A few hours by ferry across the Mediterranean Sea from Sicily lies a harbor where modern buccaneers thrive.
Here on the island nation of Malta, the ancient walled cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua loom over ships that sail into the Grand Harbor of Valletta. The farther up the harbor one penetrates, however, the less welcoming the scenery.
Roads and waterways narrow as the postcard shoreline gives way to run-down warehouses and rusty huts that hint at the network of smugglers that have built a stronghold on the docks. They have been linked to trafficking in illegal drugs and migrants; smuggling cigarettes; illegal fishing; and spiriting fuel stolen from Libya’s poorly protected stockpiles to avid customers.
Malta has become a “crossroad of illegal trafficking,” said Col. Giuseppe Campobasso, who heads anti-drug law enforcement for Italy’s financial police in Palermo. His unit is part of the Libeccio International operation of the Guardia di Finanza, collaborating with Spanish, French, Greek and Italian authorities in tackling illegal trafficking at sea.
Malta’s central Mediterranean location makes it prime smuggler territory, but it has other charms for them as well. Shell companies proliferate there. Vessels change names and ownership with ease, swapping national flags from Togo to Tanzania to Belize.
Investigators say the smugglers innovate constantly, scouting new routes and implementing new techniques, from masquerading as fishermen to interspersing legitimate cargo with illegal wares. The trade crosses many borders around the Mediterranean, from the ports of Spain all the way east to the island of Cyprus.
The accused smugglers have one thing in common: connections on Malta.
It was this murky underworld that captured the attention of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The car bomb that killed her last Oct. 16 was triggered from a boat in the Grand Harbor, investigators say.
Reporters for the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), which is part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in cooperation with Forbidden Stories and The Daphne Project, have documented a dozen major smuggling busts in the last decade that were run by Maltese citizens, transacted just off the island’s shores or supported by Maltese shipyards that service the vessels used in maritime crime.
One particular wharf in at the far end of Grand Harbor, called the Il-Moll Tal-Pont, runs like a thread through this tapestry. Italian police say that wharf was where a 42-meter ship called the Quest was overhauled last spring.
Its fresh blue-and-white paint job was evident last June 2 as the Quest rode the waves off northeastern Tunisia. The Maltese vessel had sailed from the Gulf of Oran off Morocco and claimed it was going to Alexandria, Egypt. The men aboard were supposed to be fishing, but nobody was busy with nets or lines, and the vessel forged straight ahead rather than looping in circles as fishermen do.
Someone was watching.
The Monte Sperone is a patrol ship of the Italian financial police, trained for large anti-drug operations at sea. For 40 hours, its officers had been surveilling the Quest, at one point contacting the captain to inquire about his business. He said the ship was merely a recreational yacht. As he motored toward western Sicily, authorities made their move.
Col. Cristino Alemanno dispatched two teams of heavily armed agents from the 58-meter patrol vessel. They sped across the water in a pair of fast rubber dinghies, quickly boarding their target and racing toward the captain, forcing a speedy surrender. As the agents inspected the ship, they found 10 tonnes of hashish.
Until 2011, Moroccan hashish was mainly smuggled to Europe via small boats that landed on Spanish shores. After the Libyan revolution, smugglers began using Tobruk, a coastal city in western Libya, where the hashish is stockpiled and protected by local militias.
International police say the hashish is then split up into smaller loads and distributed around the world. The Italian mafia are likely bringing it into Europe, police say, possibly through Italy or the Balkans.
Recent years have brought a further logistical change. While the drugs were once transported in large, mostly Syrian-owned cargo vessels, they now mainly move aboard fishing vessels owned by Maltese or Italians, according to Libeccio International officers.
“The hashish is increasingly routed through Malta and Maltese entities,” says Campobasso, “while recent cases suggest there are stakes of the Italian mafias and Maltese organized crime.”
The Quest, with its close ties to Malta, seems to confirm that assertion.
Alemanno, who oversaw the Quest’s capture, says its route drew police attention. “It is a fishing support vessel that had left Malta and sailed to a specific spot off Morocco, a spot we flag as high risk because it’s where, usually, the hashish is [transferred] at sea from small boats onto larger ones.”
Investigators later discovered the ship’s name had been changed a few days earlier from Sea View to “M/Y Quest,” a fairly common name among yachts.
“It was clearly done to confuse possible investigators,” Alemanno says.
Reporters digging into the Quest’s name change, renovation and ownership unearthed a complex relationship between three men and links to more than a dozen other smuggling cases tied to Malta over the last decade. Working with the data analysis nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in Washington, reporters uncovered a network that repeatedly owned, sold, chartered or serviced ships that have been stopped carrying illegal cargo.
