Libyans long warned of ‘Maltese mafia’ smuggling fuel across the Mediterranean

Fuel smuggling and the lucrative business that connects Libyan, Maltese and Italian criminals has been ignored by law enforcement 

Libya’s attorney general, Sadiq Al-Sour: It is known that Maltese businessmen are heavily involved in smuggling
Libya’s attorney general, Sadiq Al-Sour: It is known that Maltese businessmen are heavily involved in smuggling

Arrests by Italian police of two Maltese men suspected of involvement in a €30 million diesel smuggling operation, have fuelled the speculation on the extent of organised crime in Malta and its Italian connections.

The Italian press was the first to lead with the arrest of former Malta international Darren Debono in Lampedusa, accused by prosecutors in Catania of having organised the sea transport of fuel oil smuggled from Libya.

Another Maltese, Gordon Debono was arrested in Catania on Friday. A month earlier, ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa was arrested in Tripoli by the Rada militia. Another wanted man is the mafia associated Nicola Orazio Romeo, who at one point had companies registered at the same San Gwann address where another Debono-Khalifa company, ADJ Trading, was registered. That company is now in dissolution.

According to interceptions by the Italian police, the syndicate would use the operations of an Italian company, Maxcom Bunker, to sell cheap fuel oil at competitive prices outside Italy.

“They come to meet us at the border... that way we are safer, understand?” Debono was heard saying in one of the interceptions. He was recalling how a militia had escorted him and Orazio Romeo to the Tunisian border to meet Ben Khalifa. “We are the most organised in Libya,” he was heard saying according to the interception.

Stories of fuel smuggling from Libya are not new, but it was freelance journalist Ann Marlowe whose piece in the Asia Times, and later also journalists for the Wall Street Journal, who documented the ship-to-ship transport of the smuggled oil.

Then a United Nations experts report confirmed the movements of ships such as the Basbosa Star and Bonu 5, managed by the ADJ Trading company that included both Debono and Bin Khalifa as shareholders. Satellite tracking enabled the ships being located side by side while the fuel oil was being on-boarded from one vessel to the other.

The Basbosa Star was one vessel UN investigators and western security officials focused on. In January 2015, the ship loaded its 1,621-ton capacity hold with liquids off the coast of Libya and headed for Malta. Five times over the following two months, the tanker pumped some of its cargo into the hold of another fuel vessel, which made deliveries to a fuel-tank depot in Malta, according to the officials and Windward data company.

The data company can determine when a vessel is loaded or unloaded using radio signals sent by vessels detailing how low they are sitting in the water.

Security officials had told the Wall Street Journal that they suspected the Basbosa Star was smuggling motor fuel to Europe from Libya. The centre of the illegal trade is in the western port of Zuwara, from where smuggling king Fahmi Bin Khalifa was based. And it was with Darren Debono, a restaurant owner, that he formed a company that has since been dissolved, Debono’s lawyers recently told MaltaToday. They have also denied ever owning the Basbosa Star. But Equasis data states that ADJ Swordfish of San Gwann was its ship manager and beneficial owner.

With Malta still reeling from the car bomb murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, it is as yet unclear as to whether the car bomb used in her execution was similar to those used in the murder of other men related to the fishing industry – an industry long believed to be on the sidelines of the fuel smuggling trade.

In 2016, fisherman Martin Cachia was killed in a car bomb in Marsaskala. Cachia, 56, was registered as a fisherman and had pending charges for drug trafficking, human smuggling and contraband cigarettes, and was part of a probe into the smuggling of fuel from Libya.

In 2014, Marsaxlokk restaurateur Darren Degabriele, 35, also died in an explosion set off in his vehicle by a device suspected to have been a home-made bomb. He was the owner of a fishing trawler.

In January 2017, Libya called for more collaboration from the Maltese authorities to stop the “smuggling of Libyan fuels by Maltese mafia”, which according to Attorney General Sadiq AlSour was happening every day.

Announcing a wide-ranging probe to stop the rampant smuggling of refined fuel products, particularly petrol and diesel, from Libyan ports, the office of the Libyan Attorney General said it had issued arrest warrants against a number of executives in the Libyan oil industry suspected of collaborating in fuel smuggling.

Sadiq Al-Sour pointed an accusatory finger at Malta, saying it was a known secret Maltese businessmen were heavily involved in the smuggling. “Maltese and Italian mafias are sending oil vessels on a daily basis to receive the fuel smuggled from Libya. We arrested some of those smugglers, and they were from Italy, Malta and the Ukraine,” he said.

Foreign Minister George Vella had back in January said that he did not know of the matter and referred it to the police. “Whenever we have reports we always pass the information to the police. That’s all we can do.”