Police in Italy arrested 12 people on Thursday for their alleged role in a high-speed migrant smuggling ring that operated between Tunisia and Sicily.
They also issued warrants for six other people believed to be involved.
The police statement states that the suspects allegedly demanded from 3 to 5,000 euros in cash per person, packed boats with 10 to 30 passengers at a time, and earned from 30 to 70,000 euros on each trip.
Intercepted phone calls also revealed traffickers considered throwing migrants overboard if problems arose amid dangerous journeys, police reported.
The investigation was launched in February 2019, after a Sicilian fisherman from the coastal town of Gaeta spotted a 10-meter fiberglass boat with two 200-horsepower engines.
Investigators discovered the boat had been stolen 10 days before the incident in Catania, Sicily.
Arrest warrants have been issued for 11 Tunisians and seven Italians, and the alleged ‘masterminds’ of the scheme are a Tunisian couple who have already been in prison for human trafficking.
The warrants also targeted four other alleged speedboat drivers, one Italian and three Tunisians, and four Tunisians who were linked to migrants in North Africa.
Another of the suspects is the owner of a farm with a private airport, which is believed to have been the base of the operation. The farmer is accused of offering employment documents to some of the Tunisian operatives to legitimize their presence in Italy.
Two Tunisians based in Sicily are accused of managing the money, while five Italians are believed to have arranged accommodation and travel. Profits are reinvested in the program, including the purchase of new ships, to increase earnings.
The suspects now face charges of illegally smuggling five people across the border, and their alleged abuse of migrant lives and plans to profit from the criminal operation are considered aggravating factors in the case.
Italy’s new right-wing government has taken a tough stance on humanitarian rescue ships picking up migrants leaving Libya in the central Mediterranean. However, the majority of migrants arriving in Italy travel via Tunisian routes.