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Marseille has a long history of criminal activity involving the mafia, but there is one crime in particular that gave this city its reputation as a drug-trafficking capital: the ‘French Connection’. It’s an amazing story that begins with stolen Nazi money and ends with corruption in 1970’s New York.
In the 1930s, Corsican mafia leader Paul Carbone realised that there was money to be made on the streets of America by selling heroin. He began transporting poppy seeds from Turkey to France – via Marseille – and then on towards Canada and, eventually, the US. This route (soon dubbed the ‘French Connection’) used Marseille as a thoroughfare because it was one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean, meaning shipments were more difficult to detect.
A man called Auguste Ricord worked with Carbone to finance the operation. It is believed that the money Ricord provided was obtained during his time with the French Gestapo, a branch of the Nazi party, in the years that made up World War II. US authorities were aware of the French Connection as early as 1937, having discovered a number of Marseille-based labs that were turning morphine paste into heroine. However, the CIA allegedly protected the Corsican gang because of the help they provided in preventing French communists from taking control of Marseille’s Old Port at the end of World War II. This turned out to be a big mistake for the Americans.
The French Connection gradually began to ship greater and greater quantities of drugs to America throughout the 1950’s and ’60s. It is estimated that, by 1960, as much as 5,000 pounds of heroin (2,300 kg) was coming onto American streets through the route every year. French authorities were allegedly reluctant to arrest one of the gang’s major ringleaders as he had been a part of the French Resistance during World War II. The US government tried to get Turkey to reduce the amount of opium being exported, but eventually they knew they had to bring down the mob themselves. The US authorities (with help from international allies) clamped down on the trafficking activity and, throughout the early 1970’s, seized boatloads of drugs and arrested hundreds of people. At the same time, many members of the mafia involved were killed due to in-fighting with other gangs. By the mid ’70s, the French Connection was washed up.
The French Connection brought a huge amount of drugs into the US – and many New York police officers used the scheme to get rich themselves. In fact, the NYPD involvement is still at the centre of one of history’s most infamous, unsolved corruption scandals: in 1962, a large shipment of drugs – containing over 400 pounds of heroin and cocaine said to be valued at $73 million – was seized from the French Connection gang. In 1972 it was discovered that the drugs, which were being kept in a New York City police vault, had been replaced with flour and cornstarch and, over the ten-year period, sold on the streets of America. Four New York City police officers were implicated, one of which was later killed. One of the French Connection mobsters – eventually sent down fora total of 455 years for his crimes – is currently languishing in an American jail; Anthony Casso is perhaps the only person in the world that will ever know who was really responsible for leaking the drugs onto the streets.
The French connection is the stuff of legends – and prime material Hollywood. In 1971, William Friedkin (who famously went on to direct The Exorcist (1973)) made The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman. But the French were already using Marseille as a notorious backdrop long before this. Films like Jacques Deray’s Borsalino (1970), starring two of France’s most popular actors at the time, showed rival gangsters and warring mafia families. Locals in Marseille had known for a long time that the city was home to nefarious mafia behaviour, but it was the Oscar-winning success of The French Connection that really brought this idea to an international audience. And the city’s infamy continues to this day, with Netflix’s grandiose Marseille series and Cédric Jimenez’s 2014 version of the drug bust starring Jean Dujardin, called La French. It appears as if this is one aspect of Marseille’s history that it will never shake.