Locked in death traps as smug­glers profit

De­tails emerge about the cold-blooded Mediter­ranean mi­grant trade.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell pa­trick.mcdon­nell @la­times.com

CATA­NIA, Italy — Pas­sen­gers forced into death traps be­low the deck. A gu­nand stick-wield­ing ship cap­tain. Cocky en­trepreneurs boasting about buy­ing and sell­ing mi­grants and run­ning smug­gling routes from So­ma­lia to Swe­den.

New de­tails about the lu­cra­tive and cold-blooded Mediter­ranean mi­grant trade have emerged in the af­ter­math of last week’s sink­ing of a boat that au­thor­i­ties say left more than 700 pas­sen­gers drowned — the high­est death toll to date.

Euro­pean lead­ers, who last year scaled back search and res­cue op­er­a­tions in the Mediter­ranean, vowed to bol­ster life-sav­ing mis­sions af­ter the tragedy, which added to the fast-ris­ing num­bers of fa­tal­i­ties this year, said to have ex­ceeded 1,700. The boat on which 700 are be­lieved to have per­ished went down April 18 be­tween Libya and Italy, gate­way to Europe for mul­ti­tudes of would-be im­mi­grants.

Last week, Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gat­ing what they called the “Libyan route” said the smug­glers booked clients like “travel agents,” in the words of Francesco Lo Voi, chief pros­e­cu­tor in the Si­cil­ian city of Palermo, whose of­fice once gained fame for go­ing af­ter Mafia dons. Tens of thou­sands of mi­grants now await pas­sage in law­less Libya, the ma­jor em­barka­tion point, of­fi­cials say.

Pros­e­cu­tors re­leased par­tial tran­scripts of wire­tapped calls high­light­ing the scope and cal­lous­ness of the mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar trade that moves peo­ple from sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa to the Libyan coast and across the Mediter­ranean to Europe, where Italy is a first stop for many headed to north­ern Europe.

“They say that I put too many peo­ple on the boats,” Mared Med­haine, a 34-yearold Eritrean nick­named “the Gen­eral,” was heard say­ing in one call, ac­cord­ing to Ital­ian pros­e­cu­tors. “But [the mi­grants] are the ones who want to leave right away, and I ac­com­mo­date them.”

Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties have is­sued ar­rest war­rants for about two dozen sus­pected smug­glers, in­clud­ing Med­haine, who was also heard on tape boasting, “I am strong, like Kadafi,” re­fer­ring to the late Libyan dic­ta­tor.

Smug­glers of­ten bribe lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in bat­tlescarred Libya to fa­cil­i­tate the il­licit boat traf­fic, ac­cord­ing to Ital­ian pros­e­cu­tors.

The U.S.-backed bomb­ing cam­paign that helped bring down Moam­mar Kadafi in 2011 also de­stroyed a num­ber of Libyan coast guard and naval ves­sels de­ployed dur­ing Kadafi’s rule to in­ter­cept il­licit mi­grant traf­fic. But Libya’s pre­vi­ous co­op­er­a­tion with Italy on im­mi­gra­tion mat­ters has gone by the way­side since Kadafi’s vi­o­lent ouster and Libya’s sub­se­quent de­scent into chaos. Kadafi warned dur­ing a 2010 trip to Italy that Europe could be­come “an­other Africa” be­cause of mass il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

Smug­glers charge $1,000 to $1,500 per per­son for the treach­er­ous voy­age from Libya to Ital­ian wa­ters, au­thor­i­ties say. The smug­glers’ aim is not to reach the Ital­ian coast, but to be in­ter­cepted by Ital­ian naval au­thor­i­ties or pass­ing mer­chant crews, who trans­port the mi­grants to Italy. They can then ap­ply for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum or move on to other coun­tries in Europe.

Since the craft are on a one-way jour­ney, au­thor­i­ties say, there is lit­tle in­cen­tive for smug­glers to in­vest more than the min­i­mum to make them sea­wor­thy.

But there is con­sid­er­able mo­ti­va­tion to pack as many cus­tomers as pos­si­ble into the boats, us­ing ev­ery avail­able space and in­creas­ing the odds that the craft may cap­size.

Many of the smug­glers are them­selves im­mi­grants who first ar­rived in Europe via the clan­des­tine pas­sage. Some have since won po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in Italy or else­where, au­thor­i­ties say. Though widely de­mo­nized as ruth­less vil­lains, the smug­glers seem to view them­selves as prag­matic busi­ness­men pro­vid­ing an es­sen­tial ser­vice, the Ital­ian wire­taps in­di­cate.

“We do a dirty job; we can’t help ev­ery­one,” said one smug­gler in a call wire­tapped by Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties. “They want to leave and we make it pos­si­ble.”

In a pre­war court­house in the Ital­ian city of Cata­nia, pros­e­cu­tors pressed their case last week against the al­leged cap­tain and a crew mem­ber of the boat that went down in the Mediter­ranean last week­end. Only 28 peo­ple sur­vived, au­thor­i­ties say, in­clud­ing the pur­ported skip­per and crew mem­ber, both now un­der ar­rest.

The man au­thor­i­ties iden­ti­fied as the cap­tain, Mo­hammed Ali Malek, 27, a Tu­nisian, car­ried a stick and a gun to keep un­ruly pas­sen­gers in line, ac­cord­ing to court tes­ti­mony. Malek de­nies be­ing the skip­per and says he was just one more mi­grant on the boat. Au­thor­i­ties say crew mem­bers in­evitably try to meld into the crowd once their boats are res­cued.

On board the doomed ves­sel, court tes­ti­mony in­di­cated, a pair of en­forcers de­scribed as “jail keep­ers” were in charge of mak­ing sure that most pas­sen­gers re­mained locked be­low deck.

That’s where hun­dreds ul­ti­mately per­ished, un­able to reach the sur­face as the boat tipped over and sank about mid­night.

Alessan­dra Tarantino As­so­ci­ated Press

MI­GRANTS in Cata­nia wait to get off an Ital­ian coast guard ship Fri­day. Par­tial tran­scripts of tapped phone calls show the cal­lous­ness of the mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar trade that moves peo­ple from Africa to­ward Europe.

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