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. 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.

One coast guard officer in Sabratha, a Libyan coastal city, 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. “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 Moammar Gadhafi. As the boat traffic increases, so do the horrific disasters. Over the weekend, a ship packed with migrants capsized, 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.

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, 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 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. Since 2014 what little political structure Libya had has collapsed. There are two rival governments, neither with any real authority,. 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.. 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.