Mered Medhanie, dubbed “The General”, is said to be the mastermind of an international smuggling network responsible for the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean.
The 35-year-old Eritrean, who earned the nickname because he styled himself on former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was arrested in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in May before being extradited to Italy on Tuesday.
NCA officers from the UK Immigration Crime Taskforce, called Project Invigor, have been providing ongoing support to the Italian Operation Glauco, which commenced after 359 migrants died when a vessel sank off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013.
It is thought Medhanie ran an empire smuggling thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East into Europe by regular journeys across the Mediterranean.
Authorities said he bragged about packing migrants tightly into boats to maximize his earnings, and that he forced family members to send tranches of money for a migrant to continue on each leg of the trip, which typically included a trip across Africa, the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea and final transport to northern Europe.
During one recorded conversation Medhanie was heard laughing about the fatal overloading of migrant ships.
“This is a demonstration of how little these organisations and their bosses respect human life, the lives of all those desperate people who for various reasons attempt to reach Italy and Europe in the hope of a better life,” said Palermo chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi yesterday.
Tom Dowdall, NCA’s deputy director, said: “Medhanie is a prolific people smuggler and has absolute disregard for human life. Although he was operating thousands of miles away, his criminal activity was impacting the UK. Medhanie no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice but we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan.
“The intelligence-led operation which resulted in his capture included extensive analysis of communications data, with support from GCHQ. We were also able to use of our international network to broker strategic and operational relationships with the Sudanese authorities.
“The arrest was only possible thanks to substantial cooperation between the Sudanese National Police and the NCA, together with the Palermo Prosecutors.