The French Connection was a scheme through which heroin was smuggled from Turkey to France and then to the United States and Canada. The operation started in the 1930s, reached its peak in the 1960s, and was dismantled in the 1970s. It was responsible for providing the vast majority of the heroin used in the United States at the time. The operation was headed by Corsican criminals Paul Carbone (and his associate François Spirito) and Antoine Guérini, and also involved Auguste Ricord, Paul Mondoloni and Salvatore Greco. Most of the operation's starting capital came from assets that Ricord had stolen during World War II when he worked for Henri Lafont, one of the heads of the Carlingue (French Gestapo) during the German occupation in World War II.
Illegal heroin labs were first discovered near Marseille, France, in 1937. These labs were run by Corsican gang leader Paul Carbone. For years, the Corsican underworld had been involved in the manufacturing and trafficking of heroin, primarily to the United States. It was this heroin network that eventually became known as "the French Connection".
The Corsican Gang was protected by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the SDECE after World War II in exchange for working to prevent French Communists from bringing the Old Port of Marseille under their control.
Historically, the raw material for most of the heroin consumed in the United States came from Indochina, then Turkey. Turkish farmers were licensed to grow opium poppies for sale to legal drug companies, but many sold their excess to the underworld market, where it was manufactured into heroin and transported to the United States. The morphine paste was refined in Corsican laboratories in Marseille, one of the busiest ports in the western Mediterranean Sea. The Marseille heroin was reputed for its quality.
Marseille served as a perfect shipping point for all types of illegal goods, including the excess opium that Turkish farmers cultivated for profit. The convenience of the port at Marseille and the frequent arrival of ships from opium-producing countries made it easy to smuggle the morphine base to Marseille from the Far East or the Near East. The French underground would then ship large quantities of heroin from Marseille to New York City.
The first significant post-World War II seizure was made in New York on February 5, 1947, when seven pounds (3 kg) of heroin were seized from a Corsican sailor disembarking from a vessel that had just arrived from France.
It soon became clear that the French underground was increasing not only its participation in the illegal trade of opium, but also its expertise and efficiency in heroin trafficking. On March 17, 1947, 28 pounds (13 kg) of heroin were found on the French liner, St. Tropez. On January 7, 1949, more than 50 pounds (22.75 kg) of opium and heroin were seized on the French ship, Batista.
After Paul Carbone's death, the Guérini clan was the ruling dynasty of the Unione Corse and had systematically organized the smuggling of opium from Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. The Guérini clan was led by Marseilles mob boss Antoine Guérini and his brothers, Barthelemy, Francois and Pascal.
The first major French Connection case occurred in 1960. In June, an informant told a drug agent in Lebanon that Mauricio Rosal, the Guatemalan Ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, was smuggling morphine base from Beirut, Lebanon to Marseille. Narcotics agents had been seizing about 200 pounds (90 kg) of heroin in a typical year, but intelligence showed that the Corsican traffickers were smuggling in 200 pounds (90 kg) every other week. Rosal alone, in one year, had used his diplomatic status to bring in about 440 pounds (200 kg).
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics's 1960 annual report estimated that from 2,600 to 5,000 pounds (1,200 to 2,300 kg) of heroin were coming into the United States annually from France. The French traffickers continued to exploit the demand for their illegal product, and by 1969, they were supplying the United States with 80 to 90 percent of its heroin.
Because of this increasing volume, heroin became readily available throughout the United States. In an effort to limit the source, US officials went to Turkey to negotiate the phasing out of opium production. Initially, the Turkish government agreed to limit their opium production starting with the 1968 crop.
At the end of the 1960s, after Robert Blemant's assassination by Antoine Guerini, a gang war sparked in Marseille, caused by competition over casino revenues. Blemant's associate, Marcel Francisci, continued the war over the next years.
Former New York City Police Department Narcotics Bureau detective Sonny Grosso has stated that the kingpin of the French Connection heroin ring during the 1950s into the 1960s was Corsican Jean Jehan. Although Jehan arranged the famous 1962 deal gone wrong of 64 pounds of "pure" heroin, he was never arrested for his involvement in international heroin smuggling. According to Grosso, all warrants for the arrest of Jehan were left open. For years thereafter, Jehan was reported to be seen arranging and operating drug activities at will throughout Europe. According to William Friedkin, director of the 1971 film The French Connection, Jehan had been a member of the French Resistance to Nazi Occupation during World War II and, because of that, French law enforcement officials refused to arrest him. Friedkin was told that Jehan died peacefully of old age at his home in Corsica.
Following five subsequent years of concessions, combined with international cooperation, the Turkish government finally agreed in 1971 to a complete ban on the growing of Turkish opium, effective June 29, 1971. During these protracted negotiations, law enforcement personnel went into action. One of the major roundups began on January 4, 1972, when agents from the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and French authorities seized 110 pounds (50 kg) of heroin at the Paris airport. Subsequently, traffickers Jean-Baptiste Croce and Joseph Mari were arrested in Marseille. One such French seizure from the French Connection in 1973 netted 210 pounds (95 kg) of heroin worth $38 million.
In February 1972, French traffickers offered a United States Army sergeant $96,000 (equivalent to $575,007 in 2018) to smuggle 240 pounds (109 kg) of heroin into the United States. He informed his superior who in turn notified the BNDD. As a result of this investigation, five men in New York and two in Paris were arrested with 264 pounds (120 kg) of heroin, which had a street value of $50 million. In a 14-month period, starting in February 1972, six major illicit heroin laboratories were seized and dismantled in the suburbs of Marseille by French national narcotics police in collaboration with U.S. drug agents. On February 29, 1972, French authorities seized the shrimp boat, Caprice des Temps, as it put to sea near Marseille heading towards Miami. It was carrying 915 pounds (415 kg) of heroin. Drug arrests in France skyrocketed from 57 in 1970 to 3,016 in 1972. Also broken up as part of this investigation was the crew of Vincent Papa, whose members included Anthony Loria Sr. and Virgil Alessi. The well-organized gang was responsible for distributing close to a million dollars worth of heroin up and down the East Coast of the United States during the early 1970s, which in turn led to a major New York Police Department (NYPD) corruption scheme. The scope and depth of this scheme are still not known, but officials suspect it involved corrupt NYPD officers who allowed Papa, Alessi, and Loria access to the NYPD property/evidence storage room, where hundreds of kilograms of heroin lay seized from the now-infamous French Connection bust, and from which the men would help themselves and replace missing heroin with flour and cornstarch to avoid detection.
The substitution was discovered only when officers noticed insects eating all the bags of "heroin". By that point an estimated street value of approximately $70 million worth of heroin had already been taken. The racket was brought to light and arrests were made. Certain plotters received jail sentences, including Papa, who was later murdered in federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ultimately, the Guérini clan was exterminated during internecine wars within the French underworld. In 1971, Marcel Francisci was accused by police forces in the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics of being involved in the trafficking of heroin between Marseilles and New York City. On 16 January 1982, Marcel Francisci was shot to death as he was entering his car in the parking lot of the building where he lived in Paris, France.