The police in Italy have arrested 19 suspected members of a Nigerian mob over mafia activities in an operation called “Burning Flame,” coordinated in the Italian cities of Bologna and Turin.

Over 300 officers reportedly carried out arrests and searches in nine cities across northern Italy from Bergamo to Modena, Parma and Ravenna.

Those arrested were identified as members and leaders of the clan, which reportedly punished anyone who rebelled against its operations.

In a statement on Thursday, the police said the two-year probe was aided by a man on the inside who fed details to investigators about the group within the Nigerian community known as the ‘Maphite’ cult.

New members are initiated following precise rituals, and treason is met with corporal or lethal punishment,” police said.

The rituals included new members being first beaten then asked to swear allegiance while holding burning paper, using the words “if I reveal our secrets, this fire will burn me and all I own”, Italian media reported, citing investigators.

Four subsets within the Maphite were identified: the “Vatican Family”, in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, the “Latin Family” in the northwest, the “Rome Family Empire” in central Italy, and the “Light House of Sicily Family” in the islands, they said.

“Maphite maintains close ties to Nigeria, so that those who cross it fear retaliation not just in Italy but there too,” police said.

Paolo Borgna, deputy prosecutor in Turin, said the foreign mafias “are born and develop by giving protection to their countrymen and developing a kind of parallel, ruthless and criminal justice”.

“It is a characteristic shared by all mafias: protection is offered, compensation is requested, protection is imposed and, finally, those who do not accept it are punished,” he told journalists at a press conference.

“Among those arrested were those who held a leading role within the criminal organisation,” the statement read.

“Those who decided on the new initiations, who ran the prostitution rings, who dominated by force the other criminal organisations, who ran the drug trade in the city squares.”

Describing the mob’s mode of operation, the police said the group used “urban guerrilla warfare which continued for days at a time” to maintain territorial control.

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