Human smuggling kingpin with Canadian interests arrested

ERIC REGULY
PALERMO, ITALY — The Globe and Mail

The suspected criminal kingpin of a human smuggling and trafficking network – who said he had planned to invest some of his fortune in Canada – has been arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy.

Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who is 35 and was born in Eritrea, was arrested in Khartoum on May 24 and taken to Rome Tuesday night in an Italian state jet. He emerged in handcuffs at Rome’s Ciampino airport at midnight, was sent to a high-security prison and is to be interrogated by Italian prosecutors early next week.

The Italian prosecutors involved in his extradition and arrest called Mr. Mered a ruthless and powerful smuggler and trafficker who earned vast fortunes by preying on human misery. “He was called ‘The General,’ ” said Maurizio Scalia, the deputy chief prosecutor in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, at a press conference Wednesday morning. “He is one of the four main traffickers that we have identified.”
Mr. Scalia said Mr. Mered, who has a wife in Sweden, went so far as to bribe prison guards in Libya to release prisoners, who would then be put onto boats and sent across the Mediterranean to Europe.

“He was able to remove from Libyan prisons hundreds of migrants,” he said. “In one wiretapped conversation, Mered said he paid $40,000 to get 20 prisoners out of prison and then resold them to their families.”

The prosecutors said Mr. Mered sent his smuggling fortunes to Dubai. “Mered wanted to make €700,000 to €1-million for each boat,” said Calogero (Gery) Ferrara, one of the state prosecutors who worked with Mr. Scalia. “We need the co-operation of the [United] Arab Emirates to seize the money in his bank in Dubai.”

The Sicilian prosecutors are leading the investigations into the North African human smuggling networks that are delivering hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees to Europe. Many of them die in Mediterranean shipwrecks. The prosecutors believe Mr. Mered arranged the voyage of the boat that sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October, 2013, killing 359 migrants, most of whom were from Somalia and Eritrea.

“Mered is accused of being the advocate and boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya that smuggles people first across the Sahara desert and then the Mediterranean Sea,” the prosecutors said in a statement.

Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) assisted the Italian prosecutors in tracking down Mr. Mered in Sudan. Mr. Ferrara said the NCA played a vital role in the capture of Mr. Mered, who was arrested at a friend’s house. He was not armed, and his computer was seized during the arrest.

“The British brokered his extradition,” Mr. Ferrara said, noting that Italy does not have an extradition treaty with Sudan. “This shows that international co-operation is necessary to fight this criminal activity. Since we are in the European Union, we can exchange information immediately.”

Britain is to hold a referendum on EU membership on June 23. The forces lobbying against a British exit argue that international criminal investigations could be crippled if Britain were absent from EU agencies such as Eurojust, which helps co-ordinate transborder investigations.

Mr. Mered is the highest-profile arrest to come out of the so-called Glauco 1 and Glauco 2 investigations that were launched by Sicilian prosecutors after the Lampedusa tragedy. Since then, dozens of arrests and convictions have been made.

The Glauco investigations are the most extensive probes yet into the criminal smuggling and trafficking networks that are earning billions of dollars for their ringleaders and inflicting horrendous suffering on their clients. The network strongmen apparently operate in tandem in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Libya and deliver asylum seekers into a European smuggling pipeline that extends from Sicily into mainland Italy, then north to Germany, Sweden and Finland.

That network appears to have leaped the Atlantic into North America, as well. Extensive wiretaps in the Glauco investigations between the North African smugglers and their clients are sprinkled with references to Canada. In one, Mr. Mered, who operated in Libya, boasted, “I will be the new Gadhafi” – a reference to the Libyan strongman who was killed in 2011 – and said he planned to invest $170,000 or euros (the currency was not specified) of his smuggling income in Canada.

In another conversation, €5,000 was touted as the price to get to Canada using black-market Italian or American passports.

Mr. Mered is thought to have worked with the notorious Ethiopian smuggler Ermias Ghermay, who is named in the Glauco documents and is still at large, along with two other prime suspects.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail in February, Mr. Ferrara and Mr. Scalia said they had found no compelling evidence that suspected terrorists had been planted in any of the hundreds of boats that have made their way from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia to Italy. But they are fully aware that at least two of the jihadis involved in last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, passed themselves off as refugees, leading European investigators to suspect there might be an “alliance of convenience” between the leaders of criminal smuggling networks and terrorist groups.

“We don’t have proof [that terrorists use smuggling networks to get to Italy],” Mr. Scalia said. “But we can’t exclude it.”

It is suspected that some of the North American smugglers pay kickbacks to the so-called Islamic State, whose fighters now occupy parts of northern Libya, including the city of Sirte.

Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the migrant crisis. About 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea in 2014 and almost 154,000 arrived last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. The tally so far this year is about 40,000, a number that is expected to soar during the warm summer months.

About 8,000 migrants have died in wrecks since early 2014 – some 900 just last week, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

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