France, from French Connection to Narco-banditry. And the judge surrenders: "It’s like fighting windmills"

Written by Martina Castigliani

Cement buildings like forts in the Northern quarters of Marseille where drug trafficking reigns; the Corso-Marseillaise gangsters who control towns and weave nets reaching as far as public institutions; money laundering in the French Riviera, fugitive territory for the camorra and the ‘ndrangheta; arms trafficking in the hands of the Russians; the hidden market of slot machines. Mapping organised crime in France is no easy task due to the difficulty in accessing information in a country where, since 2015, priority has turned to the fight against terrorism. Guillaume Cotelle, the examining magistrate in Marseille who has decided to abandon his position, describes the situation: “it’s like fighting windmills” he confesses to Criminal police officer Fabrice Gardon and his colleague from Sirasco, Guilhem Depierre, say that the challenge is to arrest the young criminals before they fall victim of executions. They are violent gangs, with a “mafia-style” framework that no-one wants to call mafia. Sociologists (e.g. Laurent Mucchielli) are against this idea, believing that talk of emergency serves only to justify the repression, but also investigators who generally consider the introduction of 416 bis (the Italian crime of mafia association) as secondary. Even lawyers, like those of criminals Campanella brothers or Jean-Luc Germani, think this way, except to say that if there was a law like that, their clients would risk being accused of it. The areas with the highest level of criminality are lle-de-France, Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur and Corsica. The label of mafia is reserved to the infiltration of ‘ndrangheta and camorra in the south, an area confirmed as platform for trafficking and fugitives. Public awareness of this problem is scarce and heightening it is left to small entities such as the Italian Libera and also Crim’Halt founded by the researcher Fabrice Rizzoli, which has distinguished itself for its fight to put confiscated commodities to social use. So far without success.


In France groups of criminals have long been identified as members of the so-called “traditional grand banditry”. These organisations, explained Commissaire Divisionnaire Jean-Jacques Colombi at the European Parliament in 2012, move from “North-South from Lille to Corsica, through the regions of Paris, Lyon and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur”.

In France groups of criminals have long been identified as members of the so-called “traditional grand banditry”. These organisations, explained Commissaire Divisionnaire Jean-Jacques Colombi at the European Parliament in 2012, move from “North-South from Lille to Corsica, through the regions of Paris, Lyon and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur”.

First of all, continues Colombi, we have the Marseillese criminal organisations that are controlled by bosses (or godfathers) and are “traditionally involved in theft, drug trafficking, racketeering in discotheques, exploiting slot machines and revenge killing". According to Colombi, with the arrest of Bernard Barresi and the Campanella brothers in 2010, a “mafia-style organisation on French soil” was uncovered. Marseille was also the centre of the so-called French Connection, the network of criminal groups that supplied heroin to the US in the ‘50s-‘70s. The drug was produced in clandestine labs on the outskirts of the city. Some of the best known local criminals were involved, as was Cosa nostra with the legendary figure of Lucky Luciano. The organisation was dismantled thanks to the work of magistrate Pierre Michel, killed in 1981. Four men were condemned for his killing: the perpetrator Francois Checchi, driver Charles Altieri, and the men who ordered the hit Homère Filippi and François Girard. Michel was the second judge to be assassinated in France since the Second World War: François Renaud was killed in 1975 in Lyon but the killers remain unknown.

The situation in Corsica is noteworthy. There are frameworks that go back, more or less directly, to two clans: the Brise de mer in the North and Jean-Gé Colonna in the South. The clans that stand out at the moment are Federici, Mariani, Germani and Le Petit Bar. These are active outside the island too, in the form of the so-called Corso-Marseillaise milleau. Corsica, alleges Sirasco in its 2016 report, is where we can see “the infiltration of large-scale banditry into local politics”. The investigation into the killing of French official Jean Leccia in 2014 was decisive. “Even though there have been no developments”, the report continues, “into the reasons behind the execution, the enquiry in 2015 did however enable the opening of a judicial investigation into irregularities in local politics personified by politician Paul Giacoppi, who has been the island’s longstanding political and economical boss”. Moreover, in 2012 the President of the bar association, Antoine Sollaccaro, was killed and to date no-one has been convicted for his killing. Manuel Valls the Internal Minister at the time publicly commented on this episode using two normally unmentionable words for the French: mafia and omertà. “We need to attack, without relinquishing, without admitting defeat, this mafia, that corrupts Corsican society”. Again in 2013, after the death of the president of the Regional Natural Park Jean-Luc Chiappini: “Omertà, silence, settling business affairs with death, murder, the fact that the mafias prosper on the island.... I was the first Interior Minister to use the word mafia to define that which is today the reality of violence and organised crime on this island”. Lastly, Colombi puts in the list of large scale crime also “les milieux” (organised crime) di Lyon e Grenoble, linked to robbery and drug trafficking, the “legendary Parisian milieu” (south Banlieue) close to which we can find “business milieu” specialised in financial fraud.


