At least 40 migrants were found in the back of a van in one operation
Italian officers revealed the operation saw the dismantling of a major people smuggling network, which was believed to be responsible for trafficking hundreds of people across Europe.
More than 30 arrest warrants for human trafficking had been issued after a two-year investigation that documented dozens of smuggling incidents and 62 clandestine voyages.
Citing one bust, Milan prosecutor Ilda Boccassini said police had found 40 migrants crammed in the back of a van that had been padlocked shut.
Adding the smugglers treated them like “cannon fodder”, he said: ”They were having difficulty breathing when the police got them out.”
The gang are believed to have smuggled hundreds of people
The desperate migrants had paid 500 to 1,000 euros (£426 to £853) each for the illicit journey – but rather than travelling in style, they were packed "like meat" into trucks.
Photos taken at one bust showed migrants squeezed tightly together, standing up in the back of the white van – with other snaps showing men hiding underneath wooden crates.
Describing the network as a "globalisation of evil", Boccassini said it was just "a drop in the ocean" of human trafficking.
Italy, along with Greece, has been at the forefront of attempts to stem the immigration flow.
More than 180,000 migrants reached Italy last year
They were having difficulty breathing when the police got them out.
Milan prosecutor Ilda Boccassini
A record 181,000 migrants reached the central European country by boat last year, mostly from Libya, as the migrant crisis continued – compared too a previous annual record of 170,100 in 2014.
But most don’t plan on staying in Italy for long and move quickly onto other European countries where they may have family and friends, or believe they have better work prospects.
France has largely closed its border to migrants, making it tough for them to cross from Italy by road, train or on foot – and leaving many believing that handing hundreds of pounds over to smuggling rings was their only option.
Migrants Rescued in the Mediterranean
Tue, January 3, 2017
Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue all 112 on aboard, including two pregnant women and five children, as it drifts out of control in the central Mediterranean Sea, some 36 nautical miles off the Libyan coast January 2, 2017
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Migrants try to reach a rescue craft from their overcrowded raft, as lifeguards from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue all 112 on aboard
Police say they believe the criminal gang – who come from Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Albania, Romania and North Africa – operated from inside Milan.
Most of the 18 suspects wanted in Italy lived in the country legally, police said.
But about half the suspects targeted by the warrants lived outside Italy, the statement added.
Ms Boccassini said: “The logistics base was Milan, and in particular the central train station, but a walk around the city is enough for anyone to see that there are small children awaiting the next opportunity to leave.”