The Milieu of the Corsican Godfathers

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The eyes in the walnut face held his. "I am the head of the Union Corse." The Union Corse! More deadly, and perhaps even older than the Unione Siciliano, the Mafia. Bond knew that it controlled most organized crime throughout metropolitan France and her colonies—protection rackets, smuggling, prostitution, and the suppression of rival gangs.

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—Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

THE Union Corse, an organization that originated in the parched hills of Corsica but is today centered in Marseille, rules more in fact than even James Bond imagined in fiction. It dominates the worldwide trafficking in narcotics, and in particular controls the supply and processing of heroin flowing into the U.S. from France, South America and Southeast Asia. Though it is relatively weak in the U.S., the Union Corse is far more powerful than the Mafia in many parts of the world.

As an organization, the Union Corse is more tightly knit and more secretive than its Sicilian counterpart. U.S. agencies have been able to obtain information from all levels of the Mafia clans in the U.S., but not from the Union Corse. "When the Mafioso is spilling his guts," says one U.S. intelligence official, "the Corsican is still silent—refusing even to give you his name." In the early 1960s, for instance, a Union Corse member who called himself Antoine Rinieri was arrested in New York with a suspected narcotics payoff of $247,000 in cash. In the Corsican tradition, he refused to give his real name or explain what he was doing with the money. His silence caused him to be sent to jail for six months for contempt of court. At the end of his term, the U.S. deported him but, since it could prove no link between the $247,000 and dope trafficking, the government was forced to give him the money back—with interest.

In France, the very existence of the Union Corse is still denied, in much the same way that the Mafia was often dismissed as fictional in the U.S. two decades ago. "The structure is a myth," says a senior French cop. With five gang murders in Marseille in the past six months alone, that notion is beginning to change.

In many respects, the Mafia and the Union Corse are similar. Both are divided into a number of families—the Mafia into about 24 in the U.S., the Union Corse into about 15 in France. The best-known of the Corsican families are the Francisci, Orsini, Venturi and Guerini clans. The identity of some of the clans is so deep a secret that a member could be marked for death for discussing them. And in the matter of exterminating informers, the Union Corse is said to be quicker and more deadly than the Mafia.

The Corsicans have spread around the world for much the same reason Sicilians came to the U.S.—hopeless poverty at home. "We see our sons as they leave as young men and when they come back to retire on their pensions," says a Corsican detective in France. Often smuggling is the only way that Corsicans can make a living.

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