by Antonio Michele Storto
The turning point is Monday 21 May 2018. The scene is set in the Busserine district, a collection of dilapidated shanty towns on the northern outskirts of Marseille and a central hub for drug trafficking: undoubtedly one of the toughest areas in the whole of France.
It is early afternoon when two cars come speeding down a residential street in the neighbourhood. Groups of masked men armed with Kalashnikovs get out of the cars: for several very long minutes they fire into the air, at passers-by, at the walls and windows of the surrounding buildings. “It’s a war”, residents can be heard muttering in astonishment in the videos taken from the upper floors of the buildings. These images, shared hundreds of times on social networks, will show the world the quantum leap in the quality of crime in Marseille.
One of the police officers on the scene that day explained that it was only by chance that the incident had ended without casualties: “Normally, these gangs arrive on their punitive expeditions, surgically hit one or more targets and then flee in a few tens of seconds. But this time they were there for an incredibly long time: it is clear that their intention was the sowing of terror.”
Five years later, these words sound eerily prophetic: since the beginning of this year, around fifty people have lost their lives in the battle for supremacy in the Marseille drug trafficking – a staggering 66% increase compared to the whole of 2022. According to the security services, a Kalashnikov can now be bought on the black market in Marseille for just a few hundred euros.
The escalating proliferation of such weapons is a key factor that led the prefect of Marseille, Frédérique Camilleri, to speak openly last summer of a “Mexican drift” in the Mediterranean city’s turf wars. This concern has reappeared on the desk of Interior Minister Darmanin. What makes the Marseille scenario almost unique in Europe is not only the proliferation of these weapons, but also the brutal nature of the killings. Marseille State prosecutor Dominique Laurens said in August that the murders were “characterised by extreme cruelty and a complete lack of humanity.”
As in the emblematic case of Busserine, ambushes are predominantly carried out in crowded areas, often in broad daylight and with overtly terrorist practices. The targets are not always individual members of rival gangs; there is often a tendency to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd, targeting entire drug-dealing squares where control is sought to be extended.
Typically, the killers operate in pairs, on scooters or powerful cars: while the driver remains at the wheel, the designated gunman fires several shots from a submachine gun, with little regard for possible collateral damage. It is now difficult to keep track of the number of victims, such as the 63-year-old killed in a café in Busserine on 24 April by a submachine gun bullet, probably aimed at a 32-year-old with a criminal record, who was also wounded. Or the 24-year-old killed on 15 September by a stray bullet that hit her on the third floor of a building in Saint-Thys: two masked youths fired at a recently set up drugs market before firing several shots into the air, killing the young woman.
According to police reports, 80 per cent of these murders can be attributed to the violent feud between two rival clans known as the DZ Mafia and the Yoda. Both belong to the Franco-Maghrebian crime syndicate, which has replaced the old Corsican mafia in the control of drug trafficking, in a complex mosaic of rivalries and alliances with emerging gangs of Albanian, Chechen and sub-Saharan origin, as well as with the traditional Corsican clans.
“We are facing a paradigm shift,” Prefect Camilleri declared in August, stressing that homicides are no longer just a means of controlling drug trafficking, but are now part of an endless spiral of revenge. These are increasingly being carried out by the so-called “charcleurs”, hired assassins, often very young, “who come to the city in search of easy money and a criminal epic fuelled by social networks,” explained prosecutor Laurens the same day, “only to find themselves trapped in infernal situations.”
This is the case of Matteo F., an 18-year-old Corsican arrested in April for the murder of two teenagers aged 15 and 16, identified in police files as Djibril and Kais. The young man confessed to investigators that he had earned more than 200,000 euros in just a few months by carrying out contract killings. These murders are increasingly being filmed to maximise the level of terror and intimidation and then circulated on Snapchat, as Prefect Camilleri himself told journalists.
Most of these young people are initially recruited for low-level jobs through advertisements posted directly on Telegram channels. One such ad, discovered by France Presse in April, read: “Looking for a lookout: Requirements: young, attentive, proficient on two wheels, respectful of customers. Working hours from 10:00 to 22:00 (flexible sales hours). Pay 100 euros/day.”
The Macron government has responded to all this by deploying the CRS-8, an elite unit of the French police specialising in urban violence, on several occasions. The latest raid took place last week and resulted in the arrest of 24 people suspected of belonging to the DZ mafia.
But many see this perpetual state of emergency as doomed to failure. “As long as drug traffickers can afford to pay up to 50,000 euros for a murder, they will always find a desperate young person willing to risk twenty years in prison,” explains Amine Kessaci, founder of Conscience, probably the most active of the associations fighting crime and degradation in the northern suburbs of Marseille. “Trying to arrest them one by one is like trying to empty the sea with a spoon. It’s in their finances that these organisations must be targeted.”
He founded his association at the age of 17, following the brutal murder of his brother Brahim, who was found charred in the boot of a car on 29 December 2020. Local newspapers reported the incident in language that many considered inhumane, calling it “a new barbecue in the local drug feud.”
Today, exactly three years on, Amine runs a support network that provides financial, legal and psychosocial assistance to hundreds of families scattered between Marseille and about a dozen other locations around the country. It is a challenge to find him for even a few minutes in his daily, relentless whirlwind of public meetings, staff meetings and frontline work. Last January, at the age of 19, he was voted “France’s most committed young person” and in the coming days he will announce his candidacy for the European elections on the Green ticket.
Indeed, if the Marseille feud has any merit, it lies in the emergence of a vibrant civil society from the forgotten corners of the city. It was the campaign launched by a group of mothers in 2019 that persuaded the Macron government to adopt an anti-mafia law, similar to the Italian model, which redirects the proceeds of drug trafficking seized to social welfare projects.
“But even from this perspective, we still have a long way to go,” Kessaci stresses. “Because this kind of approach requires very strict and continuous monitoring. Without it, once they are released from prison, the narcos will be free to carry out their reprisals, as recently happened against an association that had been assigned a confiscated apartment in the La Ciotat area.”
Indeed, in this respect, Marseille today appears to be a unique case compared to the rest of the country: while the inhabitants of the French banlieues often protest against police abuses, the Mediterranean metropolis is now loudly demanding the return of the police.
“For too many years, our neighbourhoods have been forgotten by the government,” concludes Kessaci, who made the same accusation against Emmanuel Macron in 2021. “And today, in Paris, they think they can solve their problems by delegating management to politicians who know nothing about our communities, our needs. The mandate of units like CRS-8 is to restore order, from emergency to emergency: but this is a social problem, not a public order one. We need a permanent and, above all, humane state presence, managed by officials who are rooted in our communities, who understand their dynamics and who genuinely care about their fate. Only then can we get out of this nightmare.”
On the cover photo, Gang members with a gun ready to shoot (Marseille, France) ©MikeDotta/Shutterstock.com