People smuggling kingpin wracked by guilt over drownings turns supergrass: Trafficker reveals the brutality, boasts and booming business behind the sick trade in humans
Nuredin Atta Wehabrebi arrested in 2014 after more than a decade in the smuggling business
But he turned his back on dark trade after seeing hundreds die in the Med
Now Sicilian prosecutors star witness in case against 26 human traffickers
Crack team behind attempts to break the people smuggling ring reveal the difficulties and heartbreak, of trying to stop a trade killing thousands
By HANNAH ROBERTS IN PALERMO FOR MAILONLINE
PUBLISHED: 07:18 GMT, 1 September 2015 | UPDATED: 08:07 GMT, 1 September 2015
A human trafficking kingpin wracked with guilt over the deaths of thousands in the Mediterranean has become the first to break ranks to expose the criminal hierarchy behind the brutal but booming industry.
Nuredin Atta Wehabrebi spent almost two decades smuggling desperate men, women and children into Europe - for the right price.
He was part of a network which stretched from Sub-Saharan Africa to Sweden, making millions trading humans across borders, with scant regard for life.
But this trafficker - who has boasted of the ease with which he spirited people around Europe under the noses of the authorities - has turned his back on his former friends, and is now Italian prosecutors' star witness in two trials which could smash the ring for good.
In the end, the 31-year-old could no longer bear the thought of the hundreds dying in the Mediterranean, callously described as 'fishfood' and blamed for causing their own deaths by the greedy men who sent them over the sea in overfilled boats unfit to make the journey.
Wehabrebi is now working with prosecutors in Palermo, Sicily - a team more used to dealing with mafia dons of the Cosa Nostra and drugs than a trade in people's lives.
But for all the horrors they have seen as they bring some of the world's most dangerous drugs bosses to justice, it is the heartlessness of human smugglers which still has the power to shock.
‘When drugs are seized by police someone loses,' prosecutor Maurizio Scalia explained to MailOnline.
'When a boat sinks no one loses out because they have already been paid.’
The prosecutors, who are relentlessly chasing down this gang from their office above the courthouse in the Sicilian capital, revealed how wire taps had caught those at the top of the gang moaning about having to deal with calls from distraught relatives, mourning the deaths of their loved one.
The safe houses, meanwhile, are so crowded that one trafficker was heard to joke ‘I make them sleep on their feet’.
Another smuggler was heard to shrug off the deaths of more than 360 people off Lampedusa in October 2013, coldly noting there was 'no point crying over spilt milk'.
Lead investigator Geri Ferrara admitted to MailOnline that covering such an emotive field ‘takes over your life’.
‘You end up thinking about it a lot. It’s impossible not to,' he added.
'It’s profiting on the misery of the migrants. It’s human exploitation.
‘They don’t care if the boats sink or not. They don’t care about the fate of the migrants.’
In the end, the exploitation became too much for Wehabrebi to bear: eight out of 10 families in his native Eritrea have lost someone in the traffickers' boats on the Mediterranean.
The final straw came with the deaths of 800 people, who were trying to cross the Mediterranean on an overcrowded and unseaworthy fishing boat in April.
It capsized off the coast of Libya after the allegedly drunk and stoned captain botched the rescue operation by ramming a freight vessel.
Instead of reaching Europe as promised, hundreds of passengers, including all the women and young children who were locked below deck, went down with the ship.
The death toll horrified Wehabrebi, who claims he then decided to tell the Italian authorities everything he knows in order to bring his former colleagues to justice.
‘There have been too many deaths in the sea,’ he said in a statement to Sicilian prosecutors, explaining his decision to turn state’s witness.
‘People only know about a minimal number of them.’
Wehabrebi is the prosecutors' ace card: they jokingly refer to him as 'Buscetta', Tommaso Buscetta, the first mafia supergrass, back in the 1990s, whose testimony led to the jailing of 350 gang members in the first ‘maxi-trial’.
The prosecutors hope to repeat this with the people smugglers - and Wehabrebi, with his knowledge and connections, is perfectly placed to bring them similar success.
Wehabrebi could have easily ended up another body in the Med. Like hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen, he fled Eritrea in search of a better life away from the totalitarian regime.
But fate conspired to ensure he went into the trafficking industry: he grew up in the same apartment block as one infamous trafficking boss, known as Abdelrazak.
Just around the corner lived Ermias Ghermay, said to have made £70million from the 'business'.
