The smugglers responsible for driving 71 migrants to their deaths in the back of a cramped, unventilated truck in Austria were part of a vast international syndicate that has been a subject of multiple criminal investigations, a leading European law enforcement official said Saturday.

Just four relatively low-level operatives have been arrested in connection with the deaths, which were discovered Thursday when authorities pried open the door to an abandoned truck emitting a noxious odor on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna.

But Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said in an interview that his organization and national law enforcement agencies were “working urgently” to catch the ringleaders of an operation that epitomizes the rapid expansion and increasing sophistication of human smuggling networks across the continent.

“It was a direct hit in our systems,” said Wainwright, whose agency serves as the law enforcement arm of the 28-member European Union. “We were able to make intelligence connections with many other cases that we’re currently working on across Europe.”

The horrifying nature of the deaths has drawn attention as never before to the smugglers who have become instrumental and much-loathed players in the migrant crisis that is playing out across Europe.

Exponentially growing scale

From European capitals to the White House, leaders in recent days have called for a fresh crackdown on the networks that have enabled more than 300,000 migrants to reach the continent this year, while also leading at least 2,600 more to their deaths.

But the smugglers are becoming harder to combat as their operations become more agile, more international and more innovative in their use of new tools such as social media, Wainwright said.

The exponentially growing scale, too, has proved a difficult impediment for police and intelligence services.

That growth was on display Saturday in the southeastern Hungarian city of Kecskemet, where the four detained suspects went before a judge, who granted a prosecutor’s request to extend their detention.

The city’s chief justice, Ferenc Bicskei, said the court has seen a surge this year from three or four cases of migrant smuggling a month to 25 or 30.

“It was only a matter of time before a tragedy like this happened,” Bicskei said. The vast influx of refugees fleeing conflict and oppression had brought with it “many people who are trafficking migrants and trying to make money off of them.”

The increase in smuggler cases in Kecskemet has been mirrored across Hungary, where police officials say 827 cases have been registered this year, compared with 593 in all of last year.

A record number of migrants and refugees are attempting perilous journeys to find a safer, better life in Europe. Here's why they're leaving and how they're being received. (Jason Aldag and Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
Spotlight on one city

But none have received anywhere near the attention of this case.

[A glimpse of what it’s like for refugees transported in a small van]

On Saturday, a rare media spotlight shined on Kecskemet, a city of art nouveau and domed buildings where the four suspects were taken before a judge in the local courthouse as cameras flashed.

The men, three Bulgarians and one Afghan, appeared largely emotionless as they entered the court, though the youngest — in a blue T-shirt — smiled wanly at the cameras.

An official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing said one of the men — whose names were not released, but whose ages were given as ranging from 28 to 50 — had lived in Hungary for many years. Authorities were still trying to determine whether the other men, all of whom were apprehended in the country’s southern border region, had been living in Hungary or were there temporarily. The truck’s suspected owner was among those detained.

Wainwright said that Europol had helped identify the four suspects after Austrian authorities handed over to the Hague-based agency information about the vehicle on Thursday and Europol ran it through its databases. He said the smuggling network that is thought to be responsible was already well-known to investigators and was being pursued in multiple countries.

A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, Gabor Schmidt, said the truck began its journey in Kecskemet and picked up the migrants after driving south toward the Serbian border. It then reversed direction and headed north through Hungary before passing into Austria.

[Refugees race into Hungary as border fence nears completion]

In court, Hungarian authorities won a request to hold the men for up to 30 days while police pursue a people-smuggling case against them that could yield sentences of up to 16 years. Austrian authorities are seeking the suspects’ extradition as part of a homicide investigation. The men, however, are pleading innocent and have appealed their extended detentions.

The dead in Austria included four children, the youngest just a year old. It remained unclear Saturday why the migrants, at least some of whom were believed to have been fleeing the war in Syria, were left to suffocate.

Another tragedy may have been narrowly averted Friday when a truck carrying 26 migrants was stopped by Austrian authorities near the German border, the Austria Press Agency reported Saturday. Among those inside the vehicle were three severely dehydrated children who were rushed to a nearby hospital. “According to doctors, they would not have withstood this ordeal for very much longer,” police official David Furtner told the APA.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, off the coast of western Libya, rescue workers continued to search Saturday for those who were cast overboard when a rickety wooden ship capsized. Jamal Naji Zubia, who heads the ­foreign-media department for the Tripoli-based “National Salvation” government, one of two rival authorities in Libya, said at least 117 people drowned and 198 were rescued after a migrant ship sank off the coast of far-western Libya.

In a statement issued late Friday from U.N. headquarters in New York, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “horrified and heartbroken” by the deaths en masse of scores of migrants on land and at sea in recent days.

In an implicit rebuke to European leaders who have squabbled for months while doing little to resolve the crisis, he demanded that governments offer “comprehensive responses, expand safe and legal channels of migration and act with humanity, compassion and in accordance with their international obligations.”

The call added to an emerging chorus amid signs that at least some European leaders are prepared to push for fundamental change in the way the continent is handling the migrant influx. Yet it remained unclear whether those efforts would succeed in overcoming the deep divisions that remain within the European Union, which works on the basis of consensus.

New community of criminals

[Map: The walls Europe is building to keep people out]

Europe has struggled to find a strategy for effectively combating smugglers, despite widespread agreement on the need to do so.

Wainwright, whose agency advises and assists law enforcement organizations across the continent, said greater coordination is needed to confront smuggler networks that are themselves more internationally integrated than ever before.

“What I’m seeing is the emergence of a new, more enterprising community of criminals,” he said.

Modern smuggling networks, he said, include people from a wide variety of ethnic and national backgrounds working together to exploit the desperation of the hundreds of thousands who are seeking a path away from war, oppression and poverty.

The networks have set up offices in refugee-heavy countries such as Turkey and promote their services with slick advertisements on social media that offer “package tours” from the war zone all the way to northern Europe.

Wainwright estimated that about a third of the migrant-smuggler cases his agency has helped investigate also involved another area of criminality, including drug smuggling, money laundering and sexual exploitation. But he said there was no hard evidence to suggest that would-be terrorists are using smuggler networks to infiltrate Europe, citing only “one or two isolated cases.”

The biggest threat from the smuggler networks, he said, is to the migrants themselves.

Faiola reported from Kecskemet. Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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