An email was the first sign of trouble. It was September 2016, and Pietro Gallo was writing an Italian foreign intelligence service. He was aboard the VOS Hestia (a 200-foot rescue vessel) at the tail end a mission to patrol international waters off the coast Libya. Ex-cops Floriana Ballestra, and Lucio Montanino were huddled together. After a few minutes of Google search, Gallo found a generic address for the intelligence agency. They explained to Gallo that they had seen suspicious activities by humanitarian organizations working close to the Libyan coast. They tried to contact police in Trapani (Sicilian port), but the police didn't respond because they were too busy. Nearly 200 000 people reached Italy via sea in that year, having fled Libya aboard inflatable rubber dinghies and repurposed wooden fishing boat. They were often rescued by European coast guard ships or humanitarian organizations before they reached Italian waters. Gallo looked at a map showing the Mediterranean Sea. These ships seem to pick up people close to Africa's coast, and then transport them to Europe. Over a dozen humanitarian assets were patrolling the region, including the towering Vos Hestia. He was curious: Who sent the ships to sea? They must have had so much money! Gallo was skeptical, but he knew that something was wrong and it was his responsibility to discover what. "In the Mediterranean, the shite is boiling. Later, Gallo stated that he wanted the role of a journalist and to expose what was going on in Central Mediterranean. Wiretapped conversations reveal that he also wanted to retake his police job, which he had lost due to misconduct. Or even become an undercover agent. Montanino told him that he was dreaming of a private meeting with the Polizia di Stato (the Italian national police) which reports to the Ministry of the Interior. Gallo, Ballestra and Montanino did not receive a reply to their emails. It made it into Italy's halls, at a time of growing resentment about the role of rescue organizations. Gallo's message was a target for anti-immigration politicians who were spreading theories about the alleged 'pull factor,' which the organizations had. Gallo's self-contained undercover operations led to the evidence reaching politicians in Rome, Brussels and Washington. It was eventually taken to the headquarters of Frontex in Warsaw, which is the European Union's coast guard and border agency. In the course of an extensive investigation into humanitarian organizations' work, the inquiry resulted in scores of wiretaps and rescue ships with secret microphones. Gallo's email identified one organization as especially suspect: Jugend Rettet (a small German non-profit that ran a rescue boat called the Iuventa). Four members of Jugend Rettet, who are accused of aiding and abetting illegal migration, are now on trial in Sicily. Prosecutors claim that they conspired with smugglers in order to facilitate the transport of migrants to Italy. They could be sentenced to up to 20 years imprisonment each if convicted. This would make them the first European humanitarian rescuers to be convicted for their work. The same charges are being brought against 17 other professional mariners and aid workers for their rescue efforts. The organizations that Save the Children and Medecins Sans Frontieres (or MSF) are being charged with are also the company that leased the vessels. The Intercept obtained 30,000 pages of court documents from The Intercept. This case is the most extensive in European history. These documents reveal how Italian anti-mafia prosecutor went to great lengths in order to find out more about humanitarian rescue organisations and their crews. Authorities monitored the legal protected conversations of lawyers and journalists, and hired a company that could remotely hack at most two mobile phones with powerful surveillance software. After a rescue operation off the Libyan coastline on Nov. 4, 2016, the NGO Moas in Malta and the Italian Red Cross transferred migrants and refugees to the VOS Hestia.
