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Fishing boats are being unloaded on a beach near the harbour of Nouakchott in June. Mauritania has developed a network of informants to help identify potential traffickers who are smuggling migrants bound for Europe.Mey Dudin

At grocery stores and fishing camps and petrol stations along the Mauritanian coast, a network of hundreds of paid informants keeps a close eye open for the signs of human migration.

If they spot an unfamiliar face, perhaps a fishing-boat owner or refugee who seems to be preparing for a long sea journey, they pick up their phones and call the coast guard, alerting them that human smuggling could be under way.

It's part of a crackdown that has almost completely halted the flow of African migrants on the once-popular Atlantic Ocean route to Europe. This smuggling route, using boats to reach Spanish territory on the Canary Islands, was bringing thousands of migrants and refugees into Europe as recently as a few years ago.

Until the crackdown, the hazardous 800-kilometre journey from Mauritania to the Canary Islands was killing hundreds of desperate Africans as boats capsized in rough waters during the six-day voyage.

At the peak of the exodus, as many as 35,000 people made the journey from Mauritania to Spanish territory. More than 100 boats, often dangerously rickety and ramshackle, reached the Canaries from Mauritania in 2008 alone. Yet this year, in sharp contrast, only one migrant boat is reported to have arrived in the islands.

The crackdown in Mauritania – aided by high-tech assistance from Spain and the European Union – shows that it is possible for a resolute government to prevent the hundreds of drowning deaths that occur when Africans venture out on risky sea journeys to Europe.

But while Mauritania has halted the human-trafficking gangs on its territory, it may have simply diverted the odyssey to a different route. Instead of trekking to the Canaries, thousands of African migrants are now heading across the Sahara to the lawless lands of Libya, the new heartland of migration from the African continent to Europe. If a migrant is determined to reach Europe, there will always be ways to do it.

The lesson of Mauritania is that a well-organized government can beat the smuggling syndicates if it holds strong control over its territory. Libya, however, is chaotic and fragmented. Its territory is divided up in the hands of militias, Islamist radicals, bandit gangs and remnants of military units with competing loyalties. There cannot be any co-ordinated effort against human smuggling because there is no coherent central government to organize it.

In Mauritania, the campaign against human smuggling is led by people such as Sidi Mohamed Ould Nemane, the affable head of the Nouakchott office of Mauritania's coast guard. With help from Spain and the EU, he said last month that the coast guard can mobilize a fleet of 23 patrol boats and two larger ships, along with a network of radar stations, satellite tracking devices, quad bikes to patrol the beaches and a staff of nearly 800 employees – including the paid informants, whose intelligence-gathering work is the most important of all.

"We have eyes in every location, and they keep us informed," Mr. Ould Nemane says.

His office, a couple of kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, looks dusty and threadbare. But hidden in a back room is a row of state-of-the-art computers, linked to radar and satellite tracking systems. Their screens are filled with glowing red marks, plotting the movements of each big fishing boat off the coast of Mauritania. If a boat makes a sudden break for the Canaries, the coast guard can spot it immediately.

To bolster Mauritania's willingness to crack down on the human smugglers, Spain has provided a range of incentives, including a package of foreign aid and economic co-operation measures, plus the deployment of several dozen Spanish police and civilian specialists to help train the Mauritanian police. Mauritania also agreed to toughen its jail sentences for smugglers and to accept the repatriation of migrants who are caught on the journey to Europe. In exchange, Spain has opened the door to a limited number of African migrants by airplane.

If a government has the political will to control the human-trafficking problem, it can be done, Mr. Ould Nemane says. "It's sad to see people dying on the waters. To prevent these tragedies, we need to act quickly. The smugglers are always developing new tactics."

The latest routes, overland across the Sahara, through Mali, Niger, Algeria or the Western Sahara and then into Libya or Morocco and finally across the Mediterranean to Italy, are much longer and more dangerous than the old Canary Islands route, often taking a month or more. Yet, the migrants are desperate enough to keep trying. More than 3,500 migrants and asylum seekers died while trying to reach Europe on routes across the Mediterranean last year – the deadliest year on record. The death toll this year could be nearly the same, with more than 2,400 dying so far.

Mauritania's neighbour to the south, Senegal, is one of the biggest African sources of migrants seeking to reach Europe. Its people have often used Mauritania as their migration route. Among the Senegalese, there is a popular expression: Barca or barsac. The first word means Barcelona. The second word, in the Wolof language, means "death."

Mr. Ould Nemane remembers one migrant on the Canary Islands sea route who was determined to reach Europe because he needed an income to support five people in his family. The coast guard caught him and sent him back home. But this didn't deter him. A little while later, they caught him again.

When they asked why he kept taking the risk of a sea journey that could kill him, the migrant shrugged. "It's the only way to feed my family," he told them. "And if I die, it will be one less mouth to feed."

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