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In this April 21, 2015, file photo, a migrant stands at the Cara Mineo, a hosting centre for asylum seekers, where about 3,200 migrants from North Africa, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries are staying.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP / Getty Images

On the night of March 21, 2011, a big Egyptian fishing boat, 25 metres long, with a green steel hull and blue superstructure, arrived off the eastern coast of Sicily. The boat stopped about 20 kilometres short of Riposto, a seaside town in the shadow of Mount Etna, and waited. On board were 190 migrants and crew members – mostly Egyptian, a few of them Libyan.

The process of smuggling the migrants onto Italian soil, then into northern Europe, would soon start. Two smaller boats arrived to take the migrants to shore. The boats were owned by the family of Salvatore Greco, a top member of the Brunetto Mafia clan in eastern Sicily.

To the smugglers' surprise, a third boat arrived – a police boat. Suddenly, Mr. Greco's smuggling operation was dead in the water.

What Mr. Greco and his Egyptian associate, the smuggling kingpin Mohamed Badawi Hassan Arfa, did not know was that the Sicilian police had been monitoring their cellphone conversations since 2010. Based on the series of arrests and convictions after the smuggling voyage was intercepted, Sicilian police and prosecutors are certain the Mafioso and the Egyptian were part of an elaborate smuggling network that included money men in Milan and safe houses for the migrants, and that they had arranged five or six boat trips before they were busted.

Prosecutors say the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, and possibly other Italian Mafia groups must consider the Mediterranean refugee crisis manna from heaven. "Behind the smugglers, there is a multibillion-dollar business – and that of course attracts the Mafia," said Maurizio Scalia, a prosecutor in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, who is investigating smuggling networks and sharing his findings with European investigators.

As far as Sicilian prosecutors can tell, the Greco family smuggling case has not been replicated elsewhere on the island to the same extent, though they are not ruling it out, given the lure of shaking down migrants for small fortunes.

But smuggling was not the Mafia's only honeypot. In Sicily, there are no fewer than three official investigations into possible Mafia control of the companies that provide food, clothing, medicine and other vital services to the refugee camps. Prosecutors also say the Mafia is almost certainly providing logistical support to migrants – housing them once they arrive in Italy and arranging their transportation to job-rich northern Europe.

Meanwhile, in Palermo and other big Sicilian cities, the Mafia is using asylum seekers, mostly Africans, as drug dealers and pushing them into prostitution. The dealers operate openly in the city centres, such as the Ballaro market area in Palermo. "It is obvious that the dealers work with Mafia permission and give them a percentage of the business," Mr. Scalia said.

The potential for profiteering from the refugee crisis is staggering. Last year alone, 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This year, the figure has already reached 141,000. Paolo Giordano, the chief prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Siracusa, said migrants often pay $3,000 (U.S.) to $6,000 to get from North Africa to Italy. So a single boat of 100 migrants can generate at least $300,000 for the smugglers and their accomplices, almost all of it pure, risk-free profit, since the money is paid up front and the smugglers don't care if the rickety boats sink.

Once they reach Italian soil, there is more money to be made, since any asylum seekers who avoid the official refugee camps have to pay for lodging and transportation to northern Europe. The money would have to be sent to the migrants by their relatives or delivered directly to the Mafia from the smugglers' money men in Italy.

Italian prosecutors have no idea how much the Mafia might be making by exploiting refugees, but they assume it could be billions of dollars. A clue came last year from Salvatore Buzzi, the convicted murderer who is playing a star role in the vast Rome corruption case known as "Mafia Capitale," in which alleged organized-crime members have been accused of infiltrating public-service contracts, including ones for migrant centres. In a wiretap recording, Mr. Buzzi is heard saying, "Do you know how much we earn off migrants? Drugs are less profitable."

Carmelo Zuccaro, the prosecutor in Catania, Sicily's second-largest city, and the man who led the investigation into the 2011 smuggling case that nailed Salvatore Greco, said it's not surprising that Mr. Greco was looking for a fresh income stream. His Brunetto clan, which had traditionally stuffed its mattresses with cash earned from illicit drug sales and rigging public contracts, had lost some power to rival clans in recent years.

In 2010, just before the start of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars that would ignite the refugee crisis, a migrant who made it to Siracusa told the Sicilian police that Mr. Greco and Egyptian smugglers had a "pact," according to Carlo Parini, the chief of the Siracusa immigration police squad that arrested some 360 smugglers and their crews at sea between 2013 and 2015. Police wiretaps were arranged. "Operation Greco" was under way.

The police learned that Mr. Greco had made contact with an Egyptian smuggler named Mohamed Shalpy Garpua Fathy, who in turn introduced him to the powerful Egyptian smuggler Mr. Arfa. Mr. Arfa and his son, Said, were organizing migrant boat trips to Europe, and Mr. Greco evidently decided to get a piece of the action. He would provide the motorboats to take the migrants from the mother ship, hide them after they scrambled ashore and buy their train tickets.

Mr. Parini said the logistical angle was confirmed when Mr. Greco went to Milan in February, 2011, to demand a down payment of €15,000 to cover costs from Nabil Sorour, who was known to police as il cassiere – the cashier – on the Italian end of the Egyptian smuggling network.

A month later, the Egyptian fishing boat reached Sicily and the Italian police swung into action. Of the 190 people aboard, 61 were detained and 18, all of them Egyptian or Libyan, were arrested and charged with smuggling. Mr. Greco, then 57, and his son Massimo were arrested a couple of days later.

The story did not end there. That May, Mr. Greco's ally Mr. Fathy kidnapped six migrants, all of them minors, from a camp near Floridia, Sicily. "The reason for the kidnappings was to send a message to the families of the migrants who hadn't paid for the logistics provided by the Mafia," Mr. Parini said. "In the intercepted phone calls, we heard Fathy calling the families of the kidnapped migrants so they could hear the children scream." (In May of this year, there was a second mass kidnapping, which the police presume was connected to the Mafia.)

Mr. Fathy was arrested shortly thereafter, as was Mr. Sorour, the Egyptian money man in Milan. Mr. Arfa, the Egyptian smuggling kingpin, was killed in Egypt in early 2012. "We think his collaborators killed him because he wasn't giving them enough of the profits," Mr. Parini said.

The Greco case is now closed. While the Sicilian police and prosecutors are looking for more recent incidents of collaboration between the Mafia and Egyptian or Libyan smugglers, their focus has turned to refugee centres and their possible links to the Mafia. Here, too, the potential for illicit profit is enormous. Sicily has eight refugee centres, among them Cara Mineo, which houses as many as 4,000 asylum seekers and is thought to be the biggest of its kind in Europe. The budget for the camps is €30 ($42 Canadian) to €40 a day for each adult, and double that for each child. The cost of the annual service contracts for Cara Mineo alone is €98-million.

The prosecutors suspect that the companies providing the services are Mafia-controlled or pay kickbacks to the Mafia. "We have information of clear involvement of Mafia families in Agrigento operating in this field," said Calogero Ferrara, an anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo, referring to the city on Sicily's southern coast.

More Mafia arrests seem likely. At the same time, so does more migrant exploitation by the Mafia. The numbers of migrants, and their potential to generate easy profits, is too big for the crime families to ignore.

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