A Maltese shipping agent is believed to be involved in a multimillion-euro drug smuggling operation that was slapped with international sanctions last week.
The operation is suspected of having shipped narcotics from Libya to Italy and other parts of Europe through a bunkering spot just off the Maltese coast.
Organised crime groups in southern Italy, Libya, Albania and Montenegro are believed to have played a part in the racket.
Sources told Times of Malta that an inter-agency task force has been investigating the international organised crime network behind the operation for the past year-and-a-half and has uncovered suspicious communication between the group and officials in Maltese state entities.
Multiple sources confirmed that those entities include the local police.
The racket was thrown into the spotlight last week when the United States imposed sanctions on companies and individuals it says form part of it.
They include Libyan national Faysal al-Wadi and two of his Libyan associates on allegations of smuggling. Malta-based company Alwefaq Ltd was also slapped with sanctions.
The US Treasury Department said Wadi and his cargo vessel Maraya had been smuggling fuel and drugs from Libya to Europe, using Malta as a gateway to the European Union.
Sources said intelligence collected by investigators showed that the Maraya, which has since been designated as “blocked property” by the US, was linked to a Maltese shipping operator whom authorities had already been investigating in relation to suspected links to large-scale cigarette smuggling.
Times of Malta has confirmed the identity of this Maltese player but was asked not to publish any details that could jeopardise ongoing investigations.
How the racket allegedly operated
The Maraya, which is believed to have smuggled tons of cannabis and cocaine into Europe, is currently stateless, sources privy to the probe said.
According to the US sanctions, Wadi worked with a network of contacts in North Africa and southern Europe to smuggle the drugs through Malta as well as fuel from Libya to Malta.
Sources said cannabis from Morocco and, to a somewhat lesser extent, cocaine from South America were shipped into Libya during harvesting season.
They were then stored, primarily around the western port city of Khoms.
When supply in the European market dipped and prices climbed, the drugs would then be taken out to Hurds Bank, a shallow sandbank just outside Malta’s territorial waters.
From there, it was transferred onto other vessels to be sold in Europe at a significant profit.
The operation is believed to involve the Calabrian mafia group known as the ‘Ndrangheta, as well as organised crime networks in Albania and Montenegro.
This is another wake-up call for Maltese authorities. They cannot just ignore this sort of activity
Maltese authorities are liaising with international counterparts on the matter and the investigations have even been mentioned during confidential talks with Council of Europe experts concerning Malta’s MoneyVal anti-money laundering assessment.
Sources close to the Maltese side of the investigation said monitoring of Wadi had been ongoing for several months and had even uncovered repeated communication between him and officials in state entities and the police.
Armed groups within war-torn Libya compete intensely to control smuggling routes, oil facilities and transport nodes. Hurd’s Bank – a popular bunkering spot for many ship ping vessels – is also a well-known location for illicit maritime transactions.
What does this mean for Malta?
Geopolitical analyst Mark Micallef says unchecked smuggling activity at Hurd Bank’s has allowed organised crime groups to consolidate in Malta, too.
Back in 2018, Times of Malta reported that local law enforcement was closing an eye to smuggling just off Malta’s shores, saying the activity was outside the island’s jurisdiction and risk appetite.
Micallef said this ‘see-no-evil’ approach by Maltese authorities has created a criminal protection infrastructure for locally-based players involved in international fuel and drug trafficking, with their illegal activities allowed to develop with complete impunity.
“Some of the violent assassinations in Malta we saw over the past years can be directly linked to this sort of smuggling activity. So while law enforcement and government authorities were of the opinion that the activity at sea was not a security concern for the island, it did result in a very real security threat on Malta,” he said.
“This is another wake-up call for Maltese authorities. They cannot just ignore this sort of activity.”
Micallef is the director of the North Africa and the Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
In a 2019 report to the European drugs agency, he detailed the shifting dynamics of Libya’s drug trafficking industry and identified a shift from overland trafficking to greater use of maritime routes. A significant portion of those involve Hurd’s Bank.
He said the recent US sanctions were relevant because they confirm how Hurds Bank had become critical to international drug trafficking networks in the Mediterranean.
Attacking and dismantling such an important logistical hub used by international traffickers can have an important positive impact in the fight against crime and conflict across the Mediterranean, most especially in Libya, Micallef said.
Illustrating this further, Micallef said that in 2017 a covert international law enforcement operation codenamed Dirty Oil had helped dismantle the wholesale smuggling of subsidised Libyan petroleum products into Europe.
This, he said, had sent shockwaves through the Libyan organised crime world.
“There was a lot of international attention on the same groups at the same time; people involved in fuel smuggling and migrant smuggling and so on. This had a chilling effect and a lot of activity either ground to a halt or was diverted.
“This latest use of sanctions is another important step in this direction,” he said.