How Cyprus's first serial killer highlighted the island's institutional racism and sexism
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Known as the island’s first serial killer, Nikos Metaxas confessed to the murders of five women and two children, all foreigners, just two short years ago.
What has become known as the Mitsero Murders, 35-year-old Metaxas, a Greek-Cypriot former army officer, admitted to a series of murders of the island of Cyprus taking place between September 2016 and August 2018.
A 10-page handwritten confession revealed that Metaxas prayed on foreign women in low-paid household jobs. Five out of seven of the victims were all female workers from overseas countries including Nepal, the Philippines, and Romania. The other two victims were daughters of two of the adult women who were murdered.
36-year-old Romanian woman Livia Florentina Bunea and her eight-year-old daughter Elena, were both killed in September 2016 and are thought to have been the first victims.
Detailing his serial killing saga, Metaxas had met the women on the dating site Badoo.
The case came to public attention when unusually heavy rainfall in April 2019 flushed out the body of the first victim, Mary Rose Tiburcio, from a mine shaft near Mitsero. The body was discovered by an unsuspecting German tourist.
Another body was discovered in a well at a firing range near Orounta.
Three of Metaxas's victims were wrapped in sheets, stuffed into suitcases, and disposed of in the Red Lake near Mitsero. After heavy search efforts, the latest body, that of Tiburcio’s six-year-old daughter Sierra, was found in Lake Memi near Xyliatos.
Before becoming a named suspect, multiple women came forward to accuse Metaxas of very serious crimes such as rape. He was also formally accused of evidence tampering and obstruction of justice – critical evidence for these charges was believed to have been destroyed or “lost”.
Pleading guilty on 24 June 2018, Metaxas received seven life sentences, the biggest sentence ever given in Cyprus.
Rightly so, the murders sparked immense public outrage and criticism towards the negligence and incompetence of the island’s police force, as many of the victims had been reporting as missing by relatives as far back as September 2016, only to be met with indifference and a lack of progress in the investigation.
Amid the public outcry, a criminal enquiry was ordered, resulting in a 350-page report that assigned responsibility to a number of police officers of different ranks who handled the complaints.
President Nicos Anastasiades condemned the authorities’ “sheer negligence and inefficiency”, adding his belief that their actions were “definitely not guided by any racist motives”.
The President has since sacked the chief police officer over the botched investigation.
Two years following the damning report, 15 police officers have been charged with dereliction of duty in connection with the Mitsero murders case. Andreas Pachalides, President of the Independent Police Complaints Authority has said that the authority’s criminal investigators were now drawing up the list of witnesses so as to prepare the charge sheet and submit cases to court.
It was in early May this year that the attorney general decided to bring charges against these 15 members of the police force over the way they handled the disappearance of the women and children. They all face a single count of dereliction of duty under Article 134 of the criminal code.
Tragic mistakes were made in investigating the complaints of the missing women, since, in some cases, police officers did not even check whether their mobile phones were in operation, while in one case, it took 3 months from the day the missing person report was filed to when the police actually took a statement from their immediate environment.
The case is entirely shocking – the people of Cyprus have never had to deal with something such as this. Veteran fire chief Marcos Trangolas said:” “We’ve seen death, we’ve seen a lot of things, but we’ve never seen anything like this”.
Since 1974, when the island became the scene of violent inter-ethnic strife culminating in a coup prompting Turkey to invade, Cypriots have taken comfort in a typically Mediterranean lifestyle that is both remarkably laid-back and free of hardened crime.
The scale of the crimes and alleged cynicism of the then-suspect [Metaxas] has increasingly left people reeling in anger. The island has come to face uncomfortable truths about the way foreign workers (especially female workers) are treated on the tourism-dependent island where domestic household workers are invariably from the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia.
The murders were a wake-up call.
It has taken such a tragedy as the Mitsero murders to shift media and societal attitudes towards migrant domestic workers, who often must work in conditions of extreme exploitation and do not enjoy the same rights as Cypriots.
Some fear the police’s utter disregard to the missing women's cases reflects the attitudes of Cypriot society in general, and that a more honest and progressive discussion needs opening on the sexual and physical violence faced by women – especially foreign women/women of colour – on the island.
Nicoletta Georgiou, an event organiser who voiced anger over the authorities failing to protect the women said: “The victims were doubly invisible – female and foreign”.
More recently, the British teenager convicted by Cypriot authorities for allegedly fabricating a claim of being gang-raped last summer by 12 Israeli youth aged between 15 and 22 in the resort town of Ayia Napa, has sparked a second-wave of fury amongst Cypriots.
Once again, women’s rights are in the spotlight, with many female protestors using the ‘false-rape’ case to raise awareness of the abuse and injustice across the country.
The ordeal gave an “explosion to the voice of women who have been very angry since the [Mitsero] murders”, says Angetoula Ioannou, an activist lawyer who helped set up the Network Against Violence Against Women (NAVAW).