Passengers forced into death traps below the deck. A gun- and 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 and the overall fast-rising numbers of fatalities, said to have exceeded 1,700 already this year. The boat on which 700 are believed to have perished went down late Saturday 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-year-old 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 strongman.
Smugglers often bribe local authorities in battle-scarred 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 the strongman'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 paying 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 a 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.