The allegations involving the Quest tell a typical story, police say: they believe the hashish was loaded aboard the ship in the Gulf of Oran off Morocco, and it was heading to Tobruk in Libya to deliver the drugs when it was intercepted.
The Quest’s seizure led Italian prosecutors, on Sept. 7, to indict a Maltese man named Paul Attard. It’s a name not mentioned openly in Malta, but the prospect of stiff jail sentences in connection with the Quest case got seven members of the ship’s crew talking.
The crew testified in the Sicilian city of Catania last month that Attard, 40, was the mastermind behind the hashish transport from Morocco. Evidence collected by police indicates that Attard’s relative and ship captain, David Bonello, communicated with Attard during the voyage.
Antonio Giuffrida, a lawyer representing two of the sailors who testified against Attard, said one of them was a pilot and the other a mechanic, jobs that didn’t involve loading or unloading cargo.
“They have always only followed the orders and had no idea the vessel was [smuggling] hashish,” Giuffrida said.
Bonello has remained silent on the matter. Both Attard and his lawyer told OCCRP that Attard had nothing to do with the drugs.
“If you would check the registration of the ship, you would see I am not the owner and never have been,” Attard told reporters in a phone interview. “A Libyan friend of mine asked me to help a Ukrainian who was looking for a boat in Malta, so I hooked him up … Then the Ukrainian needed a crew, and I put together a crew for him. But I have nothing to do with the ship nor the load.”
The man Attard recommended is Joseph Anthony O’Connor, a 67-year-old Irishman who makes his home on Malta. Attard calls him “the best broker for ships out there.”
O’Connor buys old, often broken-down tug boats, fishing vessels and other ships to fix and resell, a business that has landed him in court in Spain, the US and multiple times in Malta.
He was acquitted of the most serious allegation he faced: trafficking hashish on the Spanish high seas in 2005. But his practice of buying and working on vessels involved in smuggling cases led to several court actions.
In the Spanish case, he had bought, repaired and sold a fishing vessel named the Squilla just before it was stopped off the coast of Spain with 8,000 kilos of hashish aboard.
In 2009, he was fined US$ 70,000 for polluting San Diego Bay while refurbishing a ship he had bought after it was seized in what was then one of the biggest-ever US cocaine smuggling busts. In at least six other cases, Maltese authorities say he failed to pay port fees totaling nearly €30,000.
And then there’s the Quest.
According to two shipping databases, the Quest was not owned by Attard, but by Malta Towage, which is one of two Maltese companies owned by O’Connor. The second is Britannia Shipping International Ltd.
A receptionist who answered Britannia’s phone gave reporters the company’s address in Mosta, a city in the island’s interior. When reporters rang the bell in the residential neighborhood, O’Connor answered the door. He said the location wasn’t connected to Britannia Shipping International, then ordered the journalists to leave and shut the door.
O’Connor’s lawyer later produced a bill of sale showing that Britannia sold the Quest to the third man, a Ukrainian named Mykola Khodariev, on May 16, less than three weeks before the hashish bust.
Italian police found a handwritten document aboard the ship that also directed them to Khodariev. It stated the ship owner is Quest Shipping Ltd., a UK-based company founded in January.
According to public records, Khodariev is the company director. Nothing else is known about Khodariev, who could not be reached for comment.
While the documents indicate Attard is not the owner of the Quest, he does own one tugboat and has owned as many as three, as well as a speedboat. He has also owned and chartered cargo ships and a tanker.
His tugboats have been found towing vessels filled with illegal goods. Investigators believe this is a ploy to avoid prosecution, in the hope that tugboats won’t be held legally responsible for the vessels they are towing. When caught, the crews have sworn they were only helping another ship in need and couldn’t be expected to know the cargo.
Such was the case in July of 2017, when authorities seized more than 6,000 master cases of cigarettes (more than three million packs) and two ships in Spanish waters. Once again, the incident began in Malta’s jurisdiction.
In mid-June of that year, an Attard-owned cargo ship named the Med Patron sailed from Bar, Montenegro and, on June 24, met up with two others on Hurd’s Bank, according to ship tracking databases. The bank is an area of relatively shallow water about 10 nautical miles east of Malta where large ships can drop anchor.
That section of the Mediterranean lies outside Malta’s territorial waters, but is still within a zone where Maltese authorities have the right to intervene if they suspect wrongdoing.
The two other ships that met the Med Patron at Hurd’s Bank were a tug called the Eisvogel (chartered by Attard) and a small cargo carrier, the Falkvaag, that he represented as the agent. Since 2014, the Falkvaag had been owned by Alfa Maritime Shipping of Zuwara, Libya, a place where Attard has been doing business since at least 2014. At the time of the rendezvous, the Falkvaag had been moored in Malta’s harbor for more than a year, awaiting repairs, and was scheduled to travel to Spain to be dismantled.
