On the Heroin Trail: In Pursuit of the Elusive Kingpin
By Les Payne
The Hunter: Les Payne
The prey: Corsican-born Marcel Francisci, France's top-ranking heroin racketeer of the 1970's.
By Les Payne
The reporting assignment was simple enough: go to Corsica and nail Marcel Francisci – the heroin kingpin of Europe. The smooth criminal had gone respectable, with associates high in government, and a lethal network dominating drugs moving through the “French Connection.”
During the early ‘70’s, Francisci and other Corsican mobsters supplied some 80 percent of the heroin the underworld pushed in the U.S. Narcotics were corrupting urban police and politicians profiteering from the street epidemic wreaking crime, social devastation and death. Some 1,100 residents in New York City, chiefly African Americans, died of heroin-connected causes in ‘72, with another 48 suburban “junkies” succumbing on Long Island.
Our three-man Newsday investigative team started with the poppy farmers of Turkey, traced the smuggling routes across Europe, and then zeroed in on the French underworld running the heroin “labs.” Among the dozens of “contrabandeurs” we identified, all reports from Interpol and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs pointed to one dominant figure.
“Marcel Francisci leaves the actual [heroin] work to other people,” one top U.S. narcotics agent told us. “He is the financier, the arranger, the fixer. He is the man behind the desk far away. That why it’s so hard to get at him." His international gambling holdings included swank clubs in London, ritzy casino in Beirut and the Cerce Housman in Paris.
U.S. officials had warned us off reporting about Francisci on his home island. The Corsicans, not unlike Sicilians, are wary of outsiders. Centuries of invasions have forged the rugged islanders with a fierce pride and a nasty suspicion of strangers inquiring about any Corsican. Indeed, Francisci was a local hero, an elected official, a highly decorated WWII veteran and a generous benefactor who had improved street lighting and roads and built schools and clinics on the poverty-stricken island.
When our team leader Bob Greene told Paul Knight, at his Paris office, about our plans to profile the heroin kingpin on his Corsica home island, the high-ranking BNDD official seemed stunned. “Well I’m glad you’re going to do it, I sure wouldn’t,” said Knight, whose drug fighting force had never placed an agent on Corsica. “It’s too damn dangerous.”
Our team leader, who had no intention of going himself, kept Knight’s dire warning away from Knut Royce and me. A fluent French-speaker, Knut was initially given the Corsica assignment. When he fell seriously ill and returned to the states – I drew this short straw.
“As soon as the Corsicans spot you,” a veteran Nice Matin editor told me in Marseilles, “the word will be out (snapping his fingers) just like that. “Look,” he said, they’ll know you’re investigating drug smuggling, “they don’t believe in tourists over there.” In addition to getting details, ambience and background on Francisci in Ajaccio, I said I would like to report from Bastia as well as interview Jean Colonna, the shadowy mayor of Pina Canale, about the old days.
“You are absolutely crazy if you plan to go to Pina Canale,” the editor said. A week earlier he’d sent a newspaper photographer there to take pictures of a local festival. “It had nothing to do with drugs or criminals,” he said. “My photographer was met at the top of a hill and escorted away from the village by a car full of armed men.”
To buttress his point about the danger, he telephoned a Corsican friend, a reporter in Ajaccio. Informed of my reporting plans, the journalist said, “I won’t get involved; I won’t be responsible,” and hung up.
“The Corsicans have what they call a ‘pinsute,’ that’s someone who is not from the island,” my editor friend said in grave tones. “They just don’t talk to ‘pinsutes,’ besides, they’re not too talkative, the Corsicans.”
I found three islanders, one a dissident official, who’d promised to talk to me upon my arrival in Ajaccio.
A mostly young, noontime crowd flowed past the small, Royal Bar, the former drinking spot of Ange Simonpieri, a wealthy mobster serving a prison sentence for narcotics trafficking. As I sipped pastis with the translator, waiting for my first contact, a woman was carried limp out of the bar by two men who bundled her into the back seat of a station wagon and drove away. As the crowd returned to a buzz, the number of young men with bandaged hands and arms, some with raw tissue exposed, gave the street scene a touch of exotic menace.
At 12:30 my source, one Marchetti, his wavy hair parted in the middle and combed over his ears, gave a nod and joined us at the table. Over lunch at an upstairs cafe, we were joined by a local, Corsican journalist who published a twice monthly newspaper. I told them about my reporting plans for the four-day trip.
“Be very, very careful around here when you discuss him,” Marchetti said. “This is Francisci country; he is home when he comes here.” The two Corsicans fell silent each time the waiter mounted the stairs. “No one can be trusted to overhear discussions about Francisci and mobsters,” he said. Whereupon, we took a brief walk outside and created a nom de plume. I agreed not to use “Francisci” on the island ever again.
I gave Marchetti a list of my interests – Jean-Baptiste Croce’s holdings in Bastia, Colonna’s in Pina Canale, all there was to know about Francisci. We adjourned, and regrouped at the Royal Bar at 7pm. The two Corsicans brought along a “young law student from a very prominent family here in Ajaccio.”
Over dinner, the “student,” asked a series of probing questions. Sensing my hosts extreme nervousness, I claimed to be a tourist and lied at every other question as well. The newspaperman coded that he couldn’t discuss matters under the present conditions and excused himself. The “student” stayed to the end.
The next morning, at 11am, I sat on a park bench diagonally across from the Grand Bar. Francisci’s gang had shot it out with that of a rival there, three years earlier. The “gambling war” saw 6 mobsters injured and one killed. Francisci’s men prevailed to control the bar where he held forth when he visited Ajaccio.
As I raised my Minox camera to sneak a picture of this Francisci landmark for our “Heroin Trail” files, a lean man dressed in black, standing spread-eagle,
trained a Bolex-type, motion-picture camera on us. “Hey Chris,” I whispered, “that guy’s filming us taking picture of them.” Not quite ready for my close-up on Francisci’s mob channel, we walked away, slowly at first.
When two men from the Grand Bar ran toward us, we picked up the pace, sprinting down the street and uphill through a winding alley. A pursuer in a brown jacket and turtleneck ran into the alley checking doors at the foot of the entryway. Circling the block, we doubled back to the Fresch Hotel, and dashed to the 6th floor to pack.
One of the men conferred with the desk clerk and positioned himself in a doorway across the street. After she called us a taxi for the airport, I blocked the desk clerk’s move toward the door to confer with the man across the street. Dashing to the cab, we ordered him to speed for our late plane on the tarmac. Our two pursuers,organized transportation, and arrived at the airport just as we were heading up the ramp of the last plane off the island.
It was a sweet flight back to Marseilles.
Officials later speculated that a confrontation with Francisci’s men had been imminent. Neither police nor any other Corsican would have assisted an American journalist investigating their island’s hero – and the world’s top heroin smuggler.
On Jan. 16, 1982, Francisci, described on wire reports as “masterminding the ‘French Connection drug network,” was shot dead as he was getting out of his car in Paris.