For decades this town on Libya’s Mediterranean coast has been a hub for trafficking between Africa and Europe. One morning in late August, Zuwara awoke to a tragedy involving the local criminals’ latest cargo: humans. That morning, 183 drowned migrants washed up on the city’s beaches. Moral outrage sparked a citywide volunteer effort to identify the victims and rescue hundreds of other people foundering at sea. It also galvanized a group of frustrated citizens-turned-policemen who had been lobbying the town’s elite to break the smugglers’ longtime grip on the town.
“Smuggling is a social disease here. It isn’t just one family that runs the business. Lots of families have their fingers in it,” said Aymen Algafaz, the 32-year-old commander of the squad known locally as the Masked Men, which has become the town’s official police force. “The feeling was that we couldn’t arrest each other’s cousins or brothers. That’s now changed.”
At an emergency meeting called the day after the tragedy, 15 of the town’s leading citizens told Mr. Algafaz they would disregard the tribal customs that had previously kept traffickers above the law. Hours later, he ordered a raid on the homes of three alleged human traffickers, arresting them and then later another dozen men allegedly in their network.
Zuwara’s attempt to take on the human-trafficking mafias shows how difficult it has been to shut down the booming black market that feeds off migrants trying to escape civil war or make a better life in Europe.
It also highlights how Libyans are trying to fill the security vacuum created by the 2011 overthrow of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Two dueling national governments have stalled attempts to build a viable coast guard or national police to patrol the North African nation’s 1,000-mile coastline.
Zuwara’s August crackdown hasn’t stopped the flow of migrants from Libyan shores. A trafficker in Tripoli, 70 miles east of Zuwara, said his business is unaffected. Last month, Libyan and European coast guards rescued more than 5,000 migrants whose ships sank in the Mediterranean. A Libyan naval spokesman said the country can’t mount a national response given the political discord.
More than 300,000 refugees and migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, up from 219,000 in all of 2014, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and at least 3,000 have died en route.
A significant percentage of those deaths have occurred on ships sailing from the Libyan coast around Zuwara, according to U.N. and Libyan officials. That area is known as a crossroads for smuggling both migrants and cheap fuel to Europe, and alcohol and cigarettes from Europe back to northern and sub-Saharan Africa.
What was a fringe business in Gadhafi’s time has blossomed into a core part of the economy, especially after layoffs at Zuwara’s main employers—a nearby oil refinery and chemical plant—because of the political uncertainty.
Diplomats and law-enforcement agencies say Zuwari gangs are responsible for smuggling tens of millions of dollars of fuel from the refinery to Tunisia, 15 miles away, and across the sea to Malta. Drugs and alcohol also are shipped through town, they say.
“It was almost fashionable to have a smuggler in the family,” said Adam Absa, a 25-year-old former hotel-management trainee who now is a member of Mr. Algafaz’s squad.
Zuwara struggled after 2011 when ex-rebels with guns turned to street crime and smuggling. The Gadhafi-era police existed in name only. There was no working police force, only neighborhood militias. The quandary was acute: Who would punish criminals with ties to notable town families and reputations as liberators?
By 2014, Mr. Algafaz and five school friends decided they were fed up with lawlessness. They had grown up with an appreciation for volunteerism. Some were former Boy Scouts. They proposed to the newly elected town council that they form a new squad to fight crime.
“I never grew up dreaming of becoming a cop. No one in Libya trusted the cops,” Mr. Algafaz said. “But no one was standing up to restore my town to a place that was safe for families, either.”
The council eagerly approved the establishment of Mr. Alfagaz’s unit—the Specialized Intervention Squad—to tackle petty crime such as robbers preying on shopkeepers, street-corner drug dealers and vandals. Squad members fielded calls from neighbors and family members who saw crimes in progress.
Establishing their street credentials wasn’t easy. Mr. Algafaz said townspeople first saw his team as just another group of thugs with arms.
The squad promoted itself via social media. Crew members made arrests while wearing black masks to reduce the likelihood of retribution attacks. They began calling themselves the Masked Men. Their numbers grew. Squad leaders said they have arrested several dozen suspected burglars and drug dealers. Some go to a makeshift prison, others into house arrest guaranteed by a family elder. Few have had formal court hearings. Criminal courts in Zuwara, as in the rest of Libya, currently operate ad hoc—a situation human-rights organizations have criticized as leading to selective justice and rights abuses.
