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Prosecutors Take Law To Human Smugglers, Using Tools Sharpened Against Mafia

A funeral service for 24 migrants who drowned while trying to reach the southern coasts of Italy, in April. The migrants died as a smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off the coast of Libya.
Alessandra Tarantino

Human smugglers prey on the desperation of people who flee war and oppression. They've made millions moving people across borders, without regard to safety. Thousands have died, locked in packed trucks or trapped in sinking ships — like the " ghost ships," crowded with Syrian refugees, which have been set on course to crash into the Italian coast.

Italian prosecutors are now trying to track and arrest smugglers, arguing that organized criminal gangs who run these smuggling rings are mobsters, and should be prosecuted like the Mafia. Using survivor testimony and wiretaps, six alleged traffickers are now on trial in connection with a shipwreck, in which more than 300 asylum-seekers drowned.

An elite prosecution team in Italy, which is known for prosecuting the drug-dealing dons of the Cosa Nostra, has turned its attention to human smugglers. As one of its members, Gery Ferrara, notes, the smugglers share a lot of similarities with the Mafia he has often pursued.

"We are talking about a very structured criminal group," Ferrara tells NPR's Scott Simon. "We are not talking about people that just put people in a boat and send them here, but we are talking really about criminal groups very, very structured and very, very organized."

Interview Highlights

On how his team traces the smuggling networks

First of all, we create a group of specialized prosecutor and specialized law enforcement agencies. So we try to look at this unique phenomenon as a criminal network behind this.

For this reason, first of all, we interview immediately the migrants when they arrive here — in Palermo, in Sicily, in Lampedusa and many of the towns that we are competent on — to get the material that we can use for the follow-up to our investigation. Telephone numbers, identification, social network accounts — everything that we can use later.

And we will build the [case] with the statements of the survivors of these terrible tragedies, but also we added corroboration of what we heard during our investigation directly from the traffickers operating in Africa, in Libya and Sudan — and also in Italy, and also in Europe.

On the money made in human smuggling

Here, we are talking about money that is no comparison with drug [trafficking]. Just to give you an idea ... this is money that is collected in advance and without risk ... because when you put 500 people in a boat, like 20 meters long and 4 meters large, at a cost of a few thousand euros, you get something like 1 million euros [or] 800,000 euros for each boat, with a cost that is very, very low.

If 100 people died in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, but they pay in advance, there is not any kind of problem for [smugglers].

And the dealer doesn't risk anything, because basically you don't care if the human goods — the goods that you are trafficking — arrives or not. It's not the same with drugs, because if a lot of drugs is lost, of course there is a very real problem. Somebody must pay. If 100 people died in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, but they pay in advance, there is not any kind of problem for them.

On whether he's been able to get testimony from anyone in the gangs

One of the most important things is that for the first time, we have a person that was very introduced into the organization, that for the first time started cooperating with us. And he started describing [for] us many, many interesting things that allowed us to open new investigations that are still ongoing.

Of course, I cannot tell you anything about that, but we have a clear description of the inside of the organization. It's very, very important, and it's the reason why I think this could be also a turning point in the investigation against these traffickers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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