The world’s most wanted people-smuggler

An Ethiopian called Ghermay Ermias is the dangerous and elusive criminal behind Europe’s migrant crisis

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

It’s Saturday morning in the courtyard of the Al-Zawiyah detention centre on the outskirts of Tripoli and Colonel Nourdeen Mishaal of Libya’s Ministry of Interior’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration is about to have his weekend ruined. The Colonel has delivered an impassioned speech praising his own government and exhorting the West to do more to help in the battle against the people smugglers responsible for the thousands of migrants arriving in Europe every week.

He dismisses his regime’s pariah status (the Islamist government has no international recognition). If there is a problem with migrants, he states with the full authority of his office, then the blame lies with western intransigence.

It is not long, however, before Colonel Mishaal’s ministerial swagger begins to evaporate. Swatting away the flies in the stinking heat of the prison courtyard, he is not at all prepared for the line of questioning that follows. This includes allegations of brutality and rampant corruption throughout the penal system under his control. Far from combating people-trafficking, it turns out, Mishaal’s men are benefiting from it.

When he demands evidence, we show him the results of Operation Glauco. This is an ongoing 18-month investigation into Africa’s most organised and ruthless people–trafficking organisation conducted by the Italian Squadra Mobile.

In an impressive feat of detection, the Sicily-based cops have compiled over 700 pages of evidence against the trafficking gang. Veterans of the decades-long war against the Sicilian Cosa Nostra (the Mafia), the investigative squad employed all the same techniques that worked against their traditional enemy — including covert surveillance, witness protection and, above all, mobile phone intercepts.

It is evidence from the phone taps that prove the Colonel’s prison officers are bent. In May of last year, one of the top-dog traffickers was taped boasting about how he bribed the guards in the detention centres. Corrupt officers released their inmates for cash, it turned out, and the traffickers would then hold them to ransom. If their relatives failed to pay up, the migrants were severely beaten, the women raped.

The Glauco operation was launched in the aftermath of a tragedy in October 2013, when a vessel carrying several hundred African migrants caught fire off the coast of Lampedusa and sank. There were 366 fatalities — mostly Eritreans fleeing one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

Pope Francis called the incident ‘a disgrace’ and a task force was quickly assembled. Within weeks the main culprit had been identified: a multinational criminal enterprise operating in Sudan, Libya and the European mainland; the capo di tutti capi of the people-trafficking gang, an Ethiopian called Ghermay Ermias.

Gerry Ferrara, the Sicilian lawyer charged with bringing Ermias to justice, has successfully challenged some of the most ruthless mafiosi, as well as Balkan and Rwandan war criminals. He ranks his latest foe among the worst criminals he has encountered. ‘Ermias is very famous all over Africa,’ Ferrara says. ‘Everybody knows him but at same time it is very difficult to identify him — where he lives, nobody knows.’

Ermias is so elusive that he has never been photographed. The police rely on a photo-fit based on the eyewitness testimony of those he has trafficked. He is short, stocky and in his early thirties. Not much to go on.

Armed with the photo-fit and evidence gathered during Operation Glauco, I travelled with the Sky News documentary team to Libya. Over two weeks we followed in footsteps of Ermias and his gang from their operating bases in the Sahara to their launching points on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Kufra, in the heart of the Libyan desert, was traditionally a staging post on the ancient trans-Saharan slave route from the horn of Africa.

Today this oasis community is the entry point for all types of contraband from petrol, cigarettes and weapons, to human beings. It is a magnet for every thief and cut-throat from half a dozen countries. Ermias and his thugs are particularly active here, transporting vast numbers of Eritreans across the nearby Sudanese border and then on to the northern coast.

Even under the protection of the mayor of Kufra and his extended family from the dominant Zuwayya tribe, we never felt safe. Our hosts were nervous too. When we asked to travel to one of the smugglers’ camps outside the city limits, one of our guards pointed to the black flag of IS that hung in the shimmering haze on a nearby hill and shook his head.

We were allowed out to film what we dubbed ‘the Great Wall of Kufra’. This 150km-long berm, a trench protected by raised banks, which looks as though it might have been constructed around the time of the first Punic War, is in fact modern Libya’s first line of defence against the smugglers.

Like everything else in that benighted land, the fortification is not fit for purpose. The desert sand has drifted to fill the trench. It is easy for the modern-day slavers with their state-of-the-art GPS technology and night-vision goggles to accelerate their turbo-charged 4x4s over the barrier.

Major Taleb Kheir of the region’s anti-immigration task force admitted he has already lost the battle. His men are poorly equipped and easily outgunned by the smugglers. He admits that even if captured, the criminals bribe their way out. Taleb told us he has spoken many times to European and American officials about his difficulties. They promised help. None has been forthcoming.

Further north, on the outskirts of Benghazi, we were taken to one of the front lines. Here, government forces were using their .50-calibre machine-guns to pound a squad of foreign IS fighters who had been holed up for months. They wouldn’t budge.

