Human tide of misery
The people-smuggling gangs plying their evil trade in the Med have torn a giant hole in Europe's border control policies, yet little is known about them
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
Like any court in Italy's Mafia heartlands, the prosecutors in the Sicilian town of Agrigento are used to dealing with murder, kidnap and other gruesome crimes. Seldom, though, has anyone in their dock been accused of having as much blood on his hands as Khaled Bensalam, a 35-year-old from Tunisia.
Mr Bensalam is not a Mob hitman, yet his body count is arguably far higher.
Prosecutors say he was the captain of a Libyan people-trafficking ship that capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, with 500 people packed in the hold. More than 360 drowned. Mr Bensalam was among those pulled alive from a sea full of corpses, but other survivors later identified as him as the man in charge.
At his latest court appearance last month, prosecutors asked that he be given a 20-year jail sentence for multiple manslaughter, causing a ship to sink and facilitating illegal migration.
As the worst disaster of its kind at the time, the ship's sinking was a key episode in the modern-day slave trade that people-smuggling has become. The public outcry it caused led to the launch of Operation Mare Nostrum, Italy's search-and-rescue mission that was axed last year because of fears that it was acting as a "pull" for further trafficking.
But the case was also highly unusual in that it actually led to a prosecution. In most cases, the gangs behind the trade go unidentified and unpunished, despite sending 170,000 people across the Mediterranean last year alone, 3,000 of whom drowned.
Their ruthless racket is now tearing a gaping hole in Europe's border control policies. Yet little is known about them. "We don't really know much about precisely who the trafficking gangs themselves are, although they tend to be multinational, with the likes of Malians and Senegalese working as agents to recruit the passengers," said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, which combats trafficking activity.
"Whether it is organised in Libya by any particular clans, or simply happens ad hoc, is hard to say."
Following Italy's rescue of more than 6,000 boat people last week alone - and the loss of 400 lives in yet another sinking on Sunday - Europe is under pressure to take a tougher line. Last month, the EU police agency Europol set up a new team in The Hague dedicated to breaking up the smugglers' networks.
"The tragedies we have seen at sea involving migrants requires prompt and coordinated action at EU level," said the Europol director Rob Wainwright, an ex-M15 officer who formerly ran Britain's Serious and Organised Crime Agency. "We will combine all available resources to provide a proactive law enforcement response."
Quite how to be "proactive" is another question. Since Libya's post-Gaddafi government dissolved into armed factionalism last year, no EU country has even felt it safe enough to man an embassy in Libya, let alone a law-enforcement mission to tackle the trafficking gangs, which are backed by heavily armed militia groups. A €40m EU border guard training mission set up in 2013 now lies in tatters, as does the €2m passport control facility it built at Tripoli airport, which is currently a bombed-out wreck.
Instead, the only thing the gangs have to worry about is competition from each other. So many are now entering the game that they jostle for fares "like budget airlines", according to Robert Pelton Young, a security adviser with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based search-and-rescue mission. Among the would-be players is Libya's new chapter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), based in Gaddafi's home city of Sirte, which sees trafficking as a rich source of income and a way of smuggling fighters into Europe.
"Libya has become the priority, but right now it is impossible to coordinate with the different militias and authorities within the Libyan state," Alvaro Rodriguez, a Spanish police inspector with the new Europol unit, said.
"Our intelligence overview shows extensive cooperation between militias and smugglers from other nationalities, and there is also a threat from the Islamic State trying to take control."
Meanwhile, the case of Mr Bensalam offers a rare - and disturbing - insight into how the gangs work. His own ship, thought to have sailed from the Libyan port of Misrata, charged the mainly Eritrean passengers about €2,500 each, squeezing enough people to fill a medium-sized passenger ferry into a 60ft trawler.
When it neared Lampedusa, Mr Bensalam allegedly set fire to a blanket to attract the attention of the Italian coastguard, provoking panic among his passengers when the fire then got out of control.
As hundreds rushed to one side to escape, the vessel capsized, leaving children as young as three trapped inside the hull.
"There were bodies everywhere, trapped inside the wreck, but also on top of it and around the boat," said Simone D'Ippolito, a local rescue diver, who is still haunted by what he saw.
"I saw at least 100 corpses. But what struck me most was that some of them were locked in an embrace - they were hugging each other as they exhaled their last breath. Nobody wants to die alone."
Worse was to come. Survivors later told how, before the crossing, the gang had treated them as virtual slaves in Libya, making them work for months to earn enough money for their passage. The men claimed to have been regularly beaten, while 20 of the women said they been repeatedly raped.
Bensalam, who claims he was forcibly recruited by the gang, would have been nothing more than a foot soldier. As with drug gangs, senior figures do not go on the "runs" because of the risk of getting caught. They often subcontract the job of sailing the ship to the migrants, in exchange for a discounted fare.
One boatload of 200 that recently arrived off the Italian coast was piloted by a 15-year-old from Guinea, who had been given a week's basic training.
So what exactly is known about the kingpins? "Most of the border patrol agencies of southern Europe would like to have smugglers' names right now, but very few actually do," says Mark Micallef, of the Times of Malta, who monitors the situation closely. "But we do know that the gangs usually control the territories that they work in, and often have astounding arrays of weaponry. In Libya now, there are even drug groups that have heavy artillery."
There are, he says, two main smuggling networks, a smaller one just east of Tripoli around the Ottoman-era port of Tajoura, and a bigger one in Zuwara, a town with picturesque beaches near the Tunisian border. Dominated by Libya's Berber-speaking minority, Zuwara was a people-trafficking haven even in Gaddafi's time. In the anarchy since his fall, business has boomed.
With boats typically taking 200 passengers at €1,300 or more each, earnings can run into millions. It can also be an easier contraband than drugs or weapons, needing no accomplices at the other end to receive the goods or hand over cash in exchange.
Prices apparently vary according to seaworthiness of the vessel and the "credit worthiness" of the smuggler. But another factor is the availability of search-and-rescue vessels to pick up boats.
During Operation Mare Nostrum, which ran until last October, smugglers dropped their prices by 50pc, according to wiretaps of their phone calls made by Italian intelligence officials.
As of now, according to Mr Micallef, Isil in Libya is still weak and far from being in on the act. But that is a small crumb of comfort in an otherwise gloomy picture. The new Europol unit, for all its grand aims, is still effectively just a working party of EU police chiefs. And as long as Libya's politicians remain at loggerheads, there is little chance of a new government with whom Insp Rodriguez can work. "How to arrest people in Libya right now?" he asked. "That is a very good question."
With the calmer seas of the Mediterranean summer now arriving, the levels of migrants heading for Italy this year are expected to exceed even 2014's record high of 170,000.
From the Left, it has prompted calls for a resumption of Operation Mare Nostrum, which since last year been replaced by the smaller Operation Triton led by the EU border force, Frontex.
From the Right, it has prompted warnings that a up to half a million migrants could now be on their way. In the past, such predictions used to be dismissed as scaremongering. Now, they longer seem so fanciful.
Additional reporting: Nick Squires