The Caprera, an Italian warship, was deployed to Tripoli to help combat people-smugglers in Libya. Some of its sailors gathered a cargo of contraband.
By Patrick Kingsley and
BRINDISI, Italy — By the time the Caprera, a small gray Italian warship, returned to its base in southern Italy in July 2018, it had helped intercept more than 80 migrant smuggling boats off the coast of Libya, and stopped more than 7,000 people from reaching Europe.
For this work, the Caprera won the praise of Italy’s then interior minister, Matteo Salvini, an anti-migrant nationalist, who lauded the ship for “defending our security,” as he wrote on social media. “Honor!”
There was just one problem: The Caprera was itself smuggling contraband to Europe.
During an inspection of the ship on the day it returned home, Italy’s financial police found about 700,000 contraband cigarettes and several boxes of Cialis, a medication for erectile dysfunction. All the contraband was bought when the Caprera was moored in Tripoli from March to July 2018 as part of an anti-people-smuggling mission by the Italian navy.
“I felt like Dante descending into the inferno,” said Lt. Col. Gabriele Gargano, the police officer who led the raid and a subsequent investigation. “I’ve seen many smuggling busts — but 70 sacks of cigarettes on a military vessel? I never saw that in my whole life.”
The bust has tarnished what European leaders have portrayed as a tough-minded, but principled, effort to curb migration to the continent. At the time of the incident, European states — particularly Italy — were closing their ports to migrants, criminalizing the private crews that rescued them in the Mediterranean and outsourcing responsibility for search-and-rescue operations to the Libyan Coast Guard.
A trial is now underway in Brindisi, in which five sailors are accused of involvement in the smuggling operation. But the investigation has expanded beyond just the Caprera.
Invoices seen by The New York Times show that the Caprera’s sailors purchased the cigarettes in Libya using a method apparently developed by crew members of a second Italian ship, the Capri, moored in Tripoli in January 2018. A third warship involved in the mission was raided in Naples in May on suspicion of smuggling, according to other court documents obtained by The Times.
“This thing could be much bigger and could involve more ships,” said Mr. Gargano, who is investigating crew members aboard at least one other ship. “We are expecting to see some developments.”
Documents seen by The Times and interviews with investigators and Italian officials reveal crucial details about how crew members of a ship so central to European efforts to curb people-trafficking from Libya conducted a criminal enterprise below decks.
A United Nations panel determined in 2019 that the Italian naval mission violated a U.N. arms embargo by providing repairs to one Libyan warship. But the documents reveal that the Caprera may have violated the embargo on at least three more occasions.
They also show that the mission delayed alerting the Italian Coast Guard to the presence of migrants in the southern Mediterranean so that Libyan officials could intercept and return them to war-torn Libya.
The Times has confirmed the Caprera’s involvement in the smuggling operation by interviewing police investigators; sailors serving on the mission; the Italian and Libyan coast guards; and lawyers for the defendants — and corroborated this evidence with text messages, photographs and wiretap transcripts contained within a judicial investigation and a military investigation obtained by The Times.
“I’m a bit in the poop,” one Caprera sailor, Antonio Mosca, said in a text message sent after the ship was seized. “Port authorities are onboard the Caprera. We were unloading those bags with the cigarettes.”
The events that brought the Caprera to Tripoli began in 2011, when uprisings across the Middle East left a power vacuum in much of the region, including in Libya. The unrest prompted hundreds of thousands of migrants to flee toward safety in Europe, many of them from Libya.
To block this exodus, the Italian government struck a deal in 2017 with the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.
Italy promised logistical and financial support — funded in part by the European Union — to rebuild the Libyan Coast Guard. Under the agreement, Italy donated several old Coast Guard vessels to Libya. It also deployed its own naval vessels on rotation in Tripoli to coordinate their anti-migration activities.
Since the underequipped Libyan Coast Guard lacked the radios needed to communicate with its boats at sea, its operations were secretly directed from aboard the Italian warships, despite a pledge made by Tripoli after the agreement that it would handle such activities itself, according to two sailors involved in the mission, a Libyan Coast Guard commander, evidence contained in a judicial investigation, and Mr. Salvini.
“They coordinated the rescue activities,” Mr. Salvini told The Times earlier this year.
