“Someone Is Making Up Lies”
Episode 6: A new source of evidence comes to light—wiretapped phone calls between the people smugglers responsible for the Ghost Boat.
Müncheberg is a small, unassuming German town of tree-lined streets and a skyline of low-peaked roofs punctuated by church steeples. It’s set on a gently rolling green plane about halfway between Berlin and the border with Poland. And it was here that German police arrested Measho Tesfamariam on December 2, 2014 on people-smuggling charges.
Measho had arrived in the country two and a half months earlier, after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy and making his way north through Europe. Like so many thousands of refugees who make similar journeys, he had applied for asylum and was receiving a stipend from the German government while waiting for his claim to be processed.
Measho, though, wasn’t just another refugee. During his time in Libya, he was an active member of a smuggling ring that organized the passage of thousands of people from Eritrea. The group would bring refugees—people like Segen and Abigail—through Sudan and Libya and over the sea. This is the group that was responsible for the Ghost Boat, and Measho was the main contact person for the family members of the 243 people who went missing on June 28, 2014.
It was that contact that led to his arrest. Berhane Isayas—whose sister, uncle, and cousin are among the missing—was one of those who stayed in touch with Measho, asking him questions about the Ghost Boat for months after everyone had vanished. And when Measho followed the same path as the refugees he’d sent from North Africa and crossed the Mediterranean himself, Berhane tracked his movements through Europe. Eventually, once he was confident of Measho’s location, he informed the authorities.
A warrant was issued, and the swoop happened quickly, executed by the German police on behalf of their counterparts in Italy. It was part of Operation Tokhla, a larger investigation into the smuggling ring’s activities.
The same operation also arrested nine other Eritrean men in Italy for their roles in illegally transporting people through the country to northern Europe—the culmination of a six-month inquiry. But among them all, Measho stood out: He was the only person arrested for the actions he’d taken outside of Europe.
“In the organization, he was responsible for the transportation of people from Libya to Italy,” Salvago told me when we met last week in the eastern Sicilian city of Catania.
When we spoke, he sat behind a broad desk in his office in front of an imposing wall of certificates from the Italian Interior Ministry. A tightly built man with a bald head, a composed and serious face, and restless hands, he was the head of the Squadra Mobile, the unit that conducted the Tokhla investigation, at the time of Measho’s arrest. Now, he is deputy police commissioner of Catania.
Tokhla wasn’t the only such operation taking place in Sicily. The Catania police did two other investigations into smuggling rings in 2014, and there were other investigations that took place in Palermo as well. But the Tokhla investigation started on May 13, 2014, when an Italian navy ship—the Grecale, a 400-foot-long frigate—rescued 206 refugees from a sinking boat about 100 miles south of the island of Lampedusa. Seventeen people died in a disturbing echo of the tragedy that took place just a few months before. Once the Grecale docked and the survivors arrived in the port of Catania, police started collecting testimonies to find out what had happened.
Among those who talked was an Eritrean couple who detailed the route that had brought them there. It started in Sudan, where they lived and worked, having fled Eritrea. Their journey from Libya to Europe—which cost them $1,600 each—included being held in a farm outside of Tripoli for about two months before being moved to Zuwarah, which is where they boarded the boat aimed toward Italy. They explained how an Eritrean man named Jamal el-Saoudi had organized the trip, collected the money for their passage, and kept them in captivity along with 35 other migrants.
The couple gave the police el-Saoudi’s phone number, a move which allowed Salvago and his team to get a wiretap. They began intercepting his calls, and started an exploration that stretched to many other numbers that were frequently in contact with el-Saoudi. What they revealed was a network of smugglers that stretched across Europe and north and east Africa, all aimed at moving thousands of people across international borders for large sums of money.
During the course of conversations with Ghost Boat families, I’d heard mention of a man named Jamal before, but the information was confusing. It was unclear what his role was or even if he was just one person. Most of my conversations had focused on the people the family members had spoken to directly—Measho, for the most part, or Ibrahim, the smuggler he seemed to report to.
But last week I was given a leaked court document containing the phone intercepts from the Tokhla investigation. Reading them confirmed what I had already discovered through the rest of this investigation: Measho was an intermediary in el-Saoudi’s organization who handled communication, logistics, and payment for the big smugglers.
“Until he left Libya, [Measho Tesfamariam] was just a name,” Salvago told me. “We weren’t aware of his arrival in Italy, but were able to identify him once he arrived in Germany and were able to link the name Measho Tesfamariam to the name we heard during the phone intercepts.”
So what about the Ghost Boat? What did the smugglers have to say about it? Overall, the intercepts were frustratingly incomplete and full of confusing information that appears—like most of the information about the Ghost Boat—to be tangled with lies and fiction and miscommunication. The smugglers appear to be as confused about the fate of the Ghost Boat as the people left behind.
Several days after the boat went missing, Italian police intercepted a call from el-Saoudi discussing the disappearance. In the call, according to the documents, “Jamal says he personally boarded 230 people and explains that often—even when there are accidents—the Italian authorities do not allow passengers to contact their relatives.”
Later, in another call, a man asks el-Saoudi whether there was a satellite phone on board the boat. This time, Jamal contradicts his earlier statement that he had put the people onto the vessel.
“Jamal… says at the time of the departure of the boat he was in Sabha [another city in Libya] and that the entire operation was led by Ibrahim, and he doesn’t know the number [of the satellite phone]… Jamal puts the blame entirely on Ibrahim’s incompetence.”
At another point, an unidentified man calls one of the men working with el-Saoudi. The smuggler tells him he “called his cousin Ibrahim, but the latter said that the boat was confiscated by the Italian Navy because it transported drugs.”
The reply comes: “That is nonsense, and that someone is making up lies—because in the whole history of boat crossings, they never sent drugs on boats.”
It is not just el-Saoudi’s twisting story that complicates things, though. Thirteen days after the people disappeared, the police recorded a phone call between Jonny and Suleman, two members of the Tokhla group.
“Jonny asks [Suleman] if he has confirmation that the boat did in fact leave, and Suleman says yes… Jonny says probably the boat landed in Lampedusa, and from there the refugees may have not had the chance to call their families, saying that must be the only explanation because if there had been a shipwreck, they would have heard about it.”
In another intercept from a month after the people went missing, Suleman calls el-Saoudi to ask if he has any information. “Jamal assures him that they are no longer in Libya and that they surely must be in Italy. Suleman asks him why not a single one of the 240 people called. Jamal says he has no answer. Suleman tells him to check in Libya in the new prison for undocumented migrants. Jamal says he will do it even if he is certain these people did leave Libya.”
Around the same time, a man named Hayat contacts Suleman asking about the boat. He adds: “On July 3, 2014, an empty boat was found in Libya but at sea there were only four corpses.”
Almost all of these conversations seem to stem originally from contact with family members who are asking for answers about what happened. But in the wiretap conversations I saw, the smugglers do not share any concrete information about what happened to the Ghost Boat — there is no mention of a departure location, no discussion of how the people were transported from the farm where they were being kept to the coast.
The smugglers do not seem to be overly concerned about the fate of the people who vanished. In fact, they appear to only care about the case because of its potential impact on the reputation of their organization. After all, a smuggling operation that gets a name for losing its clients isn’t going to get a lot of business, and getting a bad reputation means losing profits.
The wiretapped phone calls do not provide any answers on the fate of the boat, but they do contain several pieces of useful and important information. The main smuggler is an Eritrean man named Jamal el-Saoudi. He appears to be a prominent, well-connected individual in Libya. Ibrahim—who we already knew about—was working for him, but did not own his own boats. There are some geographical clues which may narrow our search, and it is also clear that the case of the Ghost Boat is known to a large network of people in Libya. This information will be helpful for tracking things down later on.
But reading through the transcriptions of the wiretapped phone calls about the Ghost Boat, I found myself wondering why Italian authorities didn’t do more. If they had opened an investigation into its disappearance, is it possible that this mystery could have been solved long ago?
At the courthouse in Catania, Andrea Bonomo sits behind a crowded desk in a cramped, second floor office. He gives off an energetic air as he leans forward with his hands folded on the desk in front of him. A Van Gogh painting of ships on a stormy sea rests on the wall behind his left shoulder.
Bonomo is a prosecutor in Catania’s anti-mafia unit, which is responsible for investigating organized crime, including smuggling. Thick legal files populate the cabinets and open surfaces of his office.
Salvago is the cop who led the Tokhla investigation; Bonomo is the prosecutor who pressed charges. He knew about the Ghost Boat from the intercepted phone calls and testimonies from family members like Berhane. But he did not push the investigation to look into what happened.
Even though the wiretaps mention the boat and the Tokhla group oversaw the people who were supposed to be on it, the question of what happened to the 243 people on board is not part of the Italian case against Measho and the other smugglers. For Bonomo, there wasn’t enough information to even start an official inquiry.
“It is totally unclear if it sank, or where it sank,” he explains. “Because of this, we have no jurisdiction. I can’t really investigate in Libya. I have information, but I can’t really verify anything.”
Because of the political chaos in Libya, a country wracked by civil war and divided between two rival governments, the Toklha investigative team was unable to confirm any information about el-Saoudi’s organization in the country. Without the ability to coordinate with authorities in Libya, Jamal and Ibrahim are just names names recorded in telephone intercepts and collected from testimony. There isn’t even enough evidence for Italian police to verify their identities.
The lack of concrete evidence about what happened to the Ghost Boat frustrates Bonomo as well as me. If the boat left the shore and sank, did it sink in Libyan waters, international waters, or Italian waters? Like everyone else who has looked into the case, he doesn’t even know if the boat left the shore. With no access and no information, how could he have opened an investigation?
Instead, he had to focus his work on people operating on Italian soil, or, like Measho, who passed through Italy before traveling elsewhere in Europe. In fact, he takes great care to point out that Measho is not accused of any crimes related to the Ghost Boat’s disappearance.
