Dimming the lights on their patrol boat, Tunisian coastguards stand in silence scanning the sea for speedboats on clandestine missions to and from Italy.
Smuggling gangs are using high-performance vessels to ferry people, drugs and cigarettes across the Strait of Sicily, a distance of just 95 miles (150 kilometres).
Commander Mohamed Naceur Saadani says their use of speedboats is a “new and dangerous” phenomenon.
Standing on the bridge of a patrol boat capable of 40 knots (about 70 kilometres, 45 miles per hour), he monitors a bank of glowing radar screens.
Patrolling Tunisia’s northern coast during a 24-hour operation, the crew are on particularly high alert at night, as the smugglers prefer to operate under cover of darkness.
Migrants seeking a better future have long used Tunisia as a launchpad for bids to reach Europe.
But amid the turmoil that followed Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that unseated strongman president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, smugglers have strengthened links between the North African country and Italy, Saadani said.
That shows that “a major international network is behind the operation”, says Mohamed Walid Ben Ali, a coastguard at La Goulette port on the edge of Tunis.
National Guard spokesman Khalifa Chibani says Tunisia is mainly a transit point and the drugs are destined for neighbouring countries, particularly Libya.
– ‘Faster boats than ours’ –
Saadani says traffickers had not previously been able to get drugs into Tunisia thanks to navy operations, but that if they succeeded once they would likely ramp up their operations.
Smugglers who reach the Tunisian shore can load a boat with clandestine migrants and cheap cigarettes and set off again in as little as 15 minutes, he adds.
Chibani says that in late 2016 and early 2017, the coastguard spotted five speedboats from Italy, but they managed to escape.
The smugglers’ high-tech equipment could be also used for “terrorist operations,” he says.
“That represents a danger not just for Tunisia but also for Europe.”