Pietro Gallo is tall and bald, and speaks with the resignation of someone who has heard his story many times. Gallo was able to hear the high-ranking figures of the Italian far right. He received calls from Matteo Salvini (an anti-immigration extremist who later became interior minister). He said, "Of course I feel used," and he shrugged. Gallo was speaking to us in the back patio at a hotel near Rome's airport. "This story has been a success for many people: the government and the police. After being accused of planting fake drug in the car of his romantic rival, he was fired by the Rome police department. Gallo stated that he still challenges the dismissal. In 2016, Gallo received a call from IMI Security Service. This private security firm was owned by Cristian Ricci. Gallo was informed that a search-and rescue organization was looking for security personnel to help it. Gallo stated that he noticed problems shortly after boarding the VOS Hestia. Gallo recalls that there was initially a division between the crew, mostly professional mariners and activists, and the security team, which included former police officers. It was a chaotic rescue mission. The rescues were chaotic. Dinghies were frequently surrounded by European military vessels, the Libyan Coast Guard, and sometimes Libyan fishermen who wanted to steal engines or return boats to the coast for a payment. These 'engine fishers', as they are known by humanitarian workers, are considered to be part the Libyan smuggling system. Rescuers document their work at sea using helmet-mounted cameras and onboard photographers. These images are used by the Italian police to identify dinghie pilots. They are often arrested on smuggling charges, and sometimes sentenced to decades in prison. Some images taken during rescues by VOS Hestia weren't handed over to authorities. Gallo was furious about this. Tension was building aboard the VOS Hestia several weeks after the ex-cops had sent their email. According to police reports on October 12, 2016, there had been a fight aboard the VOS Hestia between Montanino and Ballestra. Montanino hit Ballestra using a plastic plate after an argument about work shifts. Ballestra reported her colleague to Trapani police. Both Gallo and Ballestra insist that the fight was not staged. However, they admit to using it as an excuse to speak to law enforcement. Gallo still vividly recalls that meeting with police. Ballestra called Gallo from the station and said that officers wanted to know more about suspicious activities they had seen. Gallo arrived at the Trapani investigative Unit and was asked more questions about humanitarian organisations than the fight. Gallo finally believed that someone was listening. Two security guards complained to Gallo that Save the Children had placed a code on silence which prohibited crew members from speaking with law enforcement. Gallo stated that he saw the VOS Hestia's radar and noticed that the Iuventa was sailing close to the Libyan coastline. He sent the police a copy his email to intelligence service. Gallo stated that he suggested that police send an unidentified agent aboard the VOS Hestia under a contract with his employer IMI Security Services. Gallo recalls that Ricci hired him and sent him up there. He then sees the truth. On Nov. 4, 2016, a rescuer is seen standing on a ship with the Iuventa (a vessel operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet) in the background.
The Iuventa was first and only Central Mediterranean humanitarian rescue ship to call a mayday. It happened in April 2017, seven months after Gallo, the others had sent their email. The Iuventa was located 24 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, in international waters that hosts most Mediterranean shipwrecks. That weekend saw thousands fleeing Libya. The EU had earlier that year decided to reduce the distance between its rescue patrols and the search-andrescue zone by at least half a days. The logic was that making the journey more dangerous would discourage future departures. To stop smugglers using the boats again, coast guard officers began destroying them after rescues. Libyan smugglers responded by pushing more people into the sea. They were provided with a more shabby boat, with more people aboard and little fuel to get out of Libyan territorial waters. Operation Sophia's 2017 report states that the summer of 2015 was marked by "mass launches with large numbers of vessels in convoy." The Iuventa is smaller than other rescue vessels from NGO organizations. It measures just over 100 feet in length and is painted bright blue. It is small and cannot hold many rescuers. The Iuventa crew performed rescues more often and then transferred people onto larger humanitarian ships like the VOS Hestia or ships from Italy's coast guard. Iuventa's crew was also more politically oriented and willing to defy authorities for humanitarian rescue. They were closer to Libya than other organizations and elicited admiration as well as suspicion. One wiretapped conversation revealed that an employee at MSF called the Iuventa a "rebel boat." MSF employee described the Iuventa in a wiretapped conversation as a "rebel boat." Gallo had doubts about Gallo's Iuventa but was impressed by the crew's willingness and ability to rescue people in dangerous waters, even in Libyan waters. He remembered that they were courageous, fearless professionals. The Iuventa crew discovered they had a problem while at sea over Easter weekend. Their ship was being surrounded by rubber boats in trouble and there wasn't enough space for everyone to board. To create more space, the crew inflated their liferafts and connected them. Stefano Spinelli still has good memories of this weekend. Spinelli was the head of Rainbow for Africa, a medical NGO that provided medical care for rescued migrants. Spinelli was enjoying dinner in Pisa when he received a panicked call from Jugend Rettet headquarters in Berlin. They informed Spinelli that there was a storm coming and that the lifeboats were about to sink. Spinelli recalled that the captain had told him that the Iuventa couldn't navigate any more, and that he was forced to send out maydays. Spinelli stated that the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (run by the coast guard in Rome) was able divert a tanker commercial to block the waves. Although the center attempted to send coast guard vessels to rescue the Iuventa each time, they were unable to do so because the ships also found migrants and had to initiate rescue. Spinelli saw the mayday episode as a point of inflection. He stated, "If you cannot safely perform a rescue you don't have any reason to be there." "We began to think, are we doing the right thing or are we too small? A Trapani prosecutor was reexamined at a hearing that took place by the defense committee in the Italian Senate in the month following.