Three Croatian Roma families traded women on the strength of their stealing skills and used children like conscripts to a criminal army, a French court was told Monday.
A total of 27 people aged between 19 and 55 are charged by the court in Nancy, eastern France, with offences ranging from criminal association to people trafficking in a trial taking place against the background of a highly charged debate over the treatment of Roma migrants from eastern Europe.
Gilles Weintz, the police officer who took charge of a complex probe into the families' activities, said they were behind more than 100 robberies carried out in 2011 alone, in France and neighbouring parts of Belgium and Germany.
Most of them were allegedly carried out by children as young as 10.
"The burglaries were daily, all over Europe," Weintz said. "They never stopped: for the children it was like a form of military service."
Weintz said the prosecution would also present evidence of brides being bought then renounced when they did not bring in enough money.
The evidence against the families is based on the tapped phone calls of 120 suspects which the officer said had revealed a mafia-style structure in which clan chiefs were supported by a network of subordinate captains and lieutenants, who in turn ran the children at the bottom of the pyramid.
"Some of what we discovered was particularly shocking, like the father who asked his 12-year-old daughter to hide a stolen watch worth 80,000 euros in her rectum because he knew the police would not do body searches on minors."
The people trafficking charges related to the alleged purchase of wives for up to 180,000 euros each.
"The better they were at stealing, the higher the price was," Weintz added. "Young looking women also commanded higher prices because they had a better chance of passing themselves off as minors."
The officer cited the case of a woman identified as Nathalie who had been bought but failed to live up to expectations by bringing in "only" 200,000 euros over two years.
"A Roma court ordered her family to pay back 100,000 euros but the amount was finally reduced to 55,000 to take into account the sexual abuse she had suffered."
The children meanwhile were expected to bring in up to 5,000 euros per month each in the form of stolen goods that were then sold on through fences in France and Germany, helping to finance luxury lifestyles for the clan chiefs, some of whom owned upscale properties in Slavonski Brod in Croatia.
The suspected supremo of the whole operation -- a 66-year-old woman -- is to be tried separately from the 27 suspects on trial here.
Lawyers for the defendants contest the people trafficking charges, saying the financial transactions were part of traditional dowry arrangements.
They are expected to challenge the extent to which the prosecution case is based on evidence garnered from phone tapping.
Defence lawyers also questioned whether their clients could reasonably expect a fair trial in light of the current atmosphere of hostility towards Roma in France amid ongoing controversy over a claim by Interior Minister Manuel Valls that most of them will never assimilate into French society and should be deported.
"I hope there will not be a judicial stigmatisation as there is currently a political stigmatisation," said Alain Behr, a lawyer for one of the alleged clan leaders.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]