But many Zuwara residents credit the squad with helping restore a respect for order. “There was impunity” after the revolution, said Adel Adawakh, a social worker and the town’s Boy Scout leader. “We know these are good boys looking to make our streets safer.”
Each of the 125 squad members patrol two nights a week. Their headquarters, a factory abandoned by Chinese investors, has sofas, a PlayStation and a barbecue grill. As the squad grew, its ambitions to focus on larger crimes such as smuggling were met with ambivalence by city leaders, according to team members and Mayor Hafed Ben Sassi. Its first attempt to arrest an alleged human trafficker sputtered in 2014 when the man was granted bail and disappeared, said Mr. Algafaz. “If you don’t have cooperation from the town, then you can’t accomplish your goals,” he said. “We did what we could.”
This April, Zuwara’s human traffickers were spotlighted internationally after a boat that left the Libyan city sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa and an estimated 800 people died, the largest single deadly trafficking incident in the migrant crisis this year. That tragedy sparked Europe to step up patrols in the Mediterranean and to hold top-level meetings about the issue. Still, the Libyans made no move against the smugglers.
Mayor Ben Sassi said Zuwara didn’t have the resources or equipment to stamp out the trade. He said he attended two European-sponsored anti-trafficking conferences and appealed for help buying 4×4 vehicles and patrol boats, but that Zuwara hasn’t received any aid. At the start of the summer, local residents say, Zuwari traffickers were sending would-be refugees on boats toward Europe twice a week, on average. Other black markets such as fuel smuggling also were flourishing, they say.
In the early hours of Aug. 27, smugglers launched a leaky wooden boat filled with an estimated 450 people from a beach 10 miles west of downtown Zuwara. By morning, fishermen reported corpses bobbing in the waves and, by midday, dozens of bodies had washed ashore. A second boat launched from Zuwara also sank that day, adding to the death toll. The gory scene overwhelmed volunteers who had mobilized to help. Fishermen and the town’s sole coast guard boat tried to find and rescue survivors. The Red Crescent organized teams to remove the bodies, but the town’s supply of body bags ran out. By Friday the town had rescued 187 people, but nearly as many were dead, and dozens more were unaccounted for. Photos of several drowned toddlers fueled the moral outrage. That afternoon, the mayor called an emergency meeting of the city’s tribal elders, the city council and Mr. Algafaz.
The 15 men agreed that locals responsible for human trafficking would be cut off from the extended tribal or family connections that previously had protected them from punishment. “Libyans understand the gravity of this decision. It was crucial to punish the criminals before the city’s reputation was ruined,” Mr. Ben Sassi said.
The Masked Men jumped into action. They pressured informers to talk, citing the new edict. Early the next day, the group arrested three men that it said owned the two vessels and accepted payment from the migrants for passage. Soon after, the unit arrested another 12 people who allegedly were part of the wider trafficking-support network. Family members of the three alleged ringleaders couldn’t be reached for comment. The group won’t reveal where it has detained the alleged smugglers. Mr. Absa, the squad member, said secrecy is necessary to keep other smugglers from springing the detainees.
Mr. Algafaz and the mayor concede that, with Libya’s judicial system in turmoil, the arrested men are unlikely to stand trial. The Masked Men worry that if an official judicial hearing takes place, the accused would be allowed to post bail—and then would flee. It is unclear how long they will remain in detention.
Many of the dead may never be identified. Zuwara has no official forensics squad, so volunteers, led by medics and a veterinarian, photographed possible identifying birthmarks and personal belongings found next to the bodies. Then the corpses were buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of town. Pakistani and Bangladeshi diplomats in Tripoli have confirmed that at least 35 of the 183 dead, including two children, were their nationals. No one has identified dozens of other bodies that Zuwari medical officials believe to be Syrian, Ethiopian or Eritrean.
Meanwhile, across Libya’s unpatrolled coastline, there is still a thriving market for passage to Europe. One Zuwara-based smuggler said he has been able to rebuild his business from the nearby coastal town of Sabratha. A Tripoli-based smuggler said he still works without hindrance. “Europe can’t stop the number of boats that we put in the water,” he said.
This article was originally titled as Libya’s ‘Masked Men’ Hunt Human Smugglers and written by Margaret Coker for wsj.com