The phrase was coined in 2014 by the police force of Bouches-du-Rhônes to describe the new forms of organised crime born in the cité, the suburban quarters of Marseilles. Just leave the city centre, take the road running along the port and climb north. Here the concrete jungle and washing lines hide an increasingly structured network of drug trafficking. At Castellane, one of the poorest cité, the high school is right in front of one of the buildings where drugs are sold. Wire mesh fence at the entrance and boulders as a barrier against the police, next to it a young lad in shorts and trainers sits on a square slab of cement on guard 24/24. “At the beginning of 2000” explains Fabrice Gardon, the interregional commissioner and director of the Marseille criminal police, “we saw the birth of neo-banditry, i.e. children and grandchildren of Algerian immigrants who live in the poorest areas and have evolved towards more serious types of crime such as robbery and drug trafficking. About three years ago they made contacts outside and underwent a transition into the weapons market. This is what we call narco-banditry”. Cannabis trafficking has been estimated by the Institut national des hautes études de la sécurité et de la justice (Inhesj) in 2016 to amount to more than a billion a year on a total of 2.3 billion. Followed by cocaine (902 million euro), heroin (267 million) and synthetic drugs (55 million). France is considered a transit country: cannabis arrives from Spain and Morocco and cocaine arrives from Latin America.

The “prophet” of this new generation, so-called by the journalist Xavier Monnier, is Farid Berrahma who was assassinated in 2006 in the famous massacre at the bar Les Maronniers. He was a criminal of Algerian origin punished for having dared to enlarge his territory and his revenues. Investigators still haven’t managed to decipher who the real contacts between old and new criminality are. “we don’t know” says the investigating magistrate Guillaume Cotelle, “whether the ‘oldies’, those who controlled the traffic and laundered money in bars and discotheques, are still a core”. With the arrival of the “cité youngsters”, operations appear more fluid. “We notice in some enquiries that the local sector has become international with a transnational system of money laundering, as if it were a multinational franchising activity. We get the impression that there isn’t just one head but neither are they independent from each other”.

Ninety percent of revenge killing can be attributed to drug trafficking. The victims are often very young (15-20years) and the reasons they are killed vary from personal debt to betrayal. Two ‘traditional’ signatures mark these killings: the Kalashnikov, a war weapon that transmits power but isn’t the most suited to criminality and barbecue, meaning the body is burnt after the killing. “From 2008” continues Gardon, we count 20/30 killings every year just in the Bouches-du-Rhône region”. Sirasco speaks of 123 deaths against 90 in 2014. “In 2013 we decided to change method and adopted a system called proactive: instead of investigating after a murder, we identify possible victims or those who might become killers and we open a dossier on them. In many cases they go to jail for small crimes and this gives us time: last year we had 25 deaths and solved 50% of cases. The same thing is happening in other towns, like Avignone or Paris”.


There is another element in this framework that worries investigators: Islamic radicalisation in areas where there is a strong Muslim presence. “We’ve had indications” continues Gardon, “of drug trafficking financed by radical mosques in their cite, or have given money to cover travelling to jihad land. But for the time being it is a marginal problem”. There was a case in the cité of Air Bel (Marseille): “we discovered a big trafficker was paying for trips to the Mecca to worshippers at the mosque”. The real problem though is the prisons. “Many members of narco-banditry choose radicalisation when behind bars. This is often a pose: to have more power and clean up an image”. In this way, not only are you a powerful criminal but also a man to be respected. “It’s a choice that is never continued, once out they return to what they were and abandon the good practices of Islam”. The person who knows about connections, albeit with caution, is judge Cotelle. “in some dossiers”, he explains, “we’ve noticed that there are terroristic undercurrents in the money laundering mechanisms in the middle east: for example drug traffickers pinpointed by authorities such as fiché S, as dangerous radicalised individuals. We don’t have anything concrete but we believe this should be investigated”. The sociologist Claire Duport, who has a long experience researching into those areas of youngsters who choose to become drug traffickers, denies that this is a significant problem at the moment. “We can’t make the equation that poverty equals criminality or radicalisation. Religion here is important, but it has nothing to do with terrorism. To trivialise is very dangerous and gives a false image of reality”.


