Today, a major operation against an organised criminal group (OCG) involved in a widespread illegal immigrant smuggling network has successfully been concluded with the arrest of 16 suspects under investigation and the seizure of a large amount of assets, money and other goods.
Led by the Italian authorities, the case concentrated on a criminal syndicate composed of Syrian, Algerian, Egyptian, Lebanese and Tunisian suspects, who were involved in the illicit smuggling of migrants, mostly of Syrian origin, into the European Union.
According to the evidence gathered so far, between 2014 and 2016, the criminal network was able to transport more than 200 migrants into and within the European Union who, by following the Balkan Route, initially reached Hungary and Italy before moving to Austria, Germany and France.
Logistical support was offered to the migrants along the entire route. Italy played an important role, as the members of the OCG used this country to recruit the drivers, so called ‘passeurs’, and to provide them with ad hoc vehicles.
The migrants were supposed to pay the OCG approximately 500 EUR per transport, thereby generating a large amount of illicitly gained revenues within the OCG.
The Mobile Squad of Como, together with the Central Operational Services (SCO) of the Italian State Police, under the leadership of the Public Prosecution Office of Como, started the investigation in September 2015 when an Italian citizen was arrested in Hungary while driving a vehicle with several illegal migrants. The case developed further with similar arrests by the Austrian and German authorities of other drivers of vehicles used to transport illegal migrants.
In December 2015, Italian Letters of Request were sent to the Austrian and German authorities, while the assistance of Eurojust was required to facilitate the execution of these Letters of Request and possibly to coordinate relevant activities.
A first coordination meeting was held at Eurojust on 16 February 2016 to gather the countries most affected by the criminal activities and to discuss the way forward. The participation of Europol was also granted to ensure international police assistance and analytical support.
Parallel investigations activated abroad allowed for the interception of several migrant transports and the arrest the relevant ‘passeurs’, some of whom were the registered (straw) owners of 80 to 90 Italian vehicles used to carry out the illicit activities.
The information received by Italy from the involved Member States allowed for the subsequent investigative measures and the development of the case, supported by Eurojust, Europol and the National Anti-mafia and Anti-terrorism Directorate.
Eurojust played a pivotal role in today’s success by facilitating the exchange of information and Letters of Request, liaising with counterparts to solve upcoming issues with the potential to hamper the investigative progresses, organising a coordination meeting in The Hague and consistently ensuring judicial coordination throughout the entire process.
Europol and its European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) supported the investigation by providing tailored Analysis Reports and deployed two specialists in Italy for this action day, equipped with the Europol mobile office for a real-time cross-check of data against Europol's databases. The International Police Cooperation Service (SCIP) of the Italian Ministry of Interior also played a pivotal role in the coordination of this important investigation.
The operation demonstrated the capacity of the relevant authorities to work together and to clearly identify the OCG, identify the main affected countries, identify the registered owners of the vehicles used for the smuggling activities as well as recruiters and transporters, and ultimately dismantle the entire criminal network involved in this illicit activity in a coordinated and synchronised fashion.