A Bulgarian network that bought children from poor families and made them work as criminals in western Europe has been smashed with the simultaneous arrest of 41 Bulgarians in Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria.
The operation was led by Piero Grasso, Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor, who was behind the arrest last month of Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia capo di capi on the run for 43 years.
Investigators said children as young as nine were smuggled into western Europe and forced to commit petty thefts. They were beaten if they did not fill their daily quota. In Venice, police found a 13-year-old girl pickpocket who was eight months pregnant.
Mr Grasso said: "Whoever exploits children puts out the light of the world. To exploit children is a crime against humanity."
Gabriele Passarotto, a carabinieri officer, said: "The gang took advantage of the fact that a child under 14 cannot be arrested in Italy." He said the children were "reduced to the status of mere objects", after their families had done a deal with the gang. They either sold their children for cash, or "rented" them, obtaining a share of the profits.
There are said to be 12.3 million victims of forced labour in the world, and more than two million men, women and children are trafficked across national borders every year.