Police arrested 34 people on Monday including 18 in Italy, smashing an alleged gang that trafficked hundreds of migrants to Europe "like meat to the slaughterhouse," prosecutors said.
After the perilous boat journey from North Africa to Europe, the alleged gang's victims paid up to a further 1,000 euros each for their transport from Sicily across Italy by train or bus to the French border.
From there they were packed into trucks and driven to northern Europe, usually at night, prosecutors said.
Dozens of migrants and refugees were treated like "meat for the slaughterhouse" on the journey and were forced to lie piled inside the locked trucks, prosecutor Ilda Boccassini told reporters in Milan.
"We are seeing the globalisation of evil," she said.
The "well organised" gang was based in the northern Italian city of Milan and operated in the northwest Italian coastal town of Ventimiglia, the Sicilian port city of Catania and the southern French coastal city of Nice, according to investigators.
The alleged gang's leadership was Egyptian and its members included Sudanese, Tunisian, Albanian and Afghan nationals, as well as Romanians and Italians. Many of the suspects were legally resident in Italy, prosecutors said.
During the nearly two-year-long probe that led to Monday's bust, investigators tracked road journeys arranged by the alleged gang in which up to 41 people including minors were crammed inside trucks in suffocating conditions, according to investigators.
The alleged gang also packed their passengers into cars and vans sometimes hid them inside crates or inside the car boots, investigators said.
Some of the suspects had the same nationalities as the migrants and refugees they trafficked, Boccassini said.
Many of the migrants and refugees were Syrians aiming to reach France, Germany and Sweden, prosecutors said.
Italy's interior minister Marco Minniti praised Monday's arrests.
"This operation is especially important because it strikes a body blow at human traffickers," Minniti said in a statement.
"They are ruthless criminals who for their ill-gotten gains exploit people in dire situations and whose lives are in danger," he added.