Italian authorities investigate a burned vehicle, where three people were found dead, in Cassano allo Ionio, Calabria province, Italy, on January 19, 2014. Officials said the Ndrangheta syndicate was behind the killings. File Photo by Francesco Arena/EPA
Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Italy on Wednesday began its largest legal battle against organized crime in decades, putting more than 350 defendants on trial who are linked to the powerful Ndrangheta syndicate.
Security is high for the start of the trial in Lamezia Terme, which is expected to include close to 1,000 witnesses and evidence gathered over a period of many years.
Due to the COVID-19 threat, many will appear via remote video link. Those who appear in court will wear masks and appropriately distance, officials said.
Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri is leading a government team that's collected some 24,000 wiretaps and conversations to put the criminal case against Ndrangheta together. It's a wide-ranging legal fight against literally hundreds of defendants -- which include a former senator, police chief, local council members and business figures.
Authorities arrested the defendants across Italy, as well as Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria.
Gratteri has been called a "dead man walking" by some members of the Italian mafia for his role in the case.
"You need to have broad shoulders and nerves of steel," Gratteri said of taking on Ndrangheta.
"You need to stay calm and not get caught up in emotion or tension. You need to rationalize every emotion because the goal is important and fundamental."
Gratteri, who said he won't be intimidated, pressed ahead with the trial during the pandemic because he feared the possibility that Ndrangheta could further threaten business owners and others who are already vulnerable due to the health crisis.
"I am worried that the Ndrangheta and the other mafias will be able to take advantage of the needs of merchants, hoteliers, restaurateurs in crisis," he said. "And that with the money from cocaine they can buy everything that is on sale and then through the purchase of these hotels, restaurants and pizzerias can launder money."
The trial is Italy's largest prosecution of organized crime in 30 years, and is expected to last about two years.