An Eritrean man suspected of running a human trafficking network that sent thousands of migrants to Europe, leaving many to die on the way, was extradited from Sudan to Italy overnight, officials said.
Medhane Yehdego Mered, 35, was flown to Italy during the night after his arrest in Khartoum, Sudan on May 24, Italian and British officials said.
It is the first time a suspected kingpin has been tracked down in Africa, where many of the smuggling networks are based, and brought to face justice in Italy since Europe’s immigration crisis started almost three years ago.
“Mered is accused of being the advocate and boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya that smuggles people first across the Sahara desert and then the Mediterranean Sea,” the court led by prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said in a statement.
Mered is suspected of working with an Ethiopian, Ghermay Ermias, who is still at large. Between them, they are accused of raking in huge sums by bringing migrants from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats, the prosecutor added.
Britain’s National Crime Agency said it had helped Italian investigators track Mered to Sudan and held him responsible for the deaths of 359 migrants when a vessel sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013.
A statement said he was known as ‘The General’ because he had styled himself on the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara told Reuters last year that the two controlled an operation that was “much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined”.
Ferrara said they were opportunistic, purchasing kidnapped migrants from other criminals in Africa. By his calculations, each boat trip of 600 people made the smugglers between $800,000 and $1 million before costs.
The smuggling networks have mostly eluded international law enforcement agencies because they are based on anonymous cells spread across many countries.
Italy has been on the front-line of the immigration crisis. About 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea in 2014 and 153,800 in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration. So far this year, just more than 40,000 migrants have arrived.
More than 8,000 people are also believed to have died in the Mediterranean since the start of 2014, some off the Italian coast and others seeking to reach Greece. Medecins san Frontieres estimated that 900 died last week alone.