Wehabrebi revealed to the prosecutors how he had started out as a minor player in the ring, running a coffee bar in Tripoli that served as a ticket office for migrants who wanted to travel to Europe, collecting their money and passing it on to his superiors.
The Libyan capital serves as a hub of sorts for the people smuggling industry.
The networks bring lorries packed with migrants across the desert to Libya, Wehabrebi explained.
On arrival at the border, migrants are routinely arrested and tortured by members of the network, before being bought back by affiliated traffickers with money extorted from their families.
Until the boat is ready to depart they are locked in safe-houses near the coast with almost nothing to eat or drink, while the smugglers install discipline with regular beatings.
Their aim is to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 60 miles from the North Africa.
So far this year, 110,000 people have landed in Italy, and every boat - whether it arrives successfully or not - is said to earn the network £365,000 (500,000 euros).
Wehabrebi has made this journey himself.
As a member of the criminal organisation he was given free passage to Europe, and fled to Italy in 2007, where he claimed he was a refugee.
But he was arrested on trafficking offences, and jailed.
It didn't put him off: after leaving prison moved to the capital where his role was to smuggle newly arrived illegal immigrants across the border to northern Europe. He would furnish them with train or plane tickets or ferry them across the border himself for £580 (800 euros).
He even put them into lorries like the one found on the side of an Austrian motorway last week, those inside so badly decomposed they couldn't tell how many had been packed inside.
‘I’ve travelled across Europe trafficking migrants with lorries and cars all over Europe: Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and other countries and I’ve never once been stopped by police,’ Wehabrebi boasted in his statement to prosecutors.
Wahbrebi also provided fake marriage and residence permits to allow migrants to request that their relatives join them in Italy.
This knowledge means he will be the star witness at the trial beginning on September 17 of six alleged trafficking bosses who are accused of exploiting the suffering of refugees and making millions from Europe’s migrant crisis.
The alleged leader of the six Eritreans is Samuel Weldemicael, 27, who faces additional charges of arms trafficking.
Twenty other alleged members of the network were arrested on April 20, but they are set to face a mafia-style ‘maxi-trial’.
The biggest 'catch' of the April arrests is the alleged lynchpin between the North African and European cells, Asghedom Ghermay, a 40-year-old Ethiopian nicknamed ‘Amice’ or ‘Friend’ and described by the prosecutors as the ‘the absolute apex of the criminal association in Italy’.
‘CEO of operations in Sicily and other Italian cities, he is also the point of reference for all the North African traffickers,’ his arrest warrant states.
Asghedom is accused of trafficking thousands of illegal migrants from Italy into the UK, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, with prosecutors claiming he was even able to smuggle migrants trans-Atlantic.
His operational empire was based out of Europe’s biggest refugee camp, Mineo, near Catania, in Sicily, where six of those arrested lived at the expense of the state, managing their business while waiting for asylum claim to be processed.
There are also cells in Rome and Lombardy.
Asghedom allegedly arranged for migrants to be recruited as they arrived in Italy and confined until their relatives paid for their onward travel.
The arrest warrant stated: ‘Until payment of the amount in full, the subjects are not sent away, not being allowed deferred payments; in the meantime, they are held at safehouses at Ghermay’s disposition.’
Asghedom operated with seeming impunity from the authorities. Migrants could be illegally spirited into the camp so they could be held at the state’s expense, sneaking them out in the middle of the night, once the travel arrangements were in place.
‘Our investigation found that Ghermay was the CEO of the criminal organization operating in Italy, using his network to "withdraw" migrants from any location and quickly organize the illegal transport and entry to any Northern European destination,’ the arrest warrant said. ‘Through his network of associates, migrants can even reach Switzerland, Holland and England.’
His girlfriend and alleged accomplice Afomia Eyasu was also arrested, said to be ‘indisputably a key player in the network’.
According to the arrest warrant, the 34-year-old Eritrean was allegedly ‘highly placed in the criminal organisation’, taking part in aspects of the business from collecting money to facilitating the acquisition of fake documents.
Under Asghedom’s orders, it is said she confined girls in a safehouse in Catania until they paid to depart.
There are also alarming suggestions of pimping: prosecutors say she was overheard discussing girls who had no money to pay for their journey but who would be trafficked abroad regardless, provided they stay close to gang members so they could pay off their debt.
Ferrara denounced the organisation as a ‘mafia’, and his team are using the same techniques that have proven effective against Cosa Nostra.
