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In Libya, smuggling is booming

Growing post-Gadhafi anarchy allows traffickers to make fortunes from migrants' desperation

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In Libya, smuggling is booming

Moammar Gadhafi


CAIRO (AP) — Libya's chaos has turned it into a lucrative magnet attracting migrants desperate to make the dangerous sea voyage to Europe.

With no central authority to stop it, business is booming, with smugglers charging ever more as demand goes up, then using the profits to buy larger boats and heavier weapons to ensure that no one dare touch them.

It's a vicious cycle that only translates into more tragedies at sea.

With each rickety boat that sets off from Libya's coast, traffickers rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. So assured are they of their impunity that they operate openly.

Many even use Facebook to advertise their services to migrants desperate to flee from war, repression and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

And the smugglers are armed to the teeth, often working with powerful militias in Libya that control territory and hold political power.

One coast guard officer in Sabratha, a Libyan coastal city that is a main launch point for smugglers' boats headed to Europe, said his small force can do little to stop them.

Recently, he heard about a vessel about to leave but refused to send his men to halt it.

"This would be suicidal," he told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the powerful traffickers.

"When you see smugglers with anti-air-craft guns mounted on pickup trucks on the beach, and you have an automatic rifle, what are you going to do?"

If any one factor explains the dramatic jump in illegal crossings into Europe, it's Libya's turmoil since the 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

As the boat traffic increases, so do the horrific disasters. At least 1,300 people have died in the past three weeks alone, putting 2015 on track to be the deadliest year ever.

During his rule, Gadhafi struck deals with Europe to police the traffic, helping to keep down the numbers.

Now, Europe is struggling to address the migrant traffic.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday condemned what he said were suggestions in Europe to sink human traffickers' vessels.

Erdogan's comments came a day before European Union leaders were scheduled to hold an emergency summit in Brussels to discuss ways of stemming migrant trafficking.

Fighting the traffickers by arresting ringleaders and destroying their boats has emerged as a proposal to be discussed at the summit, although no one has mentioned targeting boats with people on board.

In the past year, Libya's crumbling into anarchy has accelerated. The country was plagued by multiple armed militias since Gadhafi's ouster and death, but since 2014 what little political structure Libya had has collapsed.

There are two rival governments, neither with any real authority, and each fighting the other on the ground.

In the chaos, smuggling has "become an organized crime, with cross-border mafias in possession of weapons, information and technology," said the head of an independent agency that studies human trafficking.

Extensive cross-border smuggling networks organize different legs of the journey: First from the migrants' home country to the Libyan border, then from the border to a jumping-off point on the coast, then onto boats for the Mediterranean crossing.

The cost for the trip across the Mediterranean depends on the type of boat and, on better vessels, which part of it the migrant is crammed into, according to several smugglers who spoke to the AP.

A place on an inflatable boat — a more treacherous journey — can run $500, while relatively sturdier wooden or steel boats run from $1,000 to $2,000, said one smuggler.

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