Measho’s trial is scheduled to begin in December and Bonomo expects the sentencing to be complete by January. “He asked for an abbreviated trial,” Bonomo says. He is accused of smuggling, but isn’t being considered as a high-ranking figure in the organization: if convicted, Measho faces up to eight years in prison. “Normally it would be twelve, but because of the abbreviated trial, the sentence is shorter,” adds Bonomo.
Listening to him explain the investigation and the trial, especially their limitations, I was reminded of what Berhane said to me in Milan a week earlier: “I’m happy he was arrested because he is a smuggler, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
The trial may or may not result in guilty verdicts and jail sentences. Some of the gang, like Measho, claim they were refugees who merely became part of the operation in order to pay for their own passage. But without the ability to follow up in Libya, I was left wondering what the investigation had accomplished in the larger scale of things.
It did not stop Jamal el-Saoudi from continuing his business as a smuggler. It did nothing to end the limbo of the family members searching for their missing loved ones, and, even with the arrests, it did nothing to slow the flow of people across the Mediterranean.
The smugglers arrested were certainly breaking the law and part of a network involved in dubious practices that ranged from kidnapping to endangering people’s lives by sending them across the sea on overpacked, unseaworthy boats without safety equipment. However, Salvago told me that there was no evidence that they were trafficking people for the purpose of labor exploitation or prostitution. At best, they were unscrupulous businessmen in an unregulated and dangerous industry. At worst, they were directly involved in or party to the routine violence and death of smuggling in Libya and across the Mediterranean.
But was arresting them and other smugglers a step toward addressing the refugee crisis? Would it provide answers for people like Yafet, who is still searching for information about his missing wife Segen and two-year-old daughter Abigail? Would it do anything to prevent tragedies like the Ghost Boat from happening in the first place?
Even the leaked document from the Tokhla investigation acknowledges the broader context of a broken system.
The reason for the clandestine nature of these movements of migrants on Italian territory, organized by the above-said criminal network, is because of the applicable laws on immigration (particularly the Dublin II regulation — European law on asylum establishing migrants are required to apply in the first European country of entry): identification on Italian territory would involve the requirement to apply for asylum in Italy. However, migrants coming from north Africa prefer to move to north European countries, both due to the social integration programs available there and to rejoin their family members already living there.
Dr. Alganesh Fessaha, the Eritrean human rights activist to whom I recently spoke, also told me that people are pushed into braving the treacherous and often deadly journeys over land and sea because the alternative is waiting for up to a decade in the squalid limbo of refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan while their resettlement applications are processed. Even after waiting there, resettlement isn’t guaranteed.
As of January 2014, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized about 340,000 Eritreans outside of the country as people of concern. Since then, around 5,000 people have fled Eritrea each month. Because of the human rights situation in their country, Eritreans are almost always recognized as refugees and granted asylum when they apply in the European Union.
But because of the absence of adequate legal avenues to seek asylum—there is no officially sanctioned way to reach Europe outside of the interminable wait—the two options left to people fleeing conflict, repression, and other human rights abuses are either to stay put in precarious transit countries or attempt to reach Europe irregularly.
“Once somebody gets here, the Geneva Convention on Refugees very clearly says, if you come in irregularly it doesn’t matter. You still have an absolute right to file a claim for asylum,” Professor Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a lecturer in migration and politics at the Brussels School of International Studies, told me over the phone.
“Right now, if an Eritrean wants to claim asylum in the EU, he or she basically has to come in irregularly… By trying to stop smugglers, allegedly in the name of human rights, allegedly in the name of protecting people from abuses that smugglers are going to submit them to… it could ultimately close down the possibility of claiming asylum in Europe, if you take it to its logical extreme.”
Perhaps arresting people satisfied the dictates of Italian and European law, but it did not provide answers for the family members of the 243 missing people. When it came to the Ghost Boat, searching for an answer was never even a possibility.
After speaking with Bonomo and Salvago and going through the leaked document, I had more information to guide me, but it was clear that the answers were not here.
What could we find out? How could we guide the search on land and at sea? There was still the information our readers were digging into, the search at sea, and Mare Nostrum, the rescue operation at the time of the disappearance that might know something about the events of those days.
And then there was the Tokhla gang themselves.
“One of the very few people who could have an answer, if he is willing to talk, is Measho,” Salvago told me. But would it be possible for me to arrange a meeting with him in Italian jail? Would he even be willing to meet?
Otherwise, the answers to the mystery of the Ghost Boat still lie in Libya. But that is not a place you rush into with a voice recorder, a notebook, and a cameraman. It’s going to take some methodical planning to find the right local sources and develop a strategy to find the answers we need on the ground.
This story was written by Eric Reidy, with reporting assistance from Martino Galliolo. It was edited by Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Rebecca Cohen and copy-edited by Rachel Glickhouse. Translation by Monica Cainarca. Art direction by Noah Rabinowitz. Photography by Gianni Cipriano for Medium.
You can help us find the truth.
We don’t just want you to read this story. We want you to be part of making this investigation work. Right now we are looking closely at shipping movements, and working on clues from geodata, and reading into the posts made by family members.
There’s so much more we can do to find out what took place.