View of Vittorio Emmanuel's Chinatown massage center. EFE - Alvaro Padilla

The women caught in the web of Chinese organized crime in Rome

By Gonzalo Sánchez

Rome (EFE).- The news that three prostitutes had been murdered last month in one of Rome’s more upmarket neighborhoods shocked the city. Two of the victims were Chinese, and no one seemed to know who they were. They were just two of the many women caught in a web of human trafficking run by Chinese organised criminal groups that operate across the Italian capital.  

The three women were stabbed to death in two buildings in the upscale Prati neighborhood. One of them was quickly identified as Marta Castaño Torres, a 65-year-old from Colombia, but the only confirmed information on the other two victims was their nationality. 

It took investigators nearly a week to discover their identities: Yang Yun Xia, 45, who called herself Sofía in Italy; and Li Yan Rong, 55, also known as Lia. 


The crime, which police believe was committed by Giandavide De Pau, a notorious Rome criminal who has since been arrested, has shed light on the cruel reality that hundreds of Chinese women who end up trapped in the human trafficking network have to face. 

Chinese crime syndicates are among the foreign criminal groups that operate in Italy, and according to a report by the Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA, in Italian), it has grown by exploiting its own nationals living in the country. 

The report also explains that the group has a hierarchical structure based on family relationships, and is involved in extortion, trade in counterfeit brands, and prostitution.


The group has expanded in Rome and the surrounding Lazio region, where they control a real estate empire with some 400 apartments and between 60 and 80 “massage” centers in which discreet erotic services are offered, sociologist Francesco Carchedi tells Efe in an interview.

The author of the book “Recluse in casa” (Recluse at home) says about 1,200 Chinese women are currently being forced into prostitution in Rome. Little to nothing is known of them, with their official documents and passports withheld by their anonymous “employers”.

Their lives are bound to one of the three types of businesses that the criminal groups run: private apartments advertised in newspapers or online, “massage” centers where sex is offered to the most clients, or exclusive nightclubs reserved for Chinese (or Italians by invitation).

That was the case of Sofía and Lia, who were murdered in the flat where they met their clients. 

They were not young women. According to Carchedi, many of the victims leave their country for Europe because of the lack of jobs or pensions to guarantee a dignified retirement.


The women pay the criminal groups to organize their journeys to Europe, and their passports are confiscated as soon as they arrive, condemning them to the “most absolute clandestinity,” says Oria Gargano, president of the social co-op BeeFree. 

“They enter to live in apartments and establishments and practically never leave, reduced to slavery,” the activist says, adding that the victims are too afraid to speak out, much less report it to the authorities.  

Since her co-op was founded in 2007, she has been able to speak to some 50 of these women, some of them held in the Roman repatriation center of Ponte Galeria, but she says that none of them has dared to take legal action against their traffickers and exploiters.

Despite their silence, the issue of Chinese organized crime is well known to the local authorities, as the DIA report shows, although it remains an elusive problem.

Just last week, carabinieri (militarized police) officers closed down four apartments where women were being exploited in Rome’s central Piazza Dante, in Chinatown.

These are apartments that have come to serve as prison cells where defenseless women, like the Prati murder victims, are exploited every day, swallowed up by an organized crime “black hole”, as Gargano puts it, that is almost always ignored by society. EFE