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Gery Ferrara is the Palermo prosecutor who is leading the investigation into criminal human smuggling networks operating in North Africa and Europe.Francesco Faraci/The Globe and Mail

Italian prosecutors have uncovered a human-smuggling network that extends into Canada from Europe and North Africa. It is being investigated for a range of criminal activity, including the possible delivery of terrorists into North America.

Extensive wiretaps of conversations between North African smugglers and their clients are sprinkled with references to Canada. In one conversation, a notorious Eritrean smuggler named Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who operated in Libya and boasted, "I will be the new Gadhafi," said he planned to invest $170,000 or euros (the currency is not specified) of his smuggling income in Canada.

In another conversation, €5,000 (about $7,800) is touted as the price to get to Canada using black-market American or Italian passports.

The first stages of the probe, led by some of Italy's top anti-Mafia and anti-terrorist prosecutors, have already resulted in nearly two dozen convictions as the prosecutors crack down on the cold-blooded North African smuggling gangs that are delivering thousands of migrants to their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

A second human-smuggling and -trafficking trial in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, will start shortly and will probably result in more convictions, with the guilty receiving up to 30 years in prison.

The investigations are known by their operational code name – Glauco, a patron saint of sailors. The first investigation, Glauco 1, has finished, and the second, Glauco 2, is winding down ahead of the new trials. A follow-up investigation, which will be far broader in scope, will examine how the tentacles of the smuggling network have reached into northern Europe and North America.

"In Glauco 1, we focused mostly on Italy," said Calogero (Gery) Ferrara, the Italian justice department prosecutor in Palermo who is leading the Glauco investigations. "In Glauco 2, we focused on Italy plus Europe, and the follow-up investigation will be Italy, Europe and the rest of the world."

In an interview in Palermo last week, Mr. Ferrara, 45, said U.S. authorities have already visited his office to inquire about the smuggling network's trans-Atlantic connections. Canadian investigators have yet to contact him, though he expects them to do so as investigators in northern Europe launch their own probes based on the Italian findings, and the publicity surrounding the success of the initial Glauco effort builds up.

Mr. Ferrara and the senior prosecutor in the Palermo office, Maurizio Scalia, have so far found no compelling evidence that the suspected terrorists have been planted in any of the hundreds of boats making their way from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia to Italy. But they are fully aware that at least two of the jihadis involved in the November terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, passed themselves off as refugees, leading European investigators to suspect there might be an "alliance of convenience" between the leaders of criminal smuggling groups and terrorist groups.

"We don't have proof [that terrorists use smuggling networks to get to Italy]," Mr. Scalia said. "But we can't exclude it."

The Glauco investigations are the most extensive probes yet into the criminal smuggling and trafficking networks that are earning billions of dollars for their ringleaders and inflicting horrendous suffering on their clients. The network strongmen apparently operate in tandem in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Libya, and deliver asylum seekers into a European smuggling pipeline that extends from Sicily into mainland Italy, then north to Germany, Sweden and Finland. That network now appears to have leaped the Atlantic into North America.

In December, Mr. Ferrara used a presentation at the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, to describe the network, based on the Glauco investigations, and how the Italian prosecutors used anti-Mafia techiques to reach the convictions in the Palermo trials. The techniques rely on extensive wiretapping; witness-protection programs for informants, known as supergrasses; interviews with the survivors of smuggling voyages; and interviews with prison inmates, such as Italian Mafiosi, who may have been part of, or may have known about, the North African smuggling gangs. (A 2011 court case in Sicily revealed a criminal partnership between an eastern Sicilian Mafia family and Egyptian smugglers.)

Mr. Ferrara says his efforts to bring the Glauco investigations to light have triggered related smuggling-network investigations in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Britain. He is also holding meetings with EuroJust, the European Union agency that facilitates judicial co-operation in trans-border criminal matters. "The Glauco case was so effective that it was identified as a template case for anti-smuggling investigations," Mr. Ferrara said.

