The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia


The first link between the Corsicans and the political world came about with the emergence in the 1920s of Marseille's first "modern" gangsters, Francois Spirito and Paul Bonnaventure Carbone (the jolly heroes of 1970's popular French film, Borsalino). Until their rise to prominence, the milieu was populated by a number of colorful pimps and gunmen whose ideal was a steady income that ensured them a life of leisure. The most stable form of investment was usually two or three prostitutes, and none of the gangsters of this premodern age ever demonstrated any higher aspirations Carbone and Spirito changed all that. They were the closest of friends, and their twenty year partnership permanently transformed the character of the Marseille milieu. (2)

This enterprising team's first major venture was the establishment of a French-staffed brothel in Cairo in the late 1920s. They repeated and expanded their success upon their return to Marseille, where they proceeded to organize prostitution on a scale previously unknown. But more significantly, they recognized the importance of political power in protecting large-scale criminal ventures and its potential for providing a source of income through municipal graft.

In 1931 Carbone and Spirito reached an "understanding" with Simon Sabiani, Marseille's Fascist deputy mayor, who proceeded to appoint Carbone's brother director of the municipal stadium and open municipal employment to associates of the two underworld leaders. (3) In return for these favors, Carbone and Spirito organized an elite corps of gangsters that spearheaded violent Fascist street demonstrations during the depression years of the 1930s. All across Europe fascism was gaining strength: Mussolini ruled Italy, Hitler was coming to power in Germany, and emerging French Fascist groups were trying to topple the republic through mass violence. Communist and Socialist demonstrators repeatedly rushed to the defense of the republic, producing a series of bloody confrontations throughout France.(4) In Marseille Carbone and Spirito were the vanguard of the right wing. In February 1934, for example, several days after an inflammatory speech by a Fascist army general, massive street demonstrations erupted on the Canebiere, Marseille's main boulevard. The thousands of leftist dock workers and union members who took to the streets dominated this political confrontation until Carbone and Spirito's political shock force fired on the crowd with pistols. The national police intervened, the workers were driven from the streets, and the wounded were carted off to the hospital. (5)

After four years of battling Sabiani's underworld allies in the streets, the left settled its political differences long enough to mount a unified electoral effort that defeated Sabiani and placed a Socialist mayor in office. (6) Although the leftist electoral victory temporarily eclipsed the Fascist-Corsican alliance, the rise of fascism had politicized the Marseille underworld and marked its emergence as a major force in city politics.

To those schooled in the Anglo-American political tradition, it might seem strange that the underworld should play such a critical role in Marseille politics. However, in France the street demonstration has always been as important as the ballot box in influencing the course of politics. From the downfall of King Louis Philippe in 1848, to the Dreyfus scandal of the 1890s right down to the May revolution of 1968, the ability to mass muscle A the boulevards has been a necessary political asset.

Although they had lost control of the municipal government, Carbone and Spirito's economic strength hardly declined. The emergence of organized narcotics trafficking in the United States provided Carbone with the opportunity to open a heroin laboratory in the early 1930s, while the outbreak of the Spanish civil war enabled him to engage in the arms traffic.(7) Carbone and Spirito found their political influence restored, however, in 1940, when German troops occupied Marseille after France's precipitous military collapse. Faced with one of the more active resistance movements in France, the Nazi Gestapo unit assigned to Marseille became desperate for informants and turned to the most prestigious figures in the underworld, who were only too willing to collaborate.

On July 14, 1942, the Resistance showed its strength for the first time by machine-gunning the headquarters of a pro-German political organization in downtown Marseille (the PPF, whose regional director was the Fascist ex-Mayor Simon Sabiani). The following afternoon Carbone and Spirito handed the Gestapo a complete list of all those involved. For these and other invaluable services, they were lavishly rewarded. This prosperity was short lived, however, for in 1943 Carbone was killed en route to Marseille when his train was blown up by the Resistance, (8) and following the Normandy landing in 1944 Spirito fled to Spain with Sabiani.

In 1947 Spirito came to the United States where he enjoyed an active role in the New York-Marseille heroin traffic. However, he was arrested in New York three years later on a heroin smuggling charge and sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Prison. (9) Upon his release he returned to France, where he was arrested and tried for wartime collaboration with the Nazis; however, after only eight months in prison be retired to manage a restaurant on the French Riviera. While he remained active in the heroin business, Spirito no longer wielded much power in Marseille. Occasionally, warring gangs in Marseille would ask him to use his prestige to mediate their bloody vendettas. But mostly he played bocce on the sand and enjoyed his position as a respectable citizen of Toulon until his death in 1967.(10)