According to Sirasco Marseille Chief of Police, Guilhem Depierre, the groups of organised crime from overseas are mainly concentrated within the department of Alpes-Maritimes. These are Russian speaking, Balkan and Italian groups. “in the first two cases” says Depierre, “we’re faced with episodes of minor criminality linked to trafficking of firearms, prostitution and robbery. Often these events trace back to a structured network which was unknown to us: we’ve had cases of murdered Georgian criminals and only at that moment do we realise they were operating on the territory!”.

In regard to Italian mafias, according to the 2016 DIA report, in France there is a “strong and significant presence of the ‘ndrangheta, in particular in the regions of Alpes-Provence-Cote D’Azur, Paris and Grenoble”. Activity is mainly in money laundering of illicit revenues, hiding out, and also drug trafficking. “Members of the Calabrese clan” explains Depierre ”arrived in the French Riviera about 50 years ago because, after settling in Liguria and to carry on along the coast was the natural course”. The towns mostly involved are: Nice, Mentone, Cannes. Two reportable investigations are: Antibes 2016, following the arrest of a member of the ‘ndrangheta originating in Pellaro /Reggio Calabria) led to 16 detentions for mafia association; Trait d’Union, that in 2015 revealed the existence of a commercial network between Liguria and the French Riviera and whose actors were thought to be connected to the Molè clan from Gioa Tauro (RC) and Gallico di Palmi (RC). Noteworthy also are members of the Romano family in Pegomas (Grasse), accused of having contacts with the ‘ndrangheta and in whose jasmine farm a cocaine lab was detected in 2012. One of the objectives of the Italian mafia in France has always been to create contacts for its drug trafficking. We can cite in this regard, a network that communicated with the Tatoo messaging system and was dismantled in 2014, among the contacts was Vincent Saccomano, with links to Italy and the Paris region. The DIA pinpoints how the camorra, on the other hand, has a role in exploiting the “French corridor” for drug trafficking, often via Albanian OCGs. “In general” concludes Depierre, “the camorra, unlike the ‘ndrangheta, isn’t satisfied with just laundering in real estate or infiltrating public tenders, they are often involved in jewel robberies”.


France has always been a country to hide out in. Among the most famous names: the camorra boss Michele Zaza, the ‘ndrangheta boss Domenico Libri and the Sicilian drug trafficker settled in Milan Biagio Crisafulli. The lawyer who defended them, the Franco-Italian Luc Febbraro says: “In the ‘80s Paris refused to extradite Zaza because it didn’t recognise the 416 bis law, thus strengthening the idea that criminals could safely hide out in France. Things changed after the deaths of judges Falcone and Borsellino: the French realise they risk making life easy for dangerous criminals and have completely changed their attitude”. Another prominent case was that of Crisafulli: in ’97 Febbraro manages to get released from prison while waiting to be extradited. “The process was long and complex and France wanted to give a signal: it was no longer disposed to wait. But the gesture brought us one step from a diplomatic incident”. Another famous fugitive the Cosa nostra boss Bernardo Provenzano, went to Marseilles in 2003 to undergo prostate surgery and then returned to Sicily without being intercepted by the authorities. Among the last to be detained on the charge of being ‘ndrangheta members were Roberto Cima, arrested in 2010 at Vallauris and Matteo Alampi in 2014 at Villefrance-sur-Mer. In their second semester report of 2015, the DIA reveal the arrest of Gianluca Di Paola, tied to the Abete clan of Naples. In January 2016 Gianni Tagliamento was also arrested and charged with smuggling vodka: he was released just 3 months later and is awaiting trial. Tagliamento has been at the centre of investigations many times accused of criminal mafia associations, but has always been acquitted. “He has been a victim” says Febbraro who is also his lawyer, “of an abusive judicial system obsessed with his conduct”. The Sanremo Prosecutor Roberto Cavallone in 2012, during a hearing in the Antimafia commission, defined him as being “the reference point of every Italian criminal who wants to operate in drug trafficking”.