The Glauco case began in the autumn of 2013, when a Mediterranean tragedy convinced prosecutors that a broad, Mafia-style investigation into smuggling networks was urgently needed. On Oct. 3, an overcrowded fishing boat that had set out from Libya developed engine problems just short of Lampedusa, the Italian island roughly halfway between Tunisia and Sicily. The boat burned when the asylum seekers set fire to a blanket to attract attention from the Italian coast guard. It capsized when passengers moved en masse to one side. No fewer than 366 of them died, mostly Eritreans and Somalis.

The analysis of recovered mobile phones and documents, as well as interviews with the survivors, produced a treasure trove of leads for the Italian investigators.

The "Lampedusa case," which would form the basis of Glauco 1, also produced chilling accounts of horrific treatment by the smugglers. "The women who could not pay were assaulted," one survivor told the investigators. "All the women in that [migrants' centre in Libya] were raped by Somalis and Libyans. It was like a concentration camp."

The wiretapped conversations intercepted calls, painstakingly translated from Arabic and Arabic dialects, from Ermias Ghermay, an elusive Eritrean smuggler – he has never been photographed – who lives in Libya and is now one of the most-wanted men on Earth. In a phone intercept on Oct. 31, 2013, he expressed no sympathy for the Lampedusa disaster. Speaking to a big-name Sudanese smuggler named John Mahray, who remains at large, Mr. Ghermay, who is thought to be the organizer of the Lampedusa boat trip, blamed the migrants themselves for the shipwreck. "It was their fault," he said. "They should have called for help when they were at open sea and not waited [until the] last minute burning a blanket and causing the shipwreck."

The prosecutors got lucky, because one of the men arrested in June, 2014, as part of the Glauco 1 investigation, agreed to work as a supergrass. He is the Eritrean Nuredin Atta Wehabrebi, now 32, who had addresses in Sicily and Rome and is now under police protection somewhere in Italy.

He told the prosecutors that he had worked for about a decade smuggling asylum seekers into Italy and on to northern Europe and agreed to co-operate because he felt guilty about the migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. In exchange, prosecutors will recommend that he receive a light sentence, perhaps five years, instead of 20 or 30 years. "He gave us thousands of pieces of information that will be used in future investigations," Mr. Ferrara said.

The North American connection was revealed by Mr. Wehabrebi and by snippets of conversations between other smugglers, convincing the prosecutors that the criminal smuggling network had gang members in Canada and Mexico and perhaps the United States. Mr. Wehabrebi admitted that he used a variety of illegal methods, including fake passports and visas and bogus marriages, to get them there.

"He confirmed that he brought migrants to Mexico and that a person in Mexico helped them go into the United States," Mr. Ferrara said. "He also gave the names of a couple of people in Canada."

Mr. Wehabrebi also claimed he went to Canada, but the prosecutors have not confirmed whether he actually did.

The Glauco documents contain dozens of references to Canada, most of which do not go into much detail. But some of the longer references seem to reveal that Canada is emerging as an attractive destination for desperate asylum seekers. In one conversation, Shamshedin Abkadt, an Eritrean smuggler who had addresses in Milan and Rome, recommended to a colleague that entry into Canada would be easier than entry into the U.S. "With an Italian passport, you can get into Canada," he said.

In another conversation, Mr. Abkadt said it would cost €5,000 to get a migrant into Canada, but that the migrant would need a passport to get there. "Too bad because, a few days ago, I had an American passport but I just sold it," Mr. Abkadt said. "But if this boy returns it with the visa, I will give it to you."

He also said he had organized the transfer of two migrants, one of whom was in Switzerland, to Canada. On separate trips, they used the same passport. The first migrant simply mailed the passport back to Europe so the second migrant could use it.

Mr. Ferrara said he and the other prosecutors will seek help in unravelling the North American end of the smuggling network. "We will ask for co-operation with the Canadian authorities and the American authorities," he said. "We will soon start on this."

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