Bathroom breaks and oxygen tanks mix with kilos of cocaine and money laundering: The "papy connection" trial of aging ex-cons unfolded in a Marseille courtroom.
MARSEILLE — They had tried to import cocaine from Chile to Europe in containers filled with frozen squid. A bevy of white-haired delinquents was recently tried in the southern French city of Marseille. Among these notable figures of southern French banditry, two former "chemists" and smugglers of the late 1960s golden age of the "French connection," Laurent Fiocconi and Jo Signoli, are now in their seventies.
This papy connection ("grandpa connection") trial, in which most of the 15 defendants are over 65, gave the courtroom the look and feel of a retirement home, with defendants suffering hearing problems or osteoarthritis. One leans on his cane to reach the stand, another asks to excuse himself from the courtroom because of his "pressing needs." A third defendant has his ventilator and oxygen cylinder always by his side. And for medical reasons, the presiding magistrate Patrick Ardid allowed Savellin Savelli to abstain from appearing in court, urging him to "make sure you take your medication!"
Savelli, a 71-year-old from Corsica, was arrested in 2012 in Buenos Aires with six kilograms of cocaine in his luggage. He was interrogated from his cell. Together with his co-defendants, he was accused of having organized a cocaine-trafficking network between Latin America and Europe. They gave up on the idea of transporting it in containers with frozen squid after the Spanish customs opened the test container they'd sent from Valparaiso, Chile, to Valencia in August 2011. Instead, the traffickers fell back on a more traditional method: suitcases transported by aging "mules."
Jacky Slovinski, 61, was one of them. He was arrested on Nov. 26, 2012, after landing from Lima, as he was picking up a bag containing 22 bags of cocaine, weighing 24.5 kilos and worth about 4 million euros ($4.3 million). "I fell into the devil's trap," he explained. Disabled since 1977, he said he'd been lured by the 50,000 euro ($54,000) "wage" he was promised.
Dissecting hours of wiretapping from the joint French and Spanish anti-narcotics operation, magistrate Ardid outlines an association between different historic criminal groups of the region. At the helm, with apparently some 450,000 euros ($490,000) to invest in the trafficking, was Raymond Mihière, aka "The Chinese," a 64-year-old celebrity among Marseille's underworld, known for his involvement in extortion and drug trafficking.
The other star of this trial was Laurent Fiocconi, 74, who'd written a book recounting his first steps among the "French connection," at a time when Marseille's refined heroin was flooding the North American market, through his years in the Colombian jungle, where the Indians called him "El Mago" (the wizard), admiring his talents in chemistry.
"If we gave you coca leaves, would you be able to make us cocaine chlorhydrate?," the judge at some point asked him. "Of course! That'd be my pleasure!" Fiocconi answered, provoking bursts of laughter in the courtroom.
The man nicknamed "Charlot" relished the story of his life, as told by the judge: orphan at the age of three, raised by a godfather uncle from Corsica, educated in Paris' red light district of Pigalle — and his first exploits (robberies, extortion) with his friend Jean-Claude Kella.
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Seizure of 20 kilos of cocaine from the French Connection by French police officers — Photo: DEA
In 1969, he was extradited from Italy to the U.S. but escaped from his New York prison five years later and fled to Colombia, "with all the police forces after him." Modest, he denied at the bar the legend according to which he became one of Pablo Escobar's lieutenants. "He'd come to see me work, but we weren't friends."
The American authorities finally caught up with him in a Brazilian cell, where he'd been thrown for using a fake passport. "Charlot" spent 15 years in a U.S. prison. In 2000, he returned to the Corsican village of Pietralba, more than 30 years after his last stay. "Corsica has changed a lot," he said. He claims he's "cleaned up his act."
"I never played any part in this affair," he claimed. "I'd had it with that sort of life."
Suspected of having passed his Colombian address book on to the Marseille gang, Fiocconi justified his meetings with Raymond "The Chinese" Mihière thanks to a soap business. His son, who was born in a Brazilian prison where his Colombian mother had been incarcerated, was studying trade at university and was trying to put together a soap factory in Corsica. Valérie Hachimi, Raymond Mihière's wife, herself owned a soap factory near Girona, Spain, and she became their supplier.
Soaps, squids, LED lamps, "Black Sun" energy drinks or ion boilers: That's the sort of business these old cohorts claimed to have been working on. "But we did find 25 kilos of cocaine, not 25 kilos of soap," the judge pointed out.
Joseph "Jo" Signoli, 78, also swore his Mob days were behind him. The grandpa who retired from the merchant navy — "I've also sailed on clean waters," he said — and on whom the police kept an eye every morning as he played rummy in a Parisian bar, denied having paid for the mule's plane ticket. He claimed his role was simply that of the "middleman" between his son-in-law and those he's in business with. "Unfortunately, my name is respected in these circles, given my past," he said.
"But how old are you? Aren't you going to calm down a bit now?" judge Ardid asks.
Signoli retorts: "I'm 78 years old but I'm in perfect shape. The Good Lord has given me good health. I hope to reach 100 and make the newspapers for it." But before that happens, Signoli made the French papers once more last Friday: convicted by the court in Marseille, and sentenced to six years in prison.