An investigation by the National Police initiated in 2014 has led to the dismantling of an active criminal organization dedicated to encouraging irregular immigration of sub-Saharan citizens from El Aaiún (Disputed Territory of Western Sahara) to the Canary Islands, by means of pateras (wooden open boats).

Two of the ringleaders have been arrested in Moroccan territory by the Gendarmerie of the Kingdom of Morocco under an International Order of Detention issued by Telde’s Court of Instruction number three in Las Palmas. More than 1,500 interviews with immigrants who arrived in boats and hundreds of hours of investigation have also led to the arrest and conviction of 30 people in Spanish territories, responsible for manning the various vessels in which immigrants were transferred. Several of those arrested have been charged with crimes of reckless homicide for the deaths of eight immigrants during one of the voyages.

§ Image: CC 2.0 By Rui Ornelas

Senegalese man at the helm of the organization in Western Sahara

The investigations began in 2014, when agents detected the setting up of a criminal organization in Laayoune (the Spanish name for the city) that little by little engaged exclusively in the illegal traffic of immigrants from that zone to the Canary Islands. With more than 1,500 illegal immigrants interviewed, agents collected evidence that, together with other information, allowed them to piece together a puzzle that took them to a man of Senegalese origin.

Taking advantage of his numerous administrative and police records on file in the El Aaiún, a picture built up of this individual’s organisation progressively absorbing the rest of the criminal networks that operated in the area, eventually control the illegal business almost exclusively.

In March 2015 a patera carrying 13 immigrants of sub-Saharan origin who had been adrift for five days, without food and water and with a broken engine, was rescued – a few miles to the southwest of Gran Canaria. After the first interviews with the survivors it was concluded that at least 8 people had died, whose bodies had to be thrown overboard. These statements confirmed that the man of Senegalese origin previously investigated had organised this boat.

Image: Patera CC2.0 by Diego López Román

Between €500 and €3,000 each to reach the Canarian coast

Progress in the investigation allowed the police to identify the most prominent members of the organisation, to specify their functions, locating ‘safe houses’ and vehicles used and to figure out the amounts paid by the immigrants, ranging from €500 to €3,000 each for the illegal trip.

In addition to this, it was possible to establish contact with people who travelled aboard the boats, managing to put them safely in coordination with the Salvamento Maritimo, Maritime Rescue, to act as informants. In other cases rescue was not possible: one of the pateras suffered an accident near the Moroccan coast, drowning several of the immigrants, some of them children. In the same way, at least 4 pateras have been documented by members of this organisation to have suffered some type of accident, with almost 150 people missing, including several minors.

Monopoly of illegal traffic in the area

At its beginnings, the criminal organization coexisted with other criminal groups dedicated to the same illegal activity although they barely managed to succeed in actually getting immigrants to the Canaries, sometimes due to the actions of the authorities in Western Sahara and other times due to altercations between the organised bands themselves. The effectiveness of this disarticulated organisation allowed them to acquire such fame that they ended up driving their competitors out of business, forcing them to disappear and thereby taking over and monopolising the business of illegal people trafficking in the area.

The organization’s reach even extended to sub-Saharan immigrants who traveled from northern Morocco to Laayoune after having already failed in previous attempts to reach the Andalusian coast or been stopped jumping the Melilla fence, offering passage and a further attempt to those victims of human trafficking.

With the arrest of 32 people, 30 of whom have already entered prison, this operation is being seen as the dismantling of one of the most important criminal organisation at this time dedicated to the promotion of illegal immigration to the Canary Islands.

Source: La Provincia