Guillaume Cotelle has been examining magistrate in Marseille for five years. His 10 square metre office with its dodgy aircon, is next door to the courts. “I’ll be leaving in a few months” he says coldly. “The fight against organised crime is no longer a priority. It is very disappointing: when I arrived 5 years ago there were the victims and so many funds had been allocated. It’s not like that any more. We’ve done some wonderful things but it’s like fighting windmills: you risk starting large enquiries that end up in nothing”. According to Cotelle, the problem is a procedural one. “We have some very specialised groups of investigators who work on the territory, but once the enquiry is formally structured, it gets judged by anyone, even by someone who has no preparation in this type of cases. And some of them are often approached by the criminals”. This refers to the creation in 2004 of Juridictions interregionals spécialisées: investigative groups modelled on the Italian pools. A step ahead that has so far led to few sentences. “We have large trials that end up in nothing. We have requested special jurisdictions, but political powers don’t want them and lawyers are opposed. There are many cases, from that of Orsoni to that of Guerini. We quite simply don’t have the means: when the investigation is too big, justice doesn’t have the means. The right mentality is to take small cases and not touch too much those that can be uncomfortable. I’ve always known that in France it’s risky when you go too deep”. Furthermore, the judge affirms that an understanding of the problem is lacking on the part of authorities: “There’s no awareness and most of all public powers don’t want to get involved. It’s tabù: you think that if you have a problem it’s because you’ve done too much, overstepped the mark”.

Another of the limitations mentioned by Cotelle concerns the persecution of the Italian mafia. “We have met up with Italian magistrates recently because we were astounded at how few trials were underway. This is a shame because there could be work to do. I think the problem is the lack of cooperation: sometimes it’s difficult to have information from Italy and viceversa. For example, I think the Italians should report more things”. According to Cotelle, the problem is usually underestimated due to a clear political will. “I remember for example” continues the judge “following the case of Antonio Corrieri, affiliated to the camorra. During an interrogation he got very angry and said to me: You’ll end up like the examining magistrate Jean-François Sampieri who was investigating me before he died in a road accident’. I verified and it happened in 2005. So I reported the matter to the prosecution but no-one ever opened an enquiry”.

The judge also speaks of limitations in French law and of the possibility to introduce 416 bis. “It would be important, but would have to be adapted to our system. For example we have many enquiries that never get to court because we are unable to classify intimidation. We find ourselves in front of people who we know belong to organised crime groups, godfathers, but we never receive outright threats so the enquiries end in nothing. Italian law could lend a hand in this” he smiles “But we are still debating whether there is a French mafia, therefore we’re a long way from thinking how to punish it”.


One of the few to have the courage to say, and write, that in France “there is a mafia influence” is Xavier Monnier. Journalist, 35 years old he is author of two books (Marseille ma ville and Les nouveaux parrains de Marseille) which line up the results of enquiries and stories of the actors involved, from the police force to the godfathers themselves. “The elements” explains Monnier sitting in a local bar in his town, a town he claims to be “madly” in love with, “are clear: there is territorial management, international dimension and then intimidation”. He turns and starts listing all the local racketeer victims or properties of people close to criminal groups: “there are a lot, in front of everyone”. The last book starts with citing Michel Campanella, member of the large scale criminality at large since 2011, that gives the idea: “You speak of criminal association, I of childhood friends”. “The word used by the prosecutor Jacques Dallest is porosity”, writes the journalist. Still only a few are able to clearly define the resulting system. “What I’ve discovered is a general picture where grand banditry leaves space for a mafia Hydra, made up of various ramifications that withstand time, more than the godfathers themselves”. Monnier is also the journalist who, in 2009 revealed, in an article published in his online newspaper, the existence of one of the most important investigations in later years, the one into the Guerini brothers: the businessman Alexandre and the senator and former socialist president of the department Jean-Noel. “It all began with a waste collection strike, managed by Alexandre himself. The investigation had only just begun when I met and interviewed him”. Almost eight years later, Jean-Noel is no longer head of the Bouches-du-Rhône, but remains senator, and is still under investigation as is his brother, for crimes that go from trading in influence to criminal association. Monnier writes, “The system detected by the investigation named Guernica appears to penetrate the local economic and political structure”. The investigation is extremely complex, almost eight years later a judicial truth is still not apparent. But, writes Monnier, there isn’t just the Guerini case to testify the infiltration and contact with the institutions. For example there is the case involving socialist senator Samia Ghali, mayor of the 15th municipality of Marseille. “I revealed he gave a million euro to his cousin’s sporting association without a tender. An enquiry was opened. He was the only one to publicly threaten me”.


