Malta is at the centre of a well-coordinated multimillion fuel smuggling operation, with stolen Libyan fuel traded easily in territorial waters and through established storage facilities inside the Grand Harbour and Birżebbuġa, a Daphne Project investigation reveals.
The operation, which had started following the 2011 collapse of Libya’s Gaddafi regime, evolved into a large criminal organisation coordinated by Maltese, Libyan and Sicilian businessmen close to the mafia and who were left to carry on with their business despite various reports passed onto the Maltese authorities, including by the United Nations.
Hundreds of Italian financial police files, corporate documents, marine data and UN reports, as well as corroborative interviews, carried by Investigative Report Project Italy (IRPI) and the Times of Malta over the last months as part of the Daphne Project, discovered how the multi-million business, which is believed to be still ongoing, is carried out under Maltese authorities' noses.
Although it was already well-known that Malta was being used for the trafficking of illegal Libyan oil, the picture became clearer last October when Darren Debono – a former Maltese footballer and his business partner Gordon Debono – a fuel trader – were arrested separately in Lampedusa and Catania.
Both are still awaiting criminal procedures and are being held under house arrest in Sicily.
The Italian police also identified Nicola Orazio Romeo - a fish trader at Acireale’s (Sicily) fish market with mafia connections – and Libyan militia chief Fahmi Ben Khalifa as the prime movers of millions of litres of smuggled fuel together with their Maltese counterparts.
From Zuwara to Malta
According to Italian investigators, Libyan fuel was smuggled out of Libya with the help of the militia controlled by Ben Khalifa, a business associate of Darren Debono.
Oil refineries near Zuwara, a port city in Libya’s northwest corner, fell under Khalifa's control, with direct access to divert road tankers full of refined diesel to Libyan ports.
From there, mainly through fishing boats with large storage tanks, the fuel was taken out to sea, where small tankers owned by the Maltese businessmen would be awaiting ship-to-ship transfers.
The investigation identified various small tankers involved in these operations.
According to marine surveillance logs, small tankers owned by Gordon or Darren Debono, including the Barbosa Star, Sea Master X and Amazig F, were observed either transferring the illegal shipments onto larger tankers on the Hurd’s Bank or even emptying their loads directly into a dolphin in Marsa, in the middle of the Grand Harbour – connected to the Has-Saptan storage facilities, which at the time were leased to the Swiss Kolmar Group AG.
Logs also show the same tankers emptying fuel into the storage tanks of the Maltese San Lucian Oil Company in Birżebbuġa.
From there onwards, the fuel was sold to mainland Europe through normal channels.
When contacted, representatives of Kolmar Group AG and of San Lucian Oil Company Ltd did not reply to questions.
Italian investigators also found a third avenue by which Libya’s smuggled oil moved through Malta.
Wiretaps recorded by Italian police show ships owned by the Debonos unloading smuggled fuel to a vessel at sea before hurrying their small tankers back to Libya.
A vessel owned by two Gozitan brothers appeared to operate as a floating fuel station in Malta’s territorial waters, according to the police.
€26m in just one year
All these operations meant millions of euros in trade.
According to the Italian investigations, in just one year, the Debonos group made at least €26 million selling to just one Italian buyer.
Despite reports on this illicit fuel trade doing the rounds for years, with various stories published by the Times of Malta, Maltese authorities told Daphne Project journalists that they could do nothing to prevent the smuggling, because it happened outside territorial waters.
However, according to the Italian police, this was only a half-truth as the tankers filled in Libya almost always made ship-to-ship transfers at the very edge of the Hurd’s Bank, a shallow area on the edge of the Maltese territorial waters and within the control of Malta.
No checks or searches
At the same time, sources in local fishing cooperatives based in Marsaxlokk complained not only that Gordon and Darren Debono’s ship-to-ship transfers happened undisturbed, but that their vessels were allowed to dock at the two bunkering facilities (Marsa/Birżebbuġa) without being checked by the local authorities, including the customs department.
Italian investigators found that a company owned by Gordon Debono, Potroplus, was also involved in the forging of certificates certifying the origin of their fuel shipments.
Fake certificates, which stated that smuggled oil from Libya originated from Saudi Arabia, were sent to the Maltese-Libyan Chamber of Commerce, where a cooperating employee would appostile (certify) their authenticity.
According to the Italian police, such forgeries are continuing through a Maltese notary and the appostile of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malta.
When contacted, a spokesman for the ministry said that its employee was only required to certify the notarised documents, not to “check the contents of the record”.
The Daphne Project is a collaboration between 18 media organisations in 15 countries which seeks to continue the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered in a car bomb explosion last October. The project is being coordinated by French NGO Forbidden Stories.