Italy Cracks Migrants and Cigarette Smuggling Ring

Published: 07 June 2017

Lampedusa noborder 2007-2Migrants arriving in Italy (Photo: Regi51, CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sophie Balay

Italian police arrested 12 suspects of migrant and cigarette smuggling who may have planned to bring migrants with jihadist links to Europe, media reported Tuesday.

The smuggling ring operated between Tunisia and Sicily and authorities have been probing the smugglers – 15 Italians and Tunisians with arrest warrants against them – since January.

The investigation was part of the so-called "Scorpionfish" operation which observed the smugglers crossing the sea five times. Officers seized several cars and speedboats.

Police said the suspects charged the migrants about € 3,000 (US$ 3,365) for a crossings in speedboats that took less than four hours. Each such crossing generated a total profit of about € 40,000 (US$ 44,863).

Once on European territory and before carrying on with their journey, the migrants were fed and given clothes by the smugglers.

The police claims that the group was about to transport people suspected of terrorism or other serious crimes and on the run from Tunisian police.

According to court documents, wiretapped conversations show that a potential passenger told the traffickers he was hiding from Tunisian police and was afraid to be nabbed in Italy for "terrorism". An investigation is underway to identify these potential criminals.

"The danger of this organization was this: it allowed irregular migrants to dodge all authorities and so could have transported people who should not be allowed in Italy or Europe," Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said.

One of the police raid identified 14 migrants near Marsala, Sicily, and some 100 kilos of cigarettes which were to be sold at markets in the Sicilian cities of Palermo and Trapani at € 3 a pack.

More than a half million migrants have arrived in Italy since 2014 and 12,200 people have died in the past three years and a half attempting to reach Europe.