• The Star Staff

The ship that stopped 7,000 migrants, and smuggled 700,000 cigarettes

By Patrick Kingsley and Sara Creta

By the time the Caprera, a small gray Italian warship, returned to its base in southern Italy in July 2018, it had helped intercept more than 80 migrant smuggling boats off the coast of Libya, and stopped more than 7,000 people from reaching Europe.

For this work, the Caprera won the praise of Italy’s then interior minister, Matteo Salvini, an anti-migrant nationalist, who lauded the ship for “defending our security,” as he wrote on social media. “Honor!”

There was just one problem: The Caprera was itself smuggling contraband to Europe.

During an inspection of the ship on the day it returned home, Italy’s financial police found about 700,000 contraband cigarettes and several boxes of Cialis, a medication for erectile dysfunction. All the contraband was bought when the Caprera was moored in Tripoli from March to July 2018 as part of an anti-people-smuggling mission by the Italian navy.

“I felt like Dante descending into the inferno,” said Lt. Col. Gabriele Gargano, the police officer who led the raid and a subsequent investigation. “I’ve seen many smuggling busts — but 70 sacks of cigarettes on a military vessel? I never saw that in my whole life.”

The bust has tarnished what European leaders have portrayed as a tough-minded, but principled, effort to curb migration to the continent. At the time of the incident, European states — particularly Italy — were closing their ports to migrants, criminalizing the private crews that rescued them in the Mediterranean and outsourcing responsibility for search-and-rescue operations to the Libyan coast guard.

A trial is now underway in Brindisi, in which five sailors are accused of involvement in the smuggling operation. But the investigation has expanded beyond just the Caprera.

Invoices seen by The New York Times show that the Caprera’s sailors purchased the cigarettes in Libya using a method apparently developed by crew members of a second Italian ship, the Capri, moored in Tripoli in January 2018. A third warship involved in the mission was raided in Naples in May on suspicion of smuggling, according to other court documents obtained by The Times.

“This thing could be much bigger and could involve more ships,” said Gargano, who is investigating crew members aboard at least one other ship. “We are expecting to see some developments.”

Documents seen by The Times and interviews with investigators and Italian officials reveal crucial details about how crew members of a ship so central to European efforts to curb people-trafficking from Libya conducted a criminal enterprise below decks.

A U.N. panel determined in 2019 that the Italian naval mission violated a U.N. arms embargo by providing repairs to one Libyan warship. But the documents reveal that the Caprera may have violated the embargo on at least three more occasions.

They also show that the mission delayed alerting the Italian coast guard to the presence of migrants in the southern Mediterranean so that Libyan officials could intercept and return them to war-torn Libya.

The Times has confirmed the Caprera’s involvement in the smuggling operation by interviewing police investigators; sailors serving on the mission; the Italian and Libyan coast guards; and lawyers for the defendants — and corroborated this evidence with text messages, photographs and wiretap transcripts contained within a judicial investigation and a military investigation obtained by The Times.

“I’m a bit in the poop,” one Caprera sailor, Antonio Mosca, said in a text message sent after the ship was seized. “Port authorities are onboard the Caprera. We were unloading those bags with the cigarettes.”

The events that brought the Caprera to Tripoli began in 2011, when uprisings across the Middle East left a power vacuum in much of the region, including in Libya. The unrest prompted hundreds of thousands of migrants to flee toward safety in Europe, many of them from Libya.

To block this exodus, the Italian government struck a deal in 2017 with the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Italy promised logistical and financial support — funded in part by the European Union — to rebuild the Libyan coast guard. Under the agreement, Italy donated several old coast guard vessels to Libya. It also deployed its own naval vessels on rotation in Tripoli to coordinate their anti-migration activities.

Since the underequipped Libyan coast guard lacked the radios needed to communicate with its boats at sea, its operations were secretly directed from aboard the Italian warships, despite a pledge made by Tripoli after the agreement that it would handle such activities itself, according to two sailors involved in the mission, a Libyan coast guard commander, evidence contained in a judicial investigation, and Salvini.

“They coordinated the rescue activities,” Salvini told The Times earlier this year.

Italy’s goal was to enable the Libyan coast guard to stop migrants reaching international waters — making it harder for them to be saved by a fleet of private rescue boats and Italian coast guard vessels that took refugees to safe harbor in Europe.

To that end, the sailors aboard the Italian warships in Tripoli would sometimes delay relaying information to the Italian coast guard command in Rome, according to coast guard logbooks viewed by The Times and an interview with an Italian coast guard commander.

During a botched interception coordinated by Italian sailors in November 2017, in which several migrants drowned, logbooks show the Italian ambassador to Tripoli and his naval attaché even demanded the Italian coast guard withdraw its boats from the area, to give the Libyan coast guard more space to operate.

Even before its sailors began smuggling contraband, the Caprera had apparently violated the terms of a U.N. arms embargo on at least three occasions, according to the documents. The embargo bars foreign actors from supplying arms to any faction involved in the Libyan civil war and repairing military equipment.

“We repaired the Libyans’ weapons despite the embargo,” said one engineer from the Caprera, in a phone call tapped by the police. “If this gets out, it’s a mess.”

The Italian navy declined to comment — on either this or any other aspect of the situation.

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