The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

2. Marseille: America's Heroin Laboratory

FOR MOST Americans, Marseille means only heroin, but for the French this bustling Mediterranean port represents the best and the worst of their national traditions. Marseille has been the crossroads of France's empire, a stronghold of its labor movement, and the capital of its underworld. Through its port have swarmed citizens on their way to colonial outposts, notably in North Africa and Indochina, and "natives" permanently or temporarily immigrating to the mother country. Marseille has long had a tradition of working class militancy-it was a group of citizens from Marseille who marched to Paris during the French Revolution singing the song that later became France's national anthem, La Marseillaise. The city later became a stronghold of the French Communist party, and was the hard core of the violent general strikes that racked France in the late 1940s. And since the turn of the century Marseille has been depicted in French novels, pulp magazines, and newspapers as a city crowded with gunmen and desperadoes of every description-a veritable "Chicago" of France.

Traditionally, these gunmen and desperadoes are not properly French by language or culture-they are Corsican. Unlike the gangsters in most other French cities, who are highly individualistic and operate in small, ad hoc bands, Marseille's criminals belong to tightly structured clans, all of which recognize a common hierarchy of power and prestige. This cohesiveness on the part of the Corsican syndicates has made them an ideal counterweight to the city's powerful Communist labor unions.

Almost inevitably, all the foreign powers and corrupt politicians who have ruled Marseille for the last forty years have allied themselves with the Corsican syndicates: French Fascists used them to battle Communist demonstrators in the 1930s; the Nazi Gestapo used them to spy on the Communist underground during World War II; and the CIA paid them to break Communist strikes in 1947 and 1950. The last of these alliances proved the most significant, since it put the Corsicans in a powerful enough position to establish Marseille as the postwar heroin capital of the Western world and to cement a long-term partnership with Mafia drug distributors.

The Corsicans had always cooperated well with the Sicilians, for there are striking similarities of culture and tradition between the two groups. Separated by only three hundred miles of blue Mediterranean water, both Sicily and Corsica are arid, mountainous islands lying off the west coast of the Italian peninsula. Although Corsica has been a French province since the late 1700s, its people have been strongly influenced by Italian Catholic culture. Corsicans and Sicilians share a fierce pride in family and village that has given both islands a long history of armed resistance to foreign invaders and a heritage of bloody family vendettas. And their common poverty has resulted in the emigration of their most ambitious sons. Just as Sicily has sent her young men to America and the industrial metropolises of northern Italy, so Corsica sent hers to French Indochina and the port city of Marseille. After generations of migration, Corsicans account for over 10 percent of Marseille's population.

Despite all of the strong similarities between Corsican and Sicilian society, Marseille's Corsican gangsters do not belong to any monolithic "Corsican Mafia." In their pursuit of crime and profit, the Mafia and the Corsican syndicates have adopted different styles, different techniques. The Mafia, both in Sicily and the United States, is organized and operated like a plundering army. While "the Grand Council" or "the Commission" maps strategy on the national level, each regional "family" has a strict hierarchy with a "boss", "underboss," "lieutenants," and "soldiers." Rivals are eliminated through brute force, "territory" is assigned to each boss, and legions of mafiosi use every conceivable racket-prostitution, gambling, narcotics, protection-to milk the population dry. Over the last century the Mafia had devoted most of its energies to occupying and exploiting western Sicily and urban America.

In contrast, Corsican racketeers have formed smaller, more sophisticated criminal syndicates. The Corsican underworld lacks the Ma a's formal organization, although it does have a strong sense of corporate identity and almost invariably imposes a death sentence on those who divulge information to outsiders. A man who is accepted as an ordinary gangster by the Corsicans "is in the milieu," while a respected syndicate boss is known as un vrai Monsieur. The biggest of them all are known as paceri, or "peacemakers," since they can impose discipline on the members of all syndicates and mediate vendettas. While mafiosi usually lack refined criminal skills, the Corsicans are specialists in heroin manufacturing, sophisticated international smuggling, art thefts, and counterfeiting. Rather than restricting themselves to Marseille or Corsica, Corsican gangsters have migrated to Indochina, North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Canada, and the South Pacific. In spite of the enormous distances that separate them, Corsican racketeers keep in touch, cooperating smoothly and efficiently in complex intercontinental smuggling operations, which have stymied the efforts of law enforcement authorities for a quarter century.(1)

Cooperation between Corsican smugglers and Mafia drug distributors inside the United States has been the major reason why the Mafia has been able to circumvent every effort U.S. officials have made at reducing the flow of heroin into the United States since the end of World War It. When Italy responded to U.S. pressure by reducing its legal pharmaceutical heroin production in 1950-1951, the Corsicans opened clandestine laboratories in Marseille. When U.S. customs tightened up baggage checks along the eastern seaboard, the Corsicans originated new routes through Latin America. When Turkey began to phase out opium production in 1968, Corsican syndicates in Indochina developed new supplies of morphine and heroin.

Marseille is the hub of the Corsicans' international network. During the First Indochina War (1946-1954), Corsican syndicates made a fortune in illegal currency manipulations by smuggling gold bullion and paper currency between Saigon and Marseille. In the 1950s Corsican gangsters supplied a booming black market in "tax-free" cigarettes by smuggling American brands into Marseille from North Africa. Corsican heroin laboratories are located in Marseille's downtown tenements or in luxurious villas scattered through the surrounding countryside. Most of the laboratories' morphine base supplies are smuggled into the port of Marseille from Turkey or Indochina. Marseille is the key to the Corsican underworld's success, and the growth of its international smuggling operations has been linked to its political fortunes in Marseille. For, from the time of their emergence in the 1920s right down to the present day, Marseille's Corsican syndicates have been molded by the dynamics of French politics.