Eight alleged members of the band were arrested on Saturday, after a three month investigation during which 15 children were traced and placed in care.
Ostensibly destined for adoption, children aged between three and 12 were bought or kidnapped from their parents in poor Somali villages. The adults received a pittance for parting with their offspring. The children have been brought to Italy at a rate of up to three a week over the past 18 months, police said.
Transported in the boots of cars, as parcels, or inside luggage, the terrified, starving children were taken to Mogadishu and then flown or shipped to Rome, where three couples who are now behind bars fattened them up before escorting them to their final destination.
Police have found catalogues, circulated in Europe and north America, containing photographs of the Somali children available for adoption, with price tags of up to 50m lire (pounds 20,000) for the youngest. They voiced serious concern, however, over the fate of the older children, pointing out that few people seeking to adopt would be interested in children of that age.
The three mixed Italo-Somali couples, all of whom have young children of their own, were used to ship the Somali children on once they had reached Rome and been prepared physically for the next stage in their ordeal: with no photograph of children under the age of 10 needed on passports, the couples could ferry the children to their final destination, passing them off as their own.
Providing the necessary seal of legality to the operation, police allege, was Cahie Douglas Hassan Duale, a leading member of Rome's sizeable Somali community and a well known lawyer with chambers in the prestigious Borgo area, overlooking St Peter's.
The arrest of Mr Duale, who is defence lawyer for the Somali warlord, Abdulli Mussa Bogar, has reopened the as yet unsolved mystery of the fatal shooting in Mogadishu in 1994 of the Italian journalist, Ilaria Alpi, and a cameraman, Milan Hrovatin.
Mr Bogar, the Sultan of Bosaso, was the last person interviewed by Alpi, shortly before she and Hrovatin were gunned down in what was clearly a premeditated killing in mid-afternoon on a busy city street. The interview focused on illegal arms trafficking between Italy and Somalia, but may also, investigators now believe, have touched on the trade in children.
Italian magistrates investigating the murder recently opened an inquiry into the administrators of an orphanage in Somalia who came forward voluntarily with information on Mr Bogar but provided false data which was obviously intended to confuse the investigation.
According to Rome police, the couples who hosted the Somali children in Italy reaped no great financial benefit from their part in the smuggling operation. The bulk of the earnings appears to have remained in Somalia, though couriers there responsible for seizing the children and taking them to Mogadishu were similarly ill paid.
The money may have gone to fund the political ambitions of some of the smuggling group's alleged members: Mr Duale is said to have harboured hopes of forming a new government in Somalia after the death of the leading warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed.Reuse content