It was at Hurd’s Bank that international police say Bonello, Attard’s relative, directed a ship-to-ship operation in which more than 6,000 master cases of cigarettes were transferred from the Med Patron to the Falkvaag. At that point the operation was legal, as no law prevents transporting cigarettes on the high seas.
But then the Eisvogel towed the cigarette-laden Falkvaag to Spain, and Spanish authorities pounced. They had been watching the Falkvaag since 2015, suspecting it was involved in smuggling.
They observed the ship-to-ship transfer, which they termed “entirely inappropriate for standard and lawful tobacco transshipment activity.” As soon as the Eisvogel and Falkvaag reached Spanish territorial waters, they were busted.
It was the largest seizure of smuggled cigarettes ever by Spain, authorities said, crediting British and other European officials for supporting the operation. No mention was made of Maltese authorities.
None of the shipowners, charterers or agents were indicted, though the crew of the Eisvogel remains in jail in Spain. The Falkvaag was seized by authorities and remains in Spain, according to the International Seafarers union.
Attard insists his hands are clean.
“I was chartering the Eisvogel from an Italian shipowner, but at the time of the cigarettes operation I was not chartering it,” he said. “And the Med Patron was never mine, never [owned by] my company, Patron Group. It was owned by Safe Harbour Navigation Ltd.”
However, according to shipping databases, Safe Harbour Navigation owned the vessel only until 2014 when the Patron Group took over ownership.
The misadventures involving Attard’s ships form a pattern. The Eisvogel crew went to jail, while the bosses went free. The Quest’s capture with hashish and the Spanish cigarette bust link Attard’s name in the management or ownership chain of ships caught smuggling. And multiple cases lead back to Malta.
Take, for example, the 2015 journey of a fuel tanker named the Sovereign M.
The ship was impounded off the coast of Zuwara, Libya, by the Libyan coast guard on Aug. 27, 2015. A Tripoli court has since ruled that its load of diesel fuel was being smuggled illegally.
The shipowner, Sovereign Fuels Ltd., is registered to a Maltese family named Mizzi which made its name trading gold. The shipper was Attard’s Patron Group Ltd., according to a document found on board.
According to media reports, the crew was jailed in Libya from August 2015 until last March. Silvio Mizzi, the son or the owner, sued Attard, seeking €1 million in damages because he said Attard was responsible for sending the Sovereign M to Libya, but Attard prevailed in Valletta’s Civil Court. That verdict is under appeal.
“That cargo was not mine,” Attard said. “I was chartering the ship but I was using (it) only to bring fuel from Malta to Sicily. To go to Libya, it was Mizzi’s own decision. He was giving the orders to the captain.”
Mizzi didn’t reply to emails seeking comment about the case.
The Il-Moll Tal-Pont, the Maltese wharf where the Quest got its new coat of paint last spring, crops up repeatedly in the smugglers’ tale. It lies at the far end of the Grand Harbor in Marsa, a gritty neighborhood of concrete structures and narrow streets lined with weeds.
It’s a part of the waterfront tourists rarely see, and perhaps its denizens prefer it that way.
The wharf itself is invisible from land, because an ancient warehouse screens it on one side and large vessels anchored in nearby shipyards block other lines of sight. A gate bars the entrance.
The wharf links the stories of Attard, O’Connor, and the two men accused of murdering journalist Caruana Galizia.
This is where O’Connor moors his fishing vessels. It’s where Attard keeps his tug boats.
Next door is the potato shed where brothers Alfred and Giorgio Degiorgio once operated. The two are currently under arrest along with Vincent Muscat, charged in last year’s car bombing that killed the journalist.
With smugglers plying the Mediterranean from so many directions, law enforcement’s only hope is to cooperate and try to move as fast as the criminals, says Italy’s Campobasso. “We are in a real battle, a guerrilla war, in which battles can only be won by international cooperation.”
One place to start might be Marsa, where the docks host many vessels which seem ready for tuna fishing. A closer look reveals that most are going nowhere. Many are under arrest by the Court of Malta, either because of civil litigation among companies or because they failed to pay taxes.
A good number, though, have crews living aboard, as shown by the laundry flapping in the wind.
“Because they are ready to take off whenever asked,” says a source with long knowledge of the district who fears being killed for talking and demands anonymity. When the time is right, the owners will “order the captain to take off for the next mission, which in most cases is some illegal shipping.”
Then the source issued a warning. “Be careful with this world of traffickers you are investigating. Who do you think killed Daphne?”
(Additional reporting by Jelter Meers)
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