French mafia groups imported up to 80 percent of the heroin sold in the United States from the 1930s until the late 1970s. Most of its members originated in Corsica, a small French island located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy. Their operation is often referred to as the French Connection.
Thierry Colombié is a searcher, writer and documentary filmmaker who has written numerous books on French organized crime. From Toulouse, France, he talks to us about the mysteries surrounding the French Connection and its influence on American society.
What were the links between the Corsican mafia and the Italian mafia of the United States?
In 1958, the demand for heroin was very high in the United States. The [Italian American mafia] families of Chicago, New York and Miami ask the Corsicans, who are representing the large teams from Marseille, like Jean-Baptist Croche or Paul Mondoloni, to send them more dope.
So the Corsicans gather to talk about it and reach an agreement. In exchange, the Italians tell them: ‘All right, we will pay you part of it in cash as usual, and in part we’ll give you shares in our casinos and cabarets in Cuba.’ Except one year after, Castro arrives. At that point, the Corsicans start using reprisal methods, to the detriment of the Italian Americans. They close the tap. No more dope. The Americans are being put at a disadvantage.
It’s a huge mess in the United States — because clients are addicted since there is an epidemic at the time. It’s the first heroin epidemic by the way.
But meanwhile, what are the Corsicans going to do? They sent back dope to the United States bit by bit, at an unbeatable price, meaning it was extremely expensive… because the Italians were obliged to pay for it. They’ve always depended on the French. That’s why we call it the French Connection. There was total dependency between the Italian Americans and the French groups.
Is there something about the French Connection that piqued your curiosity, that was different from other similar organized crimes?
Today we may very well know the time at which the chief of the mafia in New York or Chicago has his coffee, and with whom. But we have no idea what the chief of the mafia in France or Corsica is doing at the same moment. The real difference lies there. It is just a way of saying that, in reality, we know very little about this business. It lasted 50 years, even 60, and we have real gaps to even start appreciating the scope of that phenomenon.
Why is there more information about the French Connection in the 1960s? Was it a particularly important decade for the French Connection?
It is because the 1960s were truly a prosperous period [for mafia groups]. It was when the United States had to face a huge health care issue. [The import of heroin] had a domino effect that was creating terrible problems for American society.
So there was a diplomatic approach with foreign powers, so that bit by bit, the United States could put a plan in motion to fight against drug trafficking. These efforts were mostly done in the 1960s – and the 1970s – which sounded the death knell of the French Connection.
To you, who are the main characters of the French Connection during the 1960s?
There are those who got caught or who died because they got gunned down. The most powerful ones slipped through the cracks. There is a very important person, Jean Jehan. Jean Jehan was an adventurer. There were many adventurers at the time, meaning people who knew the sea and went on long trips across the ocean, who had been part of the merchant navy. He arrived in Canada after the war, in 1948 or 1949. He met with the Italian Americans, or rather the Italian Canadians in Montreal, who were already clients of the Carbones and Spiritos from the 1930s. So he reunified trafficking operations that had been at a standstill during the war. He’s a central character because he’s the one who gauged potential business upon his return. He stayed under the radar for a long time because he was very smart. He got caught at the end of the 1970s. He was an important character during the 1960s.
There’s a team that hasn’t been under investigation or in the news. We call them the “gang of three ducks.” Among them, some are still alive and it’s better to stay cautious. One who died, for instance, is Eugène Matrone, also known as the manchot [French for “the one without arms”]. He was an important character, who died not long ago. He really slipped through all the cracks.
Thierry Colombié explains that tracing the French Connection can quickly resemble trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Even if ex-members of the organization can be found, they remain dangerous. A strong sense of Corsican identity among locals also makes it tricky for outsiders to start digging up the past. Not only that, but the lack of ethnic categorization in French archives makes it difficult for historians to identify the Corsicans. To this day, only those well acquainted with Corsican culture and identity can hope to uncover a past that has remained buried for decades.