Over the last three years or so there have been so many killings, murders, assassinations, call them what you will, of men involved in smuggling-related organised crime that they are now impossible to ignore. The smuggling includes people, drugs, fuel, cigarettes and more rarely weapons, but it’s going on relentlessly and the market is clearly growing or there would not be all these murders. People sometimes assume that the network is a simple one and that is designed to get the stuff into Malta, but that is just a fraction of what’s going on. Malta is used as a smuggling route into Europe. It’s just about the only relevance in the 21st century of that geographical position politicians keep going on about, the one they hope will make Malta a hub. It’s a hub all right, and it’s been a hub for years: a hub for smuggling fuel, people, cigarettes and illegal drugs (and sometimes weapons) into Europe from outside Europe.
The routes and methods have been used for years. Around 15 years ago, there was a big investigation which included the Northern Irish police, who visited the island for the purpose, into the way contraband cigarettes were being smuggled via Libya, through intermediaries in Malta, and all the way up to Northern Ireland, where they were sold to the benefit of members of the Irish Republican Army. Apparently, from what I could gather at the time, the contraband cigarettes followed the same smuggling routes and even used at least part of the same networks that were used to smuggle weapons from Gaddafi’s Libya to the IRA at the height of the terrorism era.
I mention this because it is one way of illustrating that Maltese criminals have a long and expert history in smuggling – that it is, indeed, one of the island’s historic enterprises, one of its less-than-great traditions. Developments over the last few decades have killed off Malta’s status as a geographically-convenient hub for legitimate endeavours, but when you need to operate below the radar, it is perfectly positioned and also has a good-sized population of criminally-inclined individuals who can cooperate, whether it is with their pseudo-fishing vessels and fishing licences or with their financial services expertise.
People marvel at the way the Maltese economy always seem to be thriving, the way buildings are forever popping up and being bought and sold, the way every time there is a bond issue or government stocks, it mops up millions upon millions in liquidity. Only a fool would think it is all legitimate. Unfortunately, people’s imagination seems not to stretch beyond tax evasion – evading tax, that is, on money that is legitimately earned. It seems few people think in terms of the real source of a lot of this money, and that source is crime. I state it as a fact because it is undeniably so. Organised crime, mainly smuggling, is a huge business for Maltese people. That’s why they’re all busy killing each other or trying to kill each other. You don’t do that over pennies and cents.
You do that when the stakes are high and when the earnings are enormous. It’s a cash business, too. Nobody writes you a cheque for a few kilos of cocaine, a container of contraband cigarettes, or a boatload of desperate Syrians. All that cash can’t be deposited in the banks. It can’t be kept at home, either - no matter how thick your mattress is (I am tempted to mention the former Police & Army Minister here). So it is ploughed straight back into the economy. It is laundered through restaurants – Darren Degabriele, the smuggler blown up by a car bomb 18 months ago, had a restaurant – or through real estate. It is laundered through shops that don’t seem to make financial sense, which are used as a front for something that does make financial sense, but which is illegal. It is spent in relatively small amounts that don’t get noticed individually (swimming-pools, wild animals, cars, things for the home, travel) or spent in very large amounts on small things that don’t get noticed, at shops that have no reporting requirements in the same way that real estate agents or stockbrokers do: jewellery and diamonds, for instance. Those are a perennial favourite.
There seems to be no end to it. Politicians on both sides of the House never talk about this terrible problem – when was the last time any politician mentioned it, if at all? – and the police appear to be grappling with just the tip of it. I fear that it may be one of the worst sources of corruption, because as organised crime grows, it draws into its network key people in the separate powers of the state. There were signs, with corruption in the judiciary, that this had been happening for a while already. But it has to have gone way beyond that. It is the only way organised crime can grow and survive beyond a certain level. And by the look of things, it has more than surpassed that level already.