Italian authorities tapped Darren Debono's phone for two years before arrest

As news of the fuel smuggling operation emerged, interceptions by the investigators show a growing apprehension inside the syndicate, to make sure payments circulated inside their offshore companies

Darren Debono was arrested in Lampedusa the day after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed
Darren Debono was arrested in Lampedusa the day after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed

Italian police investigators had been intercepting phone-calls from Darren Debono for two years in a bid to dismantle a €30 million fuel smuggling ring. The former Malta international footballer, today a restaurateur, used his fishing boats to transport smuggled fuel out of Libya so that it could be resold in Italian ports. He was arrested last week on the island of Lampedusa.

Debono formed part of a crime syndicate with Libyan smuggling kingpin Fahmi Bin Khalifa who was arrested in August by a Tripoli militia, and a Sicilian mafia associate, Nicola Orazio Romeo. Another Maltese associate, Gordon Debono, was arrested in Catania on the heels of the police operation ‘Dirty Oil’.

According to the dossier compiled by the Catanese prosecutor, the Italian investigators spent two years tapping Debono’s Maltese mobile phone – suggesting cooperation from the Malta Security Services. The interceptions depict Debono as the crucial link that made possible the transportation of Libyan oil to Italian markets, with the help of Gordon Debono, to issue false invoices.

But it was the role of investigative journalists, such as Anne Marlowe and the Wall Street Journal, which tipped the United Nations into probing the movements of Debono’s ships.

From then on, Debono found a brick wall to get his shipments validated by the Chamber of Commerce in Malta.

“I’ve spoken to the whole world over here in Malta,” a frustrated Debono says in a June 2016 call to his Italian market buyer, Marco Porta of Maxcom Bunker SpA.

“This woman here is waiting for some email to take a decision, and this son of a bitch… well it’s for nothing, because of the minister, she’s been signing everything for the last 30 years and she wants to be sure 100%,” Debono says, telling Porta he was at the foreign ministry, seeking clearance for his cargos.

But according to the Italian police dossier, at some point Debono would have suggested that the UN report would have retracted certain incriminating paragraphs in his regard “thanks to some possible connivance with persons close to the minister of the economy”.

However, no interceptions to this regard were published in the dossier.

When in 2015 journalist Ann Marlowe’s exclusive report on fuel smuggling – ‘Why does EU tolerate Libya’s smuggler kingpin as migrants drown?’ – was published in the Asia Times, Debono is heard urging caution from his acolytes, to make sure all their documentation is in order.

As news of the fuel smuggling operation emerged in the Italian press and through the United Nations’ experts’ report in 2016, interceptions by the investigators show a growing apprehension inside the syndicate, to make sure payments for the fuel are cleared and circulated inside their offshore companies.

“We have to go to the United Nations,” Debono is heard telling an associate, after having obtained a certificate of origin from the Libyan National Oil Corporation. “They are just copying what some asshole journalist from the Wall Street Journal is writing.”

The investigators said Darren Debono, Gordon Debono and c would participate in “summits” in Italy with Marco Porta, and then meet Bin Khalifa in Libya.

In a bid to hide the illicit origin of the fuel being bunkered out at sea, Gordon Debono would use the company Petroplus Ltd to issue false invoices; while Darren Debono and Romeo would use the company Oceano Blu Trading Ltd, as well as other offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, to hide the flow of money used to pay Bin Khalifa.

Once the fuel was bunkered at sea, and then acquired by Marco Porta’s Maxcom Bunker SpA in Italy, Porta would use false documentation issued by Petroplus, to hide the origin of the fuel – documents which were, possibly unknowingly, validated by the Libyan Maltese Chamber of Commerce.

Italian investigators tapping the phone-calls from Darren Debono’s San Gwann office show Debono trying to convince Porta to buy the fuel for 30c a litre.

“Listen Marco, it’s Darren… Mr Fahmi [Bin Khalifa] is selling you… you know, if you can help us a little please, we’re a family, understand?”

Debono was also intercepted coordinating the movements of the ships involved in the bunkering of the Libyan oil, showing how he had a handle on the shipping movements carrying the smuggled fuel.

Another interception, this time of Marco Porta and a Maxcom employee, makes reference to Nicola Orazio Romeo’s connections to the Sicilian underworld. Romeo, linked to the Mafia clan of Santapaola-Ercolano, was revealed by the Panama Papers of having had offshore companies at the same San Gwann address as ADJ Trading, the firm in which both Debono and Bin Khalifa were once shareholders.

“Nicola is part of the real underworld, the one nobody touches,” Porta tells a colleague. “He’s always being tapped when he is in Sicily.”

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