Alleged human trafficker, Ethiopian Ermias Ghermay

Benghazi has been a permanent combat zone for almost four years now, ever since the revolution that ousted Colonel Gaddafi. Around the shell-shattered suburbs of the coastal city the western troops of Tripoli battle their sworn enemies from the east, rival militias settle ancient scores, and everyone gangs up against the hated IS.

The never-ending chaos allows Ermias’s criminal enterprise to flourish. The phone taps reveal that last year his gang were moving people — including young children —through Benghazi. The asking price for this stage of the journey alone was $1,700.

In Tripoli we travelled into Abu Salim, the notoriously hostile neighbourhood identified as the location of Ermias’s headquarters. He may still be there — no one knows. Back in April, following the arrest of some of his foot soldiers in Sicily, Ermias switched phones and went offline. When we ventured into the back streets with his photo-fit we were warned off in seconds. Libya is no place for westerners making enquiries.

Europe’s politicians — including Theresa May and David Cameron — have stated that the most effective way to stem the flow of migrants is by smashing the smuggling networks. A team of Scotland Yard officers is due to arrive in Italy in the next few days.

Yet Gerry Ferrara concedes that his chances of catching Ermias are slim. The Italians and their new colleagues from the Met have no jurisdiction in North Africa. Any manhunt will have to rely on local help.

We asked Ferrara who he picks up the phone to in Libya to pursue his enquiries. The normally ebullient prosecutor fell silent. ‘Honestly?’ he replied eventually. ‘No one. I have absolutely no point of contact.’

Ferrara believes that defeating the trafficking networks could take between five and ten years and cooperation from a stable Libya is vital. If arrivals continue at the current rate, it means up to a million refugees from Africa alone arriving on the shores of southern Europe. That is politically unacceptable. But with men as elusive and ruthless as Ghermay Ermias running the trafficking networks — and with desperate families prepared to entrust their lives to his thugs — it is going to take a lot more than outstanding police work to solve Europe’s migrant problem.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

World’s Most Wanted: People Smuggler is on Sky One at 10 p.m. on Wednesday 22 July.

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Show comments
  • rationality

    The powers that be setting up a bogeyman for their open borders/destruction of Western civilisation policy. Watch how the EU and its slave governments pretend to hunt this person down and shift the blame onto him and other smugglers. We really are being governed by the most evil people ever and I am fed up with the constant deceit.

  • Sue Smith

    Also the street ferals involved in local crimes in Nigeria – you know, those with the money – are the people immigrating to Europe pretending to be “asylum Seekers”. They often arrive with no names, no paperwork and this can only spell disaster for Europe because of the sheer numbers. Meanwhile, healthy men in their 20’s are leaving their families to the mercy of predators in their home countries. Rats deserting a sinking ship.

    • rationality

      And guess who will be first on the streets when our economies collapse? These poor little invaders are the ‘guards’ of the elite so that we’ll be too busy fighting them when it finally comes. They know how dangerous these people are, they know that they are more prone to criminality. Most people are unaware of this due to politically correct brainwashing. All on purpose to keep our guard down.

  • Richard

    This is simply a symptom of civilisational decline. We are finished because we have no wish to survive. All the rest is just details.

    • Sue Smith

      I’m afraid I have to agree with you there, even though I don’t think it’s especially apocalyptic as a scenario. There are plenty of precedents in history.

      One of the most significant, of course, was the “fiddling” while Rome burned.

      • Infidelissima

        it is estimated that even 10-15 years, muslim populations double.
        Today there are 4% Muslims in Britain, their represention in our jails is nearly 65% !

        Europe has currently 50 Million Muslims, 100 Million in 10-15 years. Have you seen what countries with large muslim populations look like? You will wish back the 4%, 2015 and probably even Rotherham.

  • Som Trivedi

    “…and cooperation from a stable Libya is vital”

    A stable Libya…when was this place last stable and the flow of migrants a trickle as opposed to today’s torrent? Oh yes, before Dave, his mate Obama and the rest of the EU went in there all guns blazing, deposed the Bad Man Gadaffi and handed the country over on a platter to Islamists and ISIS that now lord over it profiting from trafficking thousands of Africans to Europe every day.

    Great job, funny how we never hear anything about this great foreign policy success in the media.

  • sir_graphus

    I don’t want to disrespect the excellent investigative journalism that seems to have been done here, but I’m often suspicious when a single man is identified as the root of the world’s problems. It’s often a gross over-simplification, as if he were a Bond villain. The media obsesses about one man, and the overall problem is not studied or explained properly. It normally suits someone’s agenda to leave it thus.

    In the recent past we’ve had:
    * Osama Bin Laden
    * Ayatolla Khomeini
    * Gaddafi, then he was a good guy, then he personified evil again, now we wish he was back.
    * any number of Russian leaders
    * Maggie Thatcher
    * Lance Armstrong

    • Patrick Roy

      Yes I agree. It is not just one man.I came across this global initiatives white paper a few months ago and it is quite extensive in describing the situation in Libya.


