MILAN (AP) — Italy for the first time has taken custody of one of the alleged organizers of a people-smuggling route through Africa that has moved millions of euros across borders and tens of thousands of migrants to Europe, setting the stage for criminal proceedings that reach higher than the on-the-ground smugglers netted in the past.
Medhane Yehdego Mered, a 35-year-old Eritrean, was flown to Rome overnight from Sudan, where he was arrested two weeks ago. Last year authorities identified him as a prime suspect along with Ethiopian-born Ermias Ghermay, who remains at-large, in the transport of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa via lawless Libya and across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Authorities on Wednesday said he is one of four principal traffickers identified during their investigation.
"The suspect facing justice is a character without scruples and without any respect for human life; an individual who occupies a key role in the operational center of a criminal network that moves millions of euros," a chief investigator for Italy's national police force, Renato Cortese, told a news conference in Palermo.
Rescues continued in the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday. An Italian coast guard ship delivered 223 people to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, including arrivals from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan — suggesting the same route that Mered allegedly operated. The route from Libya is separate from the influx of Syrians and other asylum-seekers via Turkey to Greece over the past year that is now drying up.
"Even as we speak, the migrant arrivals are continuing. Even as we speak, this network of Mered is still operating its traffickers," Cortese said. "But having detained a subject who surely had a role of protagonist, we are aware of having delivered a blow to this organization."
So far this year, nearly 48,000 migrants saved at sea in smugglers boats have been brought to Italy, Premier Matteo Renzi said Wednesday, compared with 51,000 the same time last year. More than 2,800 lives have been lost, most on the route to Italy, with the vast majority disappearing at sea, according to the International Organization for Migration.
"The demographic pressure continues to push on Africa and the emergency is not letting up," Renzi said in a Facebook post.
Cortese called it "an epochal emergency" of which the arrivals was the most visible aspect.
Not only is Mered being investigated for aiding illegal migration dating from 2012, but also on possible charges related to banking fraud for the transfer of funds to pay for the smuggling, said prosecutor Maurizio Scalia.
Authorities said he bragged about packing migrants tightly into boats to maximize his earnings, and that he forced family members to send tranches of money for a migrant to continue on each leg of the trip, which typically included a trip across Africa, the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea and final transport to northern Europe.
"This is a demonstration of how little these organizations and their bosses respect human life, the lives of all those desperate people who for various reasons attempt to reach Italy and Europe in the hope of a better life," said Palermo chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi.
Tapped telephone conversations indicated that Mered paid Libyan officials 40,000 euros on one occasion to get a group of migrants out of prison.
Scalia said Mered claimed to be the most powerful in the group, calling himself general and claiming to have the same style as the former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, surrounding himself with trusted allies.
In the wiretapped calls, Mered indicated he was going to move to Sweden to join his wife as soon as he could arrange the proper documents. He also talked about building a house in Eritrea and making investments in Dubai.
Italy has arrested dozens of smuggling suspects, typically people who captain the rickety boats and maintain order on the crowded decks. While they try to blend in as migrants when rescued, prosecutors have had increasing success getting migrants to identify their smugglers.
Authorities praised both the speed and the breadth of the cooperation among international authorities from Britain to Sudan.
"As we are aware, it is a phenomenon that you can fight with cooperation among the various police forces in Europe, but above all with police from northern Africa," Cortese said.
Frances D'Emilio and Patricia Thomas in Rome and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the first name is Medhane, second name is Yehdego and surname is Mered.