The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Marseille Connection

The basic Turkey-Italy-America heroin route continued to dominate the international heroin traffic for almost twenty years with only one important alteration-during the 1950s the Sicilian Mafia began to divest itself of the heroin manufacturing business and started relying on Marseille's Corsican syndicates for their drug supplies. There were two reasons for this change. As the diverted supplies of legally produced Schiaparelli heroin began to dry up in 1950 and 195 1, Luciano was faced with the alternative of expanding his own clandestine laboratories or seeking another source of supply. While the Sicilian mafiosi were capable international smugglers, they seemed to lack the ability to manage the clandestine laboratories. Almost from the beginning, illicit heroin production in Italy had been plagued by a series of arrests-due more to mafiosi incompetence than anything else-of couriers moving supplies in and out of laboratories. The implications were serious; if the seizures continued Luciano himself might eventually be arrested. (52)

Preferring to minimize the risks of direct involvement, Luciano apparently decided to shift his major source of supply to Marseille. There, Corsican syndicates had gained political power and control of the waterfront as a result of their involvement in CIA strikebreaking activities. Thus, Italy gradually declined in importance as a center for illicit drug manufacturing, and Marseille became the heroin capital of Europe. (53)

Although it is difficult to probe the inner workings of such a clandestine business under the best of circumstances, there is reason to believe that Meyer Lansky's 1949-1950 European tour was instrumental in promoting Marseille's heroin industry.

After crossing the Atlantic in a luxury liner, Lansky visited Luciano in Rome, where they discussed the narcotics trade. He then traveled to Zurich and contacted prominent Swiss bankers through John Pullman, an old friend from the rumrunning days. These negotiations established the financial labyrinth that organized crime still uses today to smuggle its enormous gambling and heroin profits out of the country into numbered Swiss bank accounts without attracting the notice of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Pullman was responsible for the European end of Lansky's financial operation: depositing, transferring, and investing the money once it arrived in Switzerland. He used regular Swiss banks for a number of years until the Lansky group purchased the Exchange and Investment Bank of Geneva, Switzerland. On the other side of the Atlantic, Lansky and other gangsters used two methods to transfer their money to Switzerland: "friendly banks" (those willing to protect their customers' identity) were used to make ordinary international bank transfers to Switzerland; and in cases when the money was too "hot" for even a friendly bank, it was stockpiled until a Swiss bank officer came to the United States on business and could "transfer" it simply by carrying it back to Switzerland in his luggage. (54)

After leaving Switzerland, Lansky traveled through France, where he met with high-ranking Corsican syndicate leaders on the Riviera and in Paris. After lengthy discussions, Lansky and the Corsicans are reported to have arrived at some sort of agreement concerning the international heroin traffic. (55) Soon after Lansky returned to the United States, heroin laboratories began appearing in Marseille. On May 23, 1951, Marseille police broke into a clandestine heroin laboratory-the first to be uncov~ -ed in France since the end of the war. After discovering another on March 18, 1952, French authorities reported that "it seems that the installation of clandestine laboratories in France dated from 1951 and is a consequence of the cessation of diversions in Italy during the previous years. (56) During the next five months French police uncovered two more clandestine laboratories. In future years U.S. narcotics experts were to estimate that the majority of America's heroin supply was being manufactured in Marseille.