France: Marseille, the new drug empire

3 February 2012
Le Monde Paris

A police raid against drug traffickers in the housing project of Bassens, in the northern suburbs of Marseilles, January 12.
A police raid against drug traffickers in the housing project of Bassens, in the northern suburbs of Marseilles, January 12.

France’s second city will be European capital of culture in 2013. But for the moment, news from Marseille is dominated by feuds among Kalashnikov toting drug dealers who hold sway over entire neighbourhoods. Excerpts.

As night falls, an unmarked anti-criminal brigade police car relentlessly patrols the neighbourhoods of northern Marseille. In each of the cités or housing projects, the ritual is the same. With the arrival of the police, shouts ring out from block to block, from building to building, and from stairwell to stairwell. The lookouts, children no more than 15 years old, are there to carefully supervise the drug trade. On occasion, the police are escorted by one or two motor scooters until they leave the area. Font-Vert, Clos la Rose, Castellane are just some of the many districts that are organised and structured by drug trafficking.

Over the last three years, the cités have engaged in a war that has brought blood to the streets of Marseille. In his office in the city’s main police station, known as l'Evêché (in honour of the building’s past as bishop’s palace), judicial police chief Roland Gauze reels off the figures: “In 2010, there were 54 murders and attempted murders in Marseille, including 17 drug feud killings. In 2011, there were 38, of which 20 were caused by drug feuds.”

It was a quieter year, but one that was marred by a particularly violent month of December, with five fatalities aged between 18 and 38, including one policeman: all of them mowed down by Kaslashnikovs. The four other victims all had a record of varying degrees of involvement in drug trafficking. “It is such easy money that they are willing to kill for it,” explains Yves Robert, a representative of SNOP, the main police force union.

Many people believe that it was the dealers’ rule over the neighbourhoods that prevented the November 2005 riots from flaring up in the city, and the police themselves have doubts about the force hierarchy’s determination to break that control. “They leave them be,” says one of them. Over the last 20 years, the number of officers allocated to the local anti-drugs force has been divided by two.

“We are dealing with people who are younger and younger, more and more impulsive and more and more irrational,” remarks judicial police chief Roland Gauze. Each group is made up of a dozen youngsters, aged between 14 and 25. They have a “patch”, which can sometimes be divided into several sales points at the foot of different stairwells. And every “patch” is ruled by a rigourously disciplined organisation. “At the end of the day, it is a very standard business model, not unlike a temp agency,” remarks sociologist Claire Duport, who has worked for several years in the neighbourhoods of northern Marseille.

The Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice

Every morning, the boss divides up the work and the various jobs, and makes sure that no one falls asleep or allows himself to be distracted at his post. Usually the selling is done by two teams with a shift change at some point during the day. The lookouts, or the chouffes as they are called, take up position at a predetermined location in the cité and remain there until they are replaced. In an account book seized in the Cité de la Visitation during a police raid last November, expenses for meals during working hours were carefully noted.

Then there are the rabbatteurs, like salesmen in more standard businesses who are responsible for contact with customers, the ravitailleurs or suppliers who look after the stock and are paid significantly more than the others, and the charbonneurs who hand over the merchandise. Finally, there are the nourrices or feeders responsible for storing supplies who have clean criminal records, stay out of sight, and have no direct contact with customers. Very often they are single mothers who are forced to contend with precarity and extreme poverty.

In Marseille, the number of single parent families is more than one in ten, three times the national average in France. For a wage that helps pay the rent or fill the fridge, these women hide drugs and on occasion large sums of money in their apartments or in their cellars.

There are dozens of networks like this – “No way of counting them,” says Roland Gauze – all of them determined to defend their territory and their market share with violence if necessary. The Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice; a visible and impressive symbol of power that has taken over from the shotgun. But notwithstanding reports to the contrary, the port city has not been swept by a new wave of automatic weapons. Most of the weapons that have been recently seized by police were old and had been used for some time.

“The problem will never be overcome by policing alone"

When police raids are organised, the haul brought back by investigators is usually the same: a few dozen kilos of cannabis, a few thousand euros in cash and various weapons. In the Cité de la Visitation, monthly wages for dealing range from 5,000 euros for lookouts to 10,000 euros for charbonneurs or sellers. However, elsewhere in the city there are many dealers, even retail sellers, who do not earn more than 1,500 euros per month. “There are many youngsters who in fact earn very little, but they flaunt what they have,” explains Claire Duport.

Social workers have relatively few options in their bid to bid to counter the lure of what is perceived to be easy money in a city that is beset by enduring problems: a high rate of unemployment, a quarter of the work force with no qualifications, and a third of the city’s residents who live below the poverty line with less than 832 euros per month.

“The problem will never be overcome by policing alone,” remarks, Jean-Louis Martini of the Synergie-Officiers police union. A year ago, the judicial police dismantled just one of the networks in the Cité de la Busserine, arresting four dealers in their twenties and seizing a haul of 25 kilos of cannabis and 6,000 euros in cash. The sales point, which was open daily from midday to midnight, was taking in an average of 15,000 euros per day from approximately 300 customers.

Today another network has now taken over the business and the lookouts have returned to La Busserine. The new charbonneur even has an armchair in front of one the buildings. As they do everywhere, the housing projects in Marseille abhor a vacuum.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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