The Tunisian prime minister has embarked on a sweeping crackdown against organized crime, arresting nearly a dozen mafia bosses and smuggling barons in recent weeks in an effort to stamp out what has become a nearly existential threat to the young democracy.
The campaign, led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, is proving popular among Tunisians frustrated at increasingly brazen corruption, a stagnating economy and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The drive has surprised nearly everyone for its vigor, but it is not without risks, as the mafia bosses have become so powerful that financial and political analysts say they present a threat as dangerous as terrorism.
“It is a war, not a one-off battle,” Mr. Chahed, 41, a soft-spoken agricultural engineer, who worked for several years on development programs at the United States Embassy in Tunis, said in an interview this month. “We are going to continue to the end. It is very important for the Tunisian economy, for the security of the territory.”
“democratization of corruption,” as crime bosses have paid for influence in the media, political parties and the police and judiciary.
Mr. Chahed declared a war on corruption when he took over the government in August, with little evident progress. But now he is casting the problem as a security issue.
“We are persuaded there is a link between smuggling, terrorism financing, cross-border activities and also capital flight,” Mr. Chahed said, promising more arrests ahead.
Already they are piling up. This month, Moncef el Materi, a close associate linked by marriage to the former president and his wife, was arrested in France, apparently at the request of the Tunisian authorities. He had been wanted since 2011.
One of the biggest smuggling barons, Chafik Jarraya, was arrested May 23 and charged with treason and intelligence links to a neighboring country — widely understood to be Libya. He is in military custody and will appear before a military tribunal.
At least nine others have been detained under the country’s state of emergency law. Preliminary charges include smuggling, the illegal registration of real estate and failure to report income, according to news agency reports.
Human Rights Watch, among others, has criticized the government’s use of a military tribunal and state of emergency laws to try civilians, but the prime minister insisted that everything was within the law.
“We are not targeting people but the whole system,” he added. “Our aim is to dissect the systems of trafficking, to break the smuggling networks and to reveal the financing and sites of this phenomenon.”
Corruption has been suffocating Tunisia’s economy, which was already battered by a wave of bloody terrorism attacks in 2015 and 2016. Corruption in public contracting alone is costing the country nearly $1 billion a year, according to Chawki Tabib, the head of the anticorruption agency.
The most serious abuse is within public institutions, and involves hundreds of civil servants and members of the administration, as well as officials in Tunisia’s maritime ports and customs areas. Already, 21 customs officials have been removed from their posts, and 35 others have been referred to a disciplinary tribunal.
Mr. Chahed, who will visit the United States next month to push for more security assistance and investment in Tunisia, has been under growing pressure from international financial institutions to take on the problem. Yet it may have been startling revelations from one of the biggest criminal bosses that left him with little choice but to act.
On May 19, Imed Trabelsi, a wealthy businessman and favored nephew of the former first lady, testified before Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission.