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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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