TETEGHEM, France – A Mercedes and a BMW, both with British license plates, sit in a forest clearing on the edge of a small migrant camp in northern France. Everyone here speaks in whispers, or not at all. Bullet holes pock two shipping containers sheltering migrants, all trying to get to England, helping to explain the silence.
People smugglers who get rich off desperate migrants span the globe, and their tentacles extend into nooks and crannies like Teteghem, a small town outside Dunkirk. Here the smuggling kingpins are firmly in control, and growing nasty.
"Don't come see me in the camp," said a typically cautious Iranian migrant in the parking lot of a local grocery store, where talking is easier. "Problems," he added, putting his finger to his head. "Bang!"
An Iraqi migrant was wounded by gunfire in mid-August, caught in the crossfire of score-settling among smugglers, said Teteghem Mayor Franck Dhersin. This month, police chased a Mercedes driven by a suspected smuggler into a ditch at the camp entrance, the shattered glass and skid marks visible a week later. An 18-year-old Syrian displayed his bandaged right leg and a hospital report stating that "metallic" objects were removed — police bullets according to migrants, metal from bullet-punctured containers hit by smugglers, says the mayor.
Few French know of the town of Teteghem, but some migrants first heard the name in a phone call before ever leaving their homeland. It is described by Mayor Dhersin and others as a drop-off point for a band of people smugglers taking in Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians; ultimately, officials believe, the gang is locked into a Britain-based network that may stretch to Kurdish regions of the Middle East.
The migrants are among thousands of desperate travelers who pass through northern France trying to sneak onto trucks, ferries or freight trains to Britain, where they hope to find a better life.
Robert Crepinko, head of the Organized Crime Network at Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency, estimates there are roughly 30,000 suspected people smugglers operating in the 28-nation EU, with most living within the bloc. Some smugglers even advertise their services on social networks like Facebook, he said.
Crepinko says the current influx of migrants has opened new business opportunities in the organized crime world.
"Criminals who would normally deal with drugs or would normally deal with money laundering ... with other forms of crime, are using this opportunity and are making criminal profits out of the migrant crisis," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
He refused to estimate the monetary gains of the people smuggling market, saying only it is "very lucrative."
Crepinko makes a distinction between human traffickers — in which there is always a victim, be it sexual exploitation, forced labor or forced marriage — and people smugglers who provide services for people who want to go from Point A to Point B.
At the small Teteghem camp, migrants are stuck in a murky limbo short of their goal.
The camp, with a spigot of running water, public toilets and eight bright green shipping containers with electricity to shelter migrants, is high-end compared to others in France, such as the huge, squalid migrant ghetto in nearby Calais. Smugglers haunt all the camps of northern France, but they reign in tiny Teteghem; many of the migrants owe their foothold in Europe to the gangs, sucking the newcomers into an orbit of intimidation.
Interviews with the mayor, Dunkirk's top state official, police and migrants provide a picture of a camp in the grip of smugglers that local police cannot defeat.
Sitting on an artificial lake, the Teteghem camp is a near-perfect smugglers' haven, strategically located just off a highway that leads east to Belgium and west to the Eurotunnel site outside Calais, a magnet for migrants trying to cross the Channel. Its population has recently swelled with the refugee crisis that has brought nearly a half-million migrants into Europe so far this year, going from 80 to 374 at the latest count. The rise also reflects the backlog in all camps due to a security crackdown at the Calais border. Small tents now dot the Teteghem site.
The camp's relatively comfortable amenities were installed 15 months ago, paid for with public funds under the mayor's orders.
Today, Dhersin deplores the consequences of what he bitterly calls his five-star camp, saying improvements mean smugglers have become the decision-makers. They place migrants with more means in the camp, decide who lives in containers instead of tents — and charge migrants to stay. "I'm enriching the smugglers," he said.
Police are now regularly seizing smugglers' cars in the camp, like the two with British plates seen hidden in the forest.
"It's my way, as mayor, to make war on the smugglers," Dhersin said.
The cars, with steering wheel on the right side, indicating a British make, are mainly used to transport their charges to truck stops or ports, like Zeebrugge in Belgium, according to the mayor and a ranking French border police official. Cars can be specially hired in Britain for the risky job of picking up migrants and hiding them in the trunk, said the official. He spoke on condition he not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The police official said that in one instance smugglers sneaked 150 people to Britain for 4,000 euros per person. He would not elaborate on the case.
"It's like a gang," but the people keep changing, said an Iraqi migrant, wearing a woolen cap with ear flaps against the chilly night. And, he said, you never know who the people transporting you are.
"Someone takes you from Paris to here, another one will take you from here to the U.K. ... They have masks on their face," said the Iraqi, who, like other migrants in the camp, refused to be named out of fear of the smugglers. He said he was never sure where he was during his 20-day journey from Iraq to Teteghem, a trip he said cost $15,000, with a promise to cover the last leg to Britain.
By all accounts, the Teteghem camp is controlled by Kurds. Many migrants in the camp are from the same Kurdish towns or regions: Sardasht in Iran, or Hasaka in Syria or Kirkuk in Iraq; the last two have been besieged by the Islamic State group.
Migrants and an aid worker in the camp in nearby Grande-Synthe say Kurds rule there, too, with weapons and terror.
"I've seen more than 20 guns at this camp," said a 29-year-old Iranian man at the Grande-Synthe camp. He said he fled Iran because he was hounded by police after converting to Christianity.
The border police official, who has spent years tracking smugglers, confirmed that smugglers are often armed and that Kurds are the main presence in Dunkirk. He said they often come in at night to "establish order, resolve problems."
Kurds are not the only smugglers. Thirteen networks have been dismantled in northern France since the start of the year, the last two in August — both run by Albanians installed in Calais and Dunkirk. But when a network here is "decapitated" it quickly rebuilds itself, said Sub-Prefect Henri Jean, the state's highest representative in Dunkirk. "The lieutenant becomes captain," he said. "They have recruitment methods to ensure the network reconstitutes itself quickly."
Local officials and police are convinced that smugglers in the region are answering to bosses in Britain, some likely of Middle East origin. France works closely with both judicial and police officials in Britain and Belgium to take down the operations, Jean said.
Networks vary, Europol's Crepinko said, making it difficult to find a common denominator, adding that a single network may not be responsible for all stages of the journey.
"But we do (sometimes) see a link between criminal activities from the place of departure through the travel and up to the place of arrival, the destination country," he said.
Migrants in Teteghem or nearby Grande-Synthe wait eagerly for the promised final leg to Britain.
"They come to you during the night when it's dark. They take you," the Iranian at Grande-Synthe said, describing the hoped-for moment when the smugglers fetch him for his trip to Britain. "Every night I am waiting."