet moments, after he has finished lecturing for the day, Dr John Stone has flashbacks. It’s not the blood or the sound of the gunshots that haunt him. It’s the begging. The way people beg for mercy when they die. Begging him. Begging God.
“It’s so painful,” he says, shaking his head with a shudder. “The families of the dead, they will curse you. A curse will be upon your life.”
Dr Stone teaches political science at the University of Benin, in southern Nigeria. But for decades he was a senior member of Black Axe – a Nigerian mafia-style gang tied to human trafficking, internet fraud and murder. Locally, Black Axe are referred to as a “cult,” a nod to their secret initiation rituals and the intense loyalty of their members. They are also infamous for extreme violence. Images of those who cross their path – dead bodies mutilated or showing signs of torture – regularly surface on Nigerian social media.
Dr Stone admits he took part in atrocities during his years as an “Axeman”. At one point during our interview, recalling the most efficient means of killing, he leaned forward, squeezed his fingers into the shape of a gun and pushed them to the forehead of our producer. In Benin City, he was known as “a butcher”.
The horror of these years has scarred him. Today, Dr Stone is remorseful for his past and a vocal critic of the gang he once served. He is one of a dozen Black Axe sources who have decided to break their oaths of silence and reveal their secrets to the BBC, speaking to international media for the first time.
For two years BBC Africa Eye has been investigating Black Axe, building a network of whistle-blowers, and uncovering several thousand secret documents – leaked from the gang’s private communications. The findings suggest that over the past decade, Black Axe has become one of the most far-reaching and dangerous organised crime groups in the world.
In Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, Axemen are in our midst. You may even have an email from them in your inbox.
Our investigation began with a death threat – a spidery, hand-written letter, delivered to a BBC journalist in 2018. It was dropped by a motorbike rider on to the windscreen of the reporter’s car. Weeks earlier, the journalist had been digging into the illegal opioid trade in Nigeria and had met a number of Black Axe members face to face. Later, a second letter was handed to the man’s family. Someone had been tracking him and had found his home.
Did the threat come from Black Axe? How powerful is this crime network, and who is behind it?
Our search for answers led us to a man who claimed he had hacked tens of thousands of secret Black Axe documents – a huge cache of private communications, from hundreds of suspected members. The messages, which span 2009 to 2019, include communications about murder and drug smuggling. Emails detail elaborate and lucrative internet fraud. Messages plan global expansion. It was a mosaic of Black Axe criminal activity spanning four continents.
A yacht, found off the coast of Portugal with the country’s largest-ever haul of cocaine, illustrates how these smaller, private vessels have become a favored modus operandi to move cocaine between Latin America and lucrative European markets.
The operation was part of an investigation that began in early 2021 into how vast quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela were being moved to Europe via private yachts, according to a press release issued by Spain’s National Police.
Chile has become a convenient exit point for illegal gold from the Amazon, with Dubai emerging as a consistent destination for such shipments.
Leaders from three groups that are part of a so-called “Gold Cartel” – the Farías, Herrera and González clans – were recently arrested for smuggling over 500 kilograms of gold from Chile to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Multiple properties, vehicles, a sailboat, an apartment, and over 500 million dollars worth of currency were also seized.
Of the 35 individuals arrested, only six have faced formalized charges of illicit association, smuggling, tax crimes and money laundering, while the other 29 were released.
The Chile to Dubai route has also been exploited by other traffickers. Most famously, Harold Elías Vilches Pizarro began a highly organized and large-scale gold trafficking operation in Chile in 2013 at just 20 years of age. Among his first contracts was arranging the sale of almost 3 tons of gold to a Dubai-based supplier over 12 months. The sale was potentially worth more than $100 million, and Vilches stood to make up to $6 million in profit. To facilitate exports, Vilches falsified documents to show his company could supply the quantities of gold demanded by the UAE company.