ROME (AP) — Italian police on Wednesday arrested 29 suspected smugglers as they smashed a transnational operation that for years brought migrants illegally into Italy by sea and then moved them overland into northern Europe, authorities said.
The nearly four-year-long investigation was spearheaded by prosecutors in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian peninsula, where many of these migrants arrive from Turkey or Greece, often on well-outfitted sailboats that elude detection by police or military personnel.
In Calabria, Catanzaro Chief Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri described the investigation as groundbreaking in terms of understanding how a series of smuggling gangs work together, from point of origin to point of destination for the migrants, as well as in following the trail of the laundered revenues — profits off people's misery and desperation.
“For the first time we succeeded in demonstrating all the passages, all the steps, of the migrant, depending on the passenger's origin and desired destination," Gratteri told reporters. “For example, departing from Syria and going to Oslo (Norway), or wherever they wanted to go."
Depending on how much the migrants could pay — investigators said some paid as much as 15,000 euros ($16,500) apiece just for the sea leg of the voyage, although the going rate appeared to be 10,000 euros — the passengers on the land routes to northern Europe either took trucks, trains or taxis across Italy's northern land borders. Transit points included Ventimiglia, an Italian city near its border with France and Trieste, in eastern Italy near Slovenia.
Police said colleagues in Turkey, Greece, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Britain and Morocco collaborated in the investigation that led to the arrests. The operation began at dawn Wednesday in Italy when some 200 officers fanned out in various cities, including other major points on the smugglers' land routes, the cities of Milan and Turin.
From the moment the migrants set foot in southern Italy — either in Calabria or in Puglia, an adjacent region forming the “heel” of the peninsula — the smugglers looked after the travelers until they could be moved into northern Europe, according to written statements by the Italian police.
"In effect, a real and true system of illegal welcome, organized both abroad and in various Italian cities, that included food and lodging in the various stops, was created, and to which the migrants entrusted themselves completely,'' Francesco Messina, a top Italian police official, said in a statement.
All that came at a price. After reaching Italy, migrants would be charged as much as 600 euros ($660) to reach northern cities like Milan, before the next stage taking them overland into countries north of Italian borders.
Elaborating at a news conference, Messina said that besides smuggler “cells” in Greece and in Turkey, the investigation found seven more operating in Italy.
"Essentially, the passage of the migrant from one cell to another had a sort of geographic connotation,'' the police official said.
One of those cells, based in Trieste, also served as the money-processing hub, investigators said. The smugglers used complicit figureheads to transfer money weekly abroad, in sums low enough to avoid triggering suspicion.
Another key point in the operations was Thessaloniki, Greece, investigators said. From that gathering point, migrants were moved to Athens, then to Patras, where they waited until they could set sail in smugglers' sailboats. Still, others directly set sail for Italy's southern coastline from Izmir, a Turkish port, Italian police said.
The smugglers exploited a sea route plying the eastern Mediterranean and used sailboats — less likely to appear to be a migrant vessel than the frequently used overcrowded rubber dinghies or decrepit wooden fishing boats, according to the Italian authorities.
Those arrested risk being charged with aiding illegal immigration and money laundering in connection with about 30 sea voyages, police said. Many of the crew were from Ukraine or other former Soviet Union countries, while the ringleaders were mainly from Iraqi Kurdish areas, according to the Italian authorities.
Most of the passengers were of Asian or Middle Eastern origin, the police said.
It was an aging wooden boat, and not a sailboat, that capsized and splintered after smashing into a sandbank just off a Calabrian beach on Feb. 6, killing 92 migrants. Authorities said the smugglers aboard deliberately kept the boat for hours longer at sea, despite very high waves, in hopes of eluding detection by police ashore.
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