      • Sue Smith

        At least cutting off a criminal smuggler at the legs would ‘disrupt’ the trade for a while. But European leaders know what I’ve known for years – the people don’t want to breed, preferring instead to have dogs. I’ve seen it myself when I’ve visited. Dogs are deified and fetishized. The ‘leaders’ in the western world know that dogs aren’t going to be working to pay taxes to deliver pensions and infrastructure needed going forward. And the obscenity is that these domestic animals live better than most people in the African continent. Decadence by another name.

        To be honest, I’ve always wondered why it took so long for the penny to drop on this one.

        But this doesn’t excuse for one second the large-scale and indiscriminate acceptance of one and all from the rest of the world, the single criteria being whether they can afford to pay smugglers. It’s stupid, dangerous and childish ‘policy’ – and expedient, because it assuages the do-gooders with a moral compass MIA.

        It’s axiomatic that the rest of the world isn’t going to leave Europe to Europeans so that they can live in affluent comfort without the burden of raising the next generation when vast areas in the world are starving or enduring privations. Ain’t gonna happen.

        Populate or perish. There isn’t anything new in that idea.

    • greencoat

      The biggest smoke-screen is ‘climate change’.

      • Kaine

        Those damn scientists and their research.

        • flydlbee

          Those damn scientists FIDDLING their research.

  • Benjamin Neuells

    The real “people smugglers” are the EUcrats who have legally brought in tens of millions of immigrants into our countries.

    Why don’t you attack the cause and stop nibbling at the symptoms?

    • greencoat

      Beautifully put, Sir.

  • jim

    Oh yeah…. If they get this one guy then that will stop the thirdworld flooding into Europe. Simple really. ….but just in case snuffing this scumbag doesn’t solve all our problems,could we put a few gunboats in the Med and return intercepted ships to port of departure?….or sink ’em,whichever is more convenient..

  • Infidelissima

    Look at how those nice peaceful mussies flee hardships: not a woman, child or elderly person in sight.

    • Sue Smith

      I watched a program on Wednesday night here in Sydney with my husband. Our national broadcaster presented a program on illegal immigrants coming into Koz, Greece, where you could see the coastline of Turkey in the distance. They were being ‘helped’ ashore by the Greeks but local officials said ‘they are a bad look for tourism, hanging around and begging for money”. The ABC reporter asked no hard questions, just took selfies with the illegals and waved them goodbye as they headed by ship to Athens. Many had no passports and refused to give their names!!! What can we deduce from this? Again, NO HARD QUESTIONS. Another man from Syria – a dentist – said he’d left his family behind “because I’m a pacifist and won’t fight a war I don’t believe in”. No hard questions or comments. Nothing like “and what of the fate of your women and children if you’re not prepared to fight for them?” Nothing like that; nothing hard at all.

      This was the depths of self-interest, self-preservation and economic expedience. Again, no hard questions. Just a wave goodbye and a light touch of the nose with the hankie. Shocking.

      • Infidelissima

        Europe’s suicide.

        • Disqus660575

          We’re not doing it to ourselves. It’s genocide.

          • Infidelissima

            Europeans killing Europe.

  • Landphil

    It’s actually Nick Clegg who managed to smuggle 7 other LibDems into parliament and then disappeared, handing over control of the cartel to his trusted lieutenant, Tim “El Bells” Farron.

  • Frank

    Seems pretty clear that we (the West in some form or another) need to re-occupy large chunks of North Africa / Africa (have to get the Americans on board as they don’t seem to understand that “good” colonialism was what kept the peace from Sudan to Libya, etc). They may of course understand it better if we explain this in terms of the open sore that is Mexico and the other failed South American countries!!

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    Offer a reward to catch the people smuggler and he will soon be found. The reward money would come out of the confiscated money he has taken off the people he trafficked! His prison sentence should be life, meaning life – locked in the hold of a dodgy ship.

  • post_x_it

    So the BBC isn’t reporting a word of this. Not a peep.
    All we get is exhortations to feel sorry for the hapless migrants, and welcome them to our shores.
    No background, no context, and none of this unpleasant mafia stuff.

  • Hugo Gufradump

    Nothing will be done until if affects the politicians or big business leaders directly and it will be a while yet before their gated communities and remote country homes rub shoulders with real diversity. Meanwhile the rest of us will just have to get used to situations like Rotherham,7/7 or the riots.
    Antarctica looks inviting.

  • evad666

    I understand the Gentleman in question is in line for a Knighthood for increasing Cultural Diversity throughout the EU.

  • peter6218

    Here is a very honest German politician welcoming the extinction of the German people and their replacement by Eritreans and Somalis. Can anyone explain how the European peoples became mentally sick ?


  • Robertjturley

    Some Different Ways of on-p-e-c-a-t-o-

  • peterthepainter

    One has to wonder if any of this could have taken place had the west, primarily the USA, not stuck its nose in and supported regime changes across the region?
    Gaddafi, Hussein etc at least kept a lid on things, albeit too brutally for western tastes. But look at the outcomes.
    The west have opened the doors to the new holocaust, the new Nazis in Arabian garb.
    I fear this new genie will not go back into the lamp.