CAIRO — Libya's chaos has turned it into a lucrative magnet attracting migrants desperate to make the dangerous sea voyage to Europe. With no central authority to stop it, business is booming, with smugglers charging ever more as demand goes up, then using the profits to buy larger boats and heavier weapons to ensure no one dare touch them.
It's a vicious cycle that only translates into more tragedies at sea.
With each rickety boat that sets off from Libya's coast, traffickers rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. So assured are they of their impunity that they operate openly. Many even use Facebook to advertise their services to migrants desperate to flee war, repression and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
And they are armed to the teeth, often working with powerful militias in Libya that control territory and hold political power.
One coast guard officer in Sabratha, a Libyan coastal city that is a main launch point for smugglers' boats headed to Europe, said his small force can do little to stop them. Recently, he heard about a vessel about to leave but refused to send his men to halt it.
"This would be suicidal," he told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the powerful traffickers.
"When you see smugglers with anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks on the beach, and you have an automatic rifle, what are you going to do?"
If any one factor explains the dramatic jump in illegal crossings into Europe, it's Libya's turmoil since the 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. As the boat traffic increases, so do the horrific disasters. Over the weekend, a ship packed with migrants capsized off Libya, leaving at least 800 dead, the deadliest shipwreck ever in the Mediterranean. At least 1,300 people have died in the past three weeks alone, putting 2015 on track to be the deadliest year ever.
During his rule, Gadhafi struck deals with Europe to police the traffic, helping to keep the numbers down. In 2010, some 4,500 migrants made the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy, the vast majority departing from Libya, according to the EU border agency Frontex.
In 2014, that number spiraled to more than 170,000.
By comparison, just under 51,000 took the second-most-popular smuggler route into Europe in 2014 — from Turkey into Greece and the Balkans. That was about the same as in 2008.
European authorities have been scrambling to find ways to deal with the crisis. One proposal is to fund camps in countries bordering Libya to house migrants before they reach its coast. Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said Wednesday there are contingency plans for military intervention against smugglers in Libya and that Italy is willing to lead an operation if it gets U.N. backing.
In the past year, Libya's crumbling into anarchy has only accelerated. The country was plagued by multiple armed militias since Gadhafi's ouster and death, but since 2014 what little political structure Libya had has collapsed. There are two rival governments, neither with any real authority, and each fighting the other on the ground. Local militias hold sway around the country, some of them with hard-line Islamist ideologies.
The Islamic State group has emerged as a strong and brutal force, with control of at least two cities along the central and eastern parts of the Mediterranean coast and a presence in many others. Over the weekend, it issued a video showing the mass beheading of dozens of African migrants, mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians who were abducted as they tried to make it to the coast.
In the chaos, smuggling has "become an organized crime, with cross border mafias in possession of weapons, information and technology," said the head of an independent agency that studies human trafficking and tries to help migrants in Sabratha.
Extensive cross-border smuggling networks organize different legs of the journey: First from the migrants' home country to the Libyan border, then from the border to a jumping-off point on the coast, then onto boats for the Mediterranean crossing.
"We call the Mediterranean Sea 'the graveyard,'" said the agency director, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from smugglers.
Along the way, traffickers strike deals with local militias to turn a blind eye to their movements. For example, smugglers bringing Africans across Libya's southern border pay off the ethnic Tabu militia nominally tasked by the Libyan government to patrol the border, he said.
Smugglers have also raised prices, he said. Some have bought larger fishing trawlers that are ostensibly somewhat safer and can carry hundreds more migrants — and they charge up to 3,000 euros ($3,200) per person. They use the funds to buy weapons and technology — including satellite phones, GPS systems and 4-wheel-drive vehicles to move across the desert.
Migrants pay for each leg of the journey. It costs around $1,000 to get to Libya from Senegal and around $2,500 from Ethiopia, according to migration experts in those countries. But prices can vary. Italian prosecutor Maurizio Scalia, who investigates human trafficking, said the price from Ethiopia can reach as high as $5,000.
The cost for the trip across the Mediterranean depends on the type of boat and, on better vessels, which part of it the migrant is crammed into — the top deck or down below, according to several smugglers who spoke to the AP. They were reached through the Facebook pages where they advertise and gave only their first names for fear of prosecution by authorities in Tripoli.
A place on an inflatable boat — a more treacherous journey — can run $500, while relatively sturdier wooden or steel boats run from $1,000 to $2,000s, said one smuggler, Luqman, in the city of Zwara, another main launching point.
Mohammed, another smuggler in Zwara, said he runs boats to Italy — 15-meter (45-foot) wooden boats with a capacity of 200 people, or 18-meter ones with a capacity of 280. He insisted none of his boats have sunk, saying the danger was when smugglers overload their vessels, as they often do, sometimes to well over double capacity.
Each leg of the trip must be paid in advance. Migrants often scrounge together the money in their home country for the first leg, then stay for weeks in Libya working informal jobs to earn the money for the boat trip.
Scalia, the Italian prosecutor, said migrants' families in Europe often help by sending funds through an underground money transfer system known as "hawala" that avoids the traditional — and traceable — banking sector. The system runs on networks of agents working on an informal honor system to process the cash payments.
In March, the European police agency Europol formed a task force to gather information from national law enforcement agencies in Europe to map out the criminal groups organizing the migrant influx, Europol spokesman Soeren Kragh Pedersen told the AP.
While sub-Saharan Africans are smuggled across the southern borders into Libya, Syrians, who make up a significant proportion of the traffic, usually come via Algeria, since they can fly there and enter without a visa, the smugglers said.
Luqman outlined the path his network uses: A migrant arrives at the airport in Algeria, then is taken by car to a border area called Tebessa, where the smugglers arrange the crossing into Tunisia. Then it's a 250-mile (400-kilometer) journey along desert roads to the port of Zwara in Libya. Along the way, migrants may have to stay for days in a safehouse waiting for enough other migrants to arrive to make the journey, he said.
"The people who help the migrants cross from one country to the other don't deal with small numbers but big numbers. So migrants can wait in one country for a couple of days or a week until the number is enough," Luqman said.
Associated Press correspondents Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Krista Larsen in Dakar, Senegal; and Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.