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LES ECHOS

Cité Under Siege: Inside The Drug Wars Of Marseille

On the outskirts of Marseille, France's second-largest city, a string of gangland murders has brought new attention to an ongoing drug war. Inside the perilous cité housing projects, a loose network of dealers, as well as children and single moth

(William A. Franklin)
(William A. Franklin)
Yves Bordenave and Laurent Borredon

MARSEILLE – Night has fallen, and one of the investigative unit's unmarked cars is driving, over and over, around the same neighborhood in the northern outskirts of Marseille. The same ritual is happening in each cité, deprived housing projects made up of rows of faceless apartment buildings.

The police have only just crossed into this cité when the warning holler, "Aaahh," rings out from stairwell to stairwell, building to building. The watchmen, children no more than 15 years old, attentively scope out the silent movements of the drug trafficking scene. Sometimes one or two mopeds escort the car until it leaves the cité. These cités north of Marseille - Font-Vert, le Clos la Rose, la Castellan - are all affected by the activity. Indeed they are largely organized and structured around drug trafficking.

In recent months, the Marseille police force has struck back, taking several small-scale drug barons into custody. Alain Gardère, a top Interior Ministry official, was sent down to France's second-largest city at the end of August in response to Marseille's endemic crime problems. He says the recent arrests explain, to some extent, the upswing in violence that made headlines in French newspapers through the month of December. "Positions have been freed up, and young delinquents are now trying to take over," he explained.

But Marseille's bloody drug war has, in fact, been going on for three years now. In his office at the main police station located in Evêche, Roland Gauze, chief of Marseille's police investigation unit, adds up the figures: "In 2010, in Marseille, we had 54 murders and attempted murders, of which 17 were gang-related. In 2011 we ended up with 38 murders and attempted murders, of which 20 were gang-related."

Last year, then, was slightly less violent statistically than 2010, but was marked by a particularly bloody December. Five deaths in four weeks: five young men, including one policeman, shot dead by Kalashnikov submachine guns. The victims were all between 18 and 38 years old, and all known to the police for their involvement in drug trafficking.

A chase to nowhere

The scene typically unfolds this way: two or three individuals wearing ski masks burst into the cité, armed with Kalashnikovs. They approach their target, unload a full round of bullets at him, and leave as quickly as they arrived, jumping back into an awaiting SUV. "Earning money is so easy that they turn to killing," explains Yves Robert, representative of SNOP, the main police officers' union.

Last Tuesday, just as they do every night, plain-clothed police detectives are on patrol, searching for night-time drug deliveries. Suddenly, a black Volkswagen enters Cité de la Visitation. A short car chase ensues, ending in a cul-de-sac. A man jumps out of the passenger seat and runs away. A policeman follows, but quickly returns after the man disappears into the shadows, where about 10 people are keeping watch. "Too dangerous," he explains. The driver, already known to the police, can't be brought in because he stayed in the car. The car chase has produced nothing.

It is not easy to attack these small networks, which are constantly shifting and evolving. "They have very few links with traditional organized crime," explains the state prosecutor in Marseille, Jacques Dallest. Moreover, over the last decade, the number of drug users arrested in Marseille has shot up (+145%), but the number of people charged for trafficking or distributing drugs has been relatively stable.

Some authorities even believe that the lack of violence during the November 2005 riots that engulfed many French cities was due to the drug dealers' control over their neighborhoods. Some cops on the street themselves doubt the determination of their superiors: "We let them get away with it," claims one officer.

Over the last 20 years, the number of officers from the narcotics unit has been halved. But sociologist Laurent Mucchielli says drug trafficking is impossible to measure using standard police statistics. "The figures are laughable compared to the reality of the situation," he says.

So how should we interpret these regular explosions of violence? "We are dealing with a profile of subjects who are ever younger, and more and more impulsive," says Roland Gauze, chief of the investigation unit.

Each gang is made up of about 10 young people, between 14 and 25 years old. They tend to set up several different points of sale in the stairwells of buildings, with the dealing, mostly of marijuana and hashish, done with rigorous discipline and meticulous organization. "When it comes down to it, it's a traditional business plan, a bit like a temporary employment agency," says Claire Duport, a sociologist who works in the northern suburbs of Marseille.

Each morning, the boss allots the work, places the men at their stations, and oversees things to make sure none of them fall asleep or get distracted. In general, two teams work in shifts to deal with the sales. The first shift starts around noon; the second takes over in the late afternoon and stays until closing time, about midnight.

A watchman or two take up their posts at a chosen location in the cité and don't move until someone comes to replace them. Roland Gauze compares them to meerkats, little desert mammals that tend to stand still, barely moving their body, turning their head as they watch for predators.

The gang members stare mockingly at the powerless police officers who dare to enter their territory, even sometimes giving them a middle-finger salute. One local man saw a good business opportunity and comes by every night with ice boxes filled with sandwiches to refuel these teenagers.

And then there are the "beaters," who could be compared to business representatives; they act like traveling sales reps, hunting out clients. The supplier looks after the stock and takes home more money than the others. The dealer is the one who actually sells the drugs.

Finally, there are the "nannies," who are not directly involved in the selling as such. These people will never be seen and have never been involved with the law before. They are often women, single-mothers with children, suffering from instability and extreme poverty. In Marseille, single-parent families make up more than 10% of all families; three times more than elsewhere in France. In exchange for a salary that helps to pay the rent, or to fill the fridge, these women hide drugs or sometimes large sums of money in their homes or basements.

Drugs, cash, guns

In most raids, the investigating officers make more or less the same finds: several dozen kilos of cannabis (marijuana and hashish), a couple of million euros in cash and some firearms. In Cité de la Visitation, salaries vary from 5,000 euros per month for the least well-paid members (the watchmen) to 10,000 euros for the dealer himself. But, in many areas the monthly income for a drug-gang member will not exceed 1,500 euros, even for the dealer.

This all comes in a context where Marseille overall is facing many different challenges: there is a high level of unemployment, only one-quarter of those without a university degree are working, and a third of inhabitants live on less than 832 euros per month (the poverty threshold).

Abdel (not his real name), his wife and their two children live on 800 euros per month. At 32, he has already spent five years in prison. Now that he's a father he is trying to settle down. He has managed to get a shadowing placement with a charity office, and he does some work as an mentor on the side. But what he really wants is a proper job: as a road mender, a garbage collector, anything would do. Social programs and employment agencies have not been sufficient to help him find steady work, and Abdel fears he is destined to return to the rough surroundings of his youth. "I think I'm going to end up back in the cite," Abdel says.

"The problem will never be solved by the police alone," says police officer Jean-Louis Martini, director of the region's union Synergie. A year ago, in Cité de la Busserine, police intercepted a small-time network, just one amongst many. It had four traffickers, each one in their 20s. During the search, investigating officers found 25 kilos of cannabis and 6,000 euros in cash. The gang worked between midday and midnight every day and had almost 300 clients per day, giving an average turnover of 15,000 euros.

Today, in Busserine, the watchmen are back. A new network has taken over the business, and the dealer has even has a comfortable armchair that he's set up in front of one of the buildings. The cités of Marseille, it seems, don't stay idle for long.

Read more from Le Monde

Photo – William A. Franklin

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