Several sociologists refuse to use the label “mafia”. First among them, is Laurent Mucchielli, research director at Cnrs: “What we see in Marseilles”, he explains, “has nothing to do with the historical model of the Italian mafia: there’s no coordination between the criminal groups, more like competition that then leads to vengeance killings; violence is never used against ‘outsiders’ (politicians, journalists or victims of racketeering), and lastly, criminals are not involved in legal political or economical activities and when they are it is just to safeguard their own interests”. Mucchielli is also president of the “Observatory into juvenile delinquency at the Aix-Marseille university and claims that the number of deaths is much lower in respect to the ‘80s. “To speak of emergency just serves to justify repression in sensitive areas”. The sociologist Cesare Mattina is on the same wavelength, in an article of 2014 he claims that there has never been a combination of “the essential characteristics of a mafia”. “the existence of a capitalist venture operating locally as well as internationally (French Connection), the implementation of political-institutional authority, partly legitimated by public powers (the ‘30s and in a minor way between 1950-1970), social entrenchment in certain territories (never really verified)”.

DOES FRANCE WANT 416 BIS (mafia association law)?

French criminal law recognises the crime association de malfaiteurs (criminal association), which regards a group of people uniting to prepare one or more criminal act punishable by at least 5 years imprisonment”. According to investigators it is sufficient, even though the addition of 416 bis would make investigations easier. “It would make life easier”, says Guilhem Depierre of Sirasco. “But we would have to demonstrate there is a framework and that would be complicated”. According to Fabrice Gardon of the gjudicial police, new legislative tools aren’t needed, we need more repression: we have too many recurring criminals and the rate of imprisonment in France is lower than that of England and Spain for example”. If, for judge Guillaume CotellE, a debate is needed, some well-known lawyers who have defended members of organised crime groups, see it differently. One of these is Jean-Jacques Campana, lawyer of the Campanella brothers and Jean-Luc Germani: “We need 416 bis in order to be more efficient, but would need to apply it correctly. In any case a European supranational law is required to unify each single system”. According to Campana the crime of mafia association in France would help to prosecute members of the camorra and ‘ndrangheta but to the question of whether Germani for example could be accused of this crime, he answers: “Probably yes. But that isn’t mafia. In France it’s usual to have small groups working independently”. Among discriminating circumstances are the actual infiltrations in the political system. “We have the contacts. The former mayor of Marseille, Gaston Defferre, made a pact with certain larg-scale criminals for them to make a ‘clean sweep’ of small criminals. Now, with drug-trafficking it is no longer possible: they are young incontrollable criminals who kill for futile reasons”. Dominique Mattei the lawyer who, among other things, defends senator Jean-Luc Guerini, describes 416 bis as “a risky law”: “my client, currently investigated for association de malfaiteurs could end up accused of mafia association if we had the Italian law. But it isn’t certain: precise elements are needed for these accusations and in this case there aren’t any”. The Italo-French lawyer Luc Febbraro who, since the ‘90s has defended some of the most eminent mafia fugitives in France, holds a very clear stance. “The 416 bis law corresponds to a very specific Italian reality. Obviously here we do have organised crime, but it has nothing to do with the mafia system. An intelligent judge can act regardless of special laws: those who want them want to be able to convict without proof”. The fact remains that in France it is difficult to get a conviction for extortion. “We can’t” concludes Febbraro, “risk convicting someone just because of a bad reputation. If the extortion is accompanied by threats and violence, 416 bis is useless”.


According to antimafia activists, French civil society suffers from a scarce awareness of the organised crime phenomenon. The Italian NGO Libera, founded in 1995 by Don Luigi Ciotti to create a culture from the bottom of antimafia is notable for giving information and raising awareness in this respect. It is a recognised association in France and its president is 23 year old Marino Ficco. The antenna in Marseille is made up of groups of workers and researchers who organise public meetings and lessons in schools. Libera is also spokesman for the fight for a law that, as in Italy, enables social recycling of confiscated commodities. One of the advocates of the campaign is Fabrice Rizzoli, founder of the association Crim’Halt and expert in organised crime: “It would be a giant step forwards for a change in mentality: to make aware that not only does crime not pay, but that which is taken is given back to the community”. In the last legislation, thanks to his lobbying, the proposal was presented three times but always rejected. “I must say” continues Rizzoli “that I thought we’d make it. But there’s a lot of ignorance”, Crim’Halt was created also for this purpose, to give information on a neglected subject and improve access of the population to, for example, the Sirasco reports or to court judgements. “Transparency and awareness for a knowledgeable reflection”, can be read on the poster. And the journey is still long.