Italy’s goal was to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to stop migrants reaching international waters — making it harder for them to be saved by a fleet of private rescue boats and Italian Coast Guard vessels that took refugees to safe harbor in Europe.
To that end, the sailors aboard the Italian warships in Tripoli would sometimes delay relaying information to the Italian Coast Guard command in Rome, according to Coast Guard logbooks viewed by The Times and an interview with an Italian Coast Guard commander.
During a botched interception coordinated by Italian sailors in November 2017, in which several migrants drowned, logbooks show the Italian ambassador to Tripoli and his naval attaché even demanded the Italian Coast Guard withdraw its boats from the area, to give the Libyan Coast Guard more space to operate.
Even before its sailors began smuggling contraband, the Caprera had apparently violated the terms of a United Nations arms embargo on at least three occasions, according to the documents. The embargo bars foreign actors from supplying arms to any faction involved in the Libyan civil war and repairing military equipment.
“We repaired the Libyans’ weapons despite the embargo,” said one engineer from the Caprera, in a phone call tapped by the police. “If this gets out, it’s a mess.”
The Italian Navy declined to comment — on either this or any other aspect of the situation.
The smuggling operation on the Caprera took shape in the spring of 2018, when sailors from the engineering department of the ship slowly filled a workshop with sacks of cigarettes. The contraband, bought in Libya, could be sold in Italy for a large markup by skirting high import duties.
A key piece of evidence for investigators are photos from a farewell party in May for Marco Corbisiero, the ship’s chief engineer, who finished his deployment aboard the Caprera before the rest of the crew. Photographs shared on the ship’s WhatsApp group showed a grinning Mr. Corbisiero sitting before a large chocolate cake baked in his honor.
Behind him were several sacks of contraband cigarettes.
Text messages and transcripts of phone calls tapped by the police later that year indicate that Mr. Corbisiero, now 44, was a key figure in the smuggling plan, prosecutors say. Mr. Corbisiero is one of the five sailors on trial in Brindisi; his lawyer, Fabrizio Lamanna, said his client had been made a scapegoat in the case.
Since late 2017, bank records showed that he received tens of thousands of dollars from private individuals, including Italian sailors, payments that investigators believe were advance fees for contraband cigarettes. Mr. Corbisiero would have stood to earn nearly $120,000 from selling the cigarettes — about $90,000 more than they cost to buy in Libya.
The majority of cigarettes were loaded onto the Caprera after Mr. Corbisiero had left the boat. Before his departure, crew members could easily move around the workshop where the cigarettes were hidden. By the time the Caprera arrived in Brindisi, the room was so full of cigarette sacks that the police officers who seized the ship could barely enter it.
Investigators believe the sailors bought the cigarettes with bank notes from a contingency fund of several hundred thousand euros, provided by the Italian state, that was kept onboard the Caprera. To cover up the embezzlement, they paid the money to an intermediary, a Libyan Coast Guard official called Hamza Bin Abulad.
Mr. Bin Abulad, now 39, had been trained in Italy by the Italian financial police. Now he worked as a liaison between the Italians and their Libyan counterparts.
Mr. Bin Abulad provided Italian sailors like Mr. Corbisiero with invoices for legitimate items like spare ship parts, stamped with the insignia of a fake company called Tikka — “trust” in Arabic.
That was a dark irony, Mr. Gargano said: Tikka’s invoices were in fact used to obscure that sailors were using Italian state money to buy large quantities of Libyan cigarettes — and the boxes of Cialis.
And there are signs that Tikka’s invoices covered far more than just cigarettes. The 18 invoices record payments worth more than $145,000. But investigators believe that only about $26,000 was spent on cigarettes — meaning that most of the items or services bought through Tikka remain unknown.
Through an intermediary, Mr. Bin Abulad declined to comment.
The Caprera returned to Italy in mid-July with what the Italian financial police say was the largest haul of contraband ever found on an Italian warship.
The ruse was rumbled when a sailor saw colleagues unloading several sacks of cigarettes onto the quay in Brindisi, and texted a photograph of them to the ship’s captain, Oscar Altiero.
“Commander, sorry to disturb you,” the sailor wrote in a message. “In these bags are those famous cartons of cigarettes.”
The ship was then seized by the financial police, sparking a 22-month investigation.
In Libya, Hamza Bin Abulad has escaped any penalty.
He was recently promoted to chief engineer of the Libyan Coast Guard.
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome.