For decades, from the 1930s until the 1970s, the biggest supplier of heroin to the United States was an intensely secretive crime organization based on a Mediterranean island near Italy. No, not Sicily. Corsica.
Though just 56 miles from northern Italy, Corsica belongs to France, nearly twice as far away. The 200,000 inhabitants are known for their ongoing desire for independence from “the continent,” as they call French rule. The clear-blue-water beaches and maquis-covered mountains draw tourists from all over Europe each summer. But Corsica has another, lesser known industry: organized crime.
Though often overshadowed by the Sicilian Mafia, the Unione Corse – as the Corsican crime organization is known – jumped into the American market early. After World War II, “80% of the heroin consumed in the United States was made in Southern France and controlled by the Union Corse,” says Dr. John Coleman in a video from the DEA museum archives in Arlington, Virginia.
Coleman started working in 1965 at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — today known as the Drug Enforcement Administration. He worked in the field in France and in the United States, in cities including New York City or Boston. Afterward a special agent of the DEA, he retired in 1997. On November 6, 2014, Coleman gave a talk at the DEA Museum in honor of the centennial of federal drug law enforcement. He shared memories of the job and provided a rare view of who the Corsicans importing heroin really were.
In 1934, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics filed its first report showing that heroin found in New York was coming from France – more specifically, Corsica. While Unione Corse smuggled the drugs, the Sicilian mafia took care of the distribution, Coleman explained. “There actually [were] a number of sort of physical connections between Corsica and Sicily. They’re both islands. They’re both located in the Mediterranean. And, in fact, the Corsican dialect of French is very similar to Italian, Sicilian Italian. And so, it was not that difficult for members of those two islands to communicate with each other when necessary.” he said.
At the time, the drugs were directly shipped through New York City by transatlantic ships – a method of transportation “ideal for that kind of activity,” said Coleman. Thus, New York City became the “hub of the heroin market for most of the United States.”
The French Connection, a title popularized by the 1971 movie, was a name used by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to refer to a series of cases. The first was the arrest of Pasquale “Pasty” Fuca in 1962. The FBN was able to arrest Fuca after receiving a tip that the SS United States, a ship plying routes between New York and Europe, was carrying a heroin shipment from Marseille, France. Officers from the FBN followed the shipment, which eventually led them to Fuca.
Three years later, in 1965, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had one of its greatest successes against the French Connection. Coleman and many of his New York office colleagues were assigned to track down and arrest Jean Nebbia, who was staying at the Waldorf Astoria. “We knew that he was a major connection with the Mob and we had to follow him to put this together,” he said. “I was a rookie agent at the time, and my job was to sit in the room next to his with a set of earphones.” These were Jean Nebbia’s last hours as a free man.
“When he came out of his room, I came out of the room next door. And I, I telephoned down, saying, ‘He’s on his way down.’”, Coleman recalled. “I walked right behind him to the elevator because this was showtime. This was – it was over. And we got on the elevator at the Waldorf Astoria,” recounted Coleman, stone-faced behind a slim-framed pair of glasses.
Nebbia was wearing a fedora and a “beautiful cashmere dark overcoat.” He was “very nattily dressed,” looking like he“just stepped right out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly or something”. When the elevator doors opened on the first floor and about ten agents, guns drawn, rushed inside the elevator, Nebbia instinctively glanced at the “washed-up kind of rookie agent” beside him in the cabin. Coleman drew his badge and just said, “Me too,” to the Corsican’s surprise.
That day, Nebbia was brought to court. “A mysterious attorney showed up with a briefcase with $100,000 in cash because that was his bail,” said Coleman. The U.S. attorney objected: If Nebbia was released on bail, he would be free to go back to France without retaliation for conspiring to import heroin. Eventually, the case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Even to this day, if there’s somebody putting up a large amount of cash for bail or money for bail and the prosecutor is concerned about the source of that funding, they can ask the court for what’s called a Nebbia hearing,” explained Coleman. “That goes back to Jean Nebbia in 1965, December 1965.”