MILAN (AP) — Traffickers in a migrant smuggling cell busted in a cross-national investigation administered sleeping pills to children to prevent them from making noise as they were carried at night across the Croatian-Slovenian border, Italian police said Thursday.
Police in the northeastern Italian city of Trieste identified 26 suspects in the cell, part of a larger ring, all Albanian and Kosovo citizens, many residents of Italy. Seven have been arrested, six were being sought on arrest warrants on suspicion of criminal association aimed at aiding illegal immigration and another 13 remained under investigation.
The investigation was launched in 2021, before Croatia dropped its border controls earlier this year upon joining the EU’s Schengen-area passport-free travel zone.
According to Italian police, migrants were brought by car to the Croatian-Slovenian border, then walked across at night, and picked up on the other side. While children were given sleeping pills, adults were jacked up on “huge amounts” of energy drinks to make the trek.
“They were using shameful methods,” Trieste police chief Pietro Ostuni told The Associated Press.
In some instances, the smugglers beat up the migrants to make them walk, police said. Migrants paid between 200 euros and 250 euros for the border crossing, a key part of the so-called Balkan smuggling route.
The people being smuggled were mostly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, along with some Syrians, Ostuni said.
Prefect Francesco Messina said the cell of 26 was broken up with help from Croatian and Slovenian police. Most of the migrants being trafficked across the border did not intend for Italy to be their final destination, he added.
Messina did not say what their final destination was but it is common for migrants to want to head to northern Europe.
“This is of course a limited operation and won’t lower the passage of migrants in the short-term, but it creates an awareness that can bring us to a greater containment of this phenomenon,” he said.