Spain: Police pounce on gang smuggling migrants in trucks

MADRID (AP) — Police forces in nine countries helped break up a network that smuggled hundreds of Pakistanis into the European Union through the Balkans, cramming them into the back of trucks and charging them up to 20,000 euros ($23,000) each, Spanish police announced Thursday.

The migrants were transported in dangerous and inhumane conditions, with trucks usually carrying more than 50 people in a space of 8 square meters (86 square feet), Spain’s National Police said.

The operation, which lifted a lid on how smuggling gangs work, involved police from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Italy, Greece, Italy and Romania, with the EU crime agency Europol in support.

Fifteen people, including 12 Spaniards, have been detained on suspicion of having brought at least 400 people into the EU during the last eight months. Europol classified the ringleader, who was arrested in Romania, as a “high-value target.” His nationality was not disclosed.

Investigators said the gang of people smugglers gathered migrants in Pakistan and sent them to the EU through the Balkans. The Bihac refugee camp in Bosnia was the main logistic hub for the network, according to Spanish police and Europol. It was unclear how the migrants got to Bosnia.

Authorities said migrants crossed the mountains separating Bosnia from EU member Croatia on foot, with the help of smugglers.

Spanish truck drivers then transported the Pakistani travelers to the Croatia-Slovenia border. There, migrants had to walk again and rejoined the truck only once they were inside Slovenia, from where they were taken to their final destinations.

The price per person from Bosnia to Slovenia was 3,000 euros ($3,469), police said. From Bosnia to Italy it was 5,000-8,000 euros ($5,781-$9,251).

The price from Pakistan to the final EU destination country ranged from 12,000 to 20,000 euros ($13,876 to $23,127).

The trucks were rented in Spain. Spanish police said the truck drivers were fully aware of the type of load they were carrying. A car accompanied each truck to warn of possible controls ahead, according to Spanish police.

The gang’s cars and trucks were also involved in drug trafficking networks, police allege.

The operation began when Spanish police intercepted a truck carrying 77 people, four of them minors, on an undisclosed date.

The travel conditions on that trip were so dangerous that the migrants had to drill holes in the back of the truck to breathe, police said.

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