Ferrara has successfully prosecuted a mafia-linked fraud of millions of euros involving dozens of doctors, lawyers, consultants and businessmen and has previously investigated Cosa Nostra extortion rackets and rigging of public contracts.
But there are subtle differences between the traffickers and the Italian mafias, another prosecutor on the team, Maurizio Scalia, explains.
Unfortunately for the men who want to put them behind bars, they are differences which give the traffickers the potential to be even more successful.
‘The hierarchy is less vertical than the mafia and there are less rivalries. They cooperate-they are few problems between the various traffickers,' he explained.
‘Sometimes they buy and sell from each other- say - a hundred migrants in the desert. It’s a trade like drugs.’
But the cost of this trade - human lives - is far higher than that of the drug business.
The team were focusing on the tragedy in July in which around 200 people are feared to have died when their overcrowded ship capsized as an Irish rescue vessel arrived at the scene when MailOnline visited the office.
‘Most of those who died were trapped in the hold so, even if they could swim, they had no hope,' Ferrara explained.
The network the unit have now dismantled was the biggest, he said. But to fill the gap will come ‘many more because the migrants are so many.’
Just last week, two boats carrying desperate people across the sea sank, sending hundreds to their deaths.
‘It’s a business in expansion.’
What's more, those at the very top are still at large in North Africa, and the crack team of prosecutors on their tail say they are powerless to act.
Ferrara said: ‘We know they are both in Tripoli - there is an EU arrest warrant for them. But we can do nothing in Libya the country is in chaos.’
Ethiopian Ghermay, the most wanted trafficker on earth, a fugitive since July 2014 is thought to have made £70million from the trade.
Authorities have compiled an eFit picture of him after being unable to find a photograph. He is described as short, broad and about 40, according to migrants.
Equally powerful is Mered Medhanie, an Eritrean, nicknamed the General by his comrades ,who boasted on the phone that he has made enough money 'to live the high life for 20 years'.
Ghermay and Medhanie, who reportedly compares himself to the former Libyan dictator Gaddafi, enjoy the protection of local law authorities in the capital after it was taken over by a rival Islamist faction.
The elite task force have the power to tap into the traffickers phones rand have recorded tens of thousands of calls between the these two godfathers and the rest of their network to build up evidence identifying them and stabilise their exact roles.
Listening to these conversations their ‘total callousness and indifference’ to the migrants is shocking, Ferrara says.
‘Some of it is chilling. We hear them discuss methods of violence, how to treat the migrants to keep them disciplined on the boats.'
Another boasted about how they lay down discipline in the safe houses beating them but only ‘for their own good’.
Frustratingly, the phone taps capture Ghermay allegedly confessing to organizing the journey of the boat that sank of the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, killing more than 300 people.
Ghermay blames everyone but himself for the tragedy including the ‘will of God’ and the ‘bad management’ of the ship’s captain, as well as migrants themselves because they lit a fire to attract help to their sinking ship.
He acknowledged the boat was too crowded and likely to sink but claims it was the migrants fault, because the group was too large for one boat but they were in groups and refused to separated.
‘It is them that wanted to set off in a hurry,’ he laughed.
He complained that even after a four hour meeting ‘they still don’t understand that they can’t just sit where they want'.
‘Only 10 per cent of the migrants do what they are told,’ he added.
He appears mystified by the media interest in this shipwreck when he admits so many other passengers on his ships have become ‘fishfood’.
But in the gang’s warped logic the tragedy was helpful for business because after the media coverage the Italian navy receives more money from the EU so they come and pick up the migrants immediately- making their job easier.
News of another ship has been wrecked in which only four of 400 survive is met with total indifference.
Other members of the gang also moan about having to field calls from families about fate of their loved ones claiming this is not part of their job.
Ghermay joked: ‘We are thieves - we are not the government who has to listen and help.'
One trafficker John Mahray, also still at large, appears to provide the only hint of compassion within the network, pushing other traffickers for humane treatment, better conditions and safety measures for migrants who he calls ‘my brothers’.
He is heard berating Ghermay for forcing migrants to get on unsafe boats, even when they try and refuse, insisting there should be no more than 250 on board.
But ultimately even he seems to be interested in the welfare of the migrants mainly because mistakes reflect badly on everyone, he points out, ‘If your house has a dirty bathroom it is embarrassing for everyone not just the one who soiled the bathroom.’
Wehabrebi, meanwhile, is being held in a secret location and will eventually become part of the same witness protection programme that mafia informants benefit from.
Received on Tue Sep 01 